By Tim Homan
THIS TRAIL IS DESCRIBED AS IT IS MOST OFTEN WALKED, from northeast to southwest, from its first junction with Slickrock Creek Trail to its second. After walking the beginning 0.6 mile of Slickrock Creek, you will come to a signed fork; Slickrock Creek Trail continues straight ahead; Ike Branch Trail, blazed with the Benton MacKaye white diamond here at its non-wilderness end, slants up and to the left.
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- Distance 2.2 miles
- Dayhiking Easy to Moderate in either direction
- Backpacking Moderate in either direction
- Interior Trail Northeastern terminus on Slickrock Creek Trail, 1,320 feet; southwestern terminus on Slickrock Creek Trail at Slickrock Creek, 1,320 feet
- Trail Junctions Slickrock Creek (two), Yellowhammer Gap, Hangover Lead North
- Topographic Quadrangle Tapoco NC- TN
- Features Old-growth trees; diverse second-growth forest; abundant spring wildflowers
The easily followed but often rocky path climbs on the slope above its namesake stream for its first 0.3 mile. The hardest part of the upgrade, the middle part, is moderate to strenuous. Below this ascending stretch, Ike Branch slides into a steep ravine and quickly drops toward its end at Calderwood Lake – a beautiful mountain lake that drowned a more beautiful mountain river, the Little Tennessee.
Above the initial ascent, the treadway closely parallels and crosses the stream as it works its way up the watershed. Here Ike Branch is a gentle, mossy-rocked brook, 5 to 8 feet wide and often only a few inches deep. Beyond the second crossing, the route travels through an open, park-like forest dominated by old-growth trees – hemlock, beech, and buckeye. The hemlocks were the tallest and thickest of these old-growth trees; the tallest and thickest of the hemlocks, however, are already dead from hemlock woolly adelgid depredation. This small area marks the homestead of a man whose nickname was Ike. He left, according to Forest Service sources, in the late 1890s or the early 1900s.
After the fifth and final crossing – a step over what’s left of the stream – the footpath proceeds on easy grades up the dry notch of a hollow to a slight saddle on Hangover Lead. The trail enters the wilderness at 0.9 mile as it angles to the left across the saddle onto Hangover Lead’s western slope. The next 0.6 mile half-loops out and around a low knob. There is no easier walking in the entire wilderness. Instead of continuing up and over the knob to the next gap, the trail builders took the long, easy way around. They closely followed the contour of the slope from gap to gap, both of which are about 1,800 feet in elevation. Before the trail crosses the shoulder of a spur, there are winter views of mountains, Stiffknee Top and Little Fodderstack for the most part, to the west across the Slickrock Creek valley.
The treadway reaches a junction on the west side of Yellowhammer Gap at mile 1.5. (Early in 1940, CCC workers backpacked 8,000 brown trout to Slickrock Creek through this gap.) The trail to the left is the lower-elevation end of Hangover Lead North. From this first junction, the path descends 135 yards to a second one. Yellowhammer Gap heads uphill and to the left; Ike Branch continues down and to the right.
The remainder of the route descends steadily (overall easy to moderate) near an unnamed tributary branch of Slickrock Creek. Here on the moist ravine slopes, the predominantly hardwood forest, tall and straight second-growth, is unusually diverse even by Southern Appalachian standards. Near its end, the footpath dips to branch level and rhododendron. Ike Branch ties into Slickrock Creek Trail on the downstream side of a large campsite beside Slickrock Creek. Like all the other junctions in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, this one is usually marked with a sign.
The first 0.9 mile of this trail, botanically rich and picturesque, is outside the protected wilderness. The Forest Service, however, has a long-standing agreement with the community of Tapoco to protect its water supply, Yellowhammer Branch, from any disturbance. The small triangle of nonwilderness land from Yellowhammer Branch to the lake, which includes Ike Branch, has been traditionally included in this agreement. There has been no logging from the north slope of Caney Lead to the lake since 1936, when the Forest Service acquired the land.
Ike Branch ranges through a maturing second-growth forest. Because of its low elevation, from 1,320 to 1,800 feet, and its numerous habitats, this trail has an unusually high number of tree species for its relatively short length. If you include the beginning segment of Slickrock Creek Trail, you can see and perhaps identify more kinds of trees here than along any other 3.0-mile section of trail in the wilderness.
The tree with the large, heart-shaped leaf, the basswood, is common within its preferred habitat – hardwood cove, north slope, and stream bank – along this trail and throughout the wilderness, except at elevations above 4,500 feet. Recently there has been a botanical controversy concerning the basswood genus, Tilia. Current literature lumps all basswoods, including the former white basswood, into one species – the American basswood (Tilia americana ) – with three recognized varieties.
Basswood is also known as linden, a name the German settlers transferred from a Tilia species in Europe, and as bee-tree, because honeybees swarm to its fragrant blossoms. The common name recognized by botanists and foresters comes from the fibers in the tree’s inner bark, called bast, which Native Americans used to make rope.
The basswood is easily identified by its alternate leaves, which are sharply pointed, coarsely toothed, and usually 4 to 6 inches long and almost as wide. Bark on a maturing second-growth tree is light to medium gray. Patterns of slight furrows that rise straight up in broken lines split the bark into narrow ridges. A mature basswood can often be identified from a distance by its sapling ring – a circle of sprouts growing from the tree’s base.
Usually 60 to 90 feet in height and 2 to 3 feet in diameter (these are southern mountain dimensions), the forest-grown basswood has a straight bole clear of branches to half its total height. Its maximum size, rarely achieved by an individual specimen, is 140 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter. An old-timer lives over 400 years.
The moist rocky slopes along the first 0.6 mile of Slickrock Creek Trail and the beginning 0.5 mile of Ike Branch have an incredible floral display in early spring. This area has one of the three richest botanical habitats (the other two are Poplar Cove Loop in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the first few miles of the Stratton Bald Trail) traversed by the trails included in this guide. Any of the three areas serves well as a primer for Southern Appalachian wildflowers.
Spring’s first wave of wildflowers blooms early at the low elevations near Calderwood Lake. For a two-week period, usually starting sometime from mid-March to later in the month, the ground beside Slickrock Creek Trail is carpeted with the color of spring beauty, hepatica, sessile and wakerobin trillium, bloodroot, rue anemone, Bishop’s cap (miterwort), and several species of violets, including the easily identified long-spurred violet. By the end of April, however, when at least thirty kinds of flowers have already bloomed or are just about to finish, the show has moved on up the mountain. On a recent April 30, when more than a dozen kinds of wildflowers were still blooming or just finishing up, foamflower and Vasey’s trillium were in fresh bloom while speckled wood lily was just beginning.
The moist slopes on the way to and along Ike Branch Trail are also rich in fern species. One of the most common and conspicuously graceful is the northern maidenhair fern. The maidenhair’s stems are glossy dark brown or black. Its main stem forks, and the two branches curve horizontally back toward each other until they form a horseshoe-shaped semicircle or sometimes a full circle. They vary in design; no two in a clump are quite alike. Those that bend into a full whorl have a delicate, double-circle symmetry.
The northern maidenhair is deciduous; it uncurls from its crosier by mid-April at this low elevation and withers from the first hard frost of fall.
Ike Branch is a short interior trail that has both of its ends connecting with the same trail – Slickrock Creek. Starting from the Slickrock Creek Trailhead near Tapoco, the two Ike Branch junctions are at 0.6 mile and 3.8 miles along the Slickrock Creek Trail. Both junctions, which are the first two along Slickrock Creek Trail, are usually marked with a sign. Follow directions to Slickrock Creek Trailhead.
This hiking guide to the Ike Branch Benton MacKaye Trail is adapted from Hiking Trails of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock & Citico Creek Wildernesses by Tim Homan and is published in cooperation with the publisher, Peachtree Publishers. With his meticulous attention to detail and keen observations of the natural environment, Homan has long been recognized by serious hikers as the authority on southeastern hiking trails. His other books include Hiking the Shining Rock & Middle Prong Wildernesses; Hiking Trails of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, Ellicott Rock Wilderness, Chattooga Wild and Scenic River; and others. For a complete inventory of his books see his Amazon Author Page. For an inventory of Peachtree Publishers books including its Nature books for children, go to the Peachtree Publishers website.