North Carolina Trails: Hike the 1.7-Mile Yellowhammer Gap Trail in the Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock Wilderness

By Tim Homan

WALKING THIS TRAIL IS A LESSON IN READING mountain land from a map. The interlacing patterns on the flat topographic sheet – the fingers of bunched lines pointing in opposite directions, running upslope from every stream and running downslope from every ridge, low flowing into high and high into low – are the typical contour configurations of Appalachian slopes. The wider, rounded fingers generally paralleling hollows and pointing toward the main streams are spurs: side ridges splaying out and down from the main ridges. The narrower, V-shaped fingers generally paralleling spurs and pointing toward the main ridges are hollows: side coves splaying out and up from the main coves.

Access to hiking trails in the Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses. Click on the small box in the upper right-hand corner to access the original map with locations of all map points and the ability to enlarge the map and move around freely. Use in conjunction with Regional Directions for Navigating the Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock and Citico Creek Wildernesses.

  • Distance 1.7 miles
  • Dayhiking Easy to Moderate in either direction
  • Backpacking Moderate in either direction
  • Interior Trail Northeastern terminus on Ike Branch-Benton MacKaye Trail near Yellowhammer Gap, 1,720 feet; southwestern terminus on Nichols Cove Trail, 1,760 feet
  • Trail Junctions Ike Branch-Benton MacKaye, Nichols Cove
  • Topographic Quadrangle Tapoco NC- TN
  • Features Hardwood forest; winter views of Little Fodderstack Mountain

Those unfamiliar with Yellowhammer Gap’s spur-slope-hollow terrain might be surprised at the number of ups and downs for a path with a 40-foot, end-to-end elevation differential. Although the trail is seldom level, there are no long, steep grades and the few moderate grades are short. Thanks to an excellent job of trail making, most of the rises and dips are easy or easy to moderate.

This easily followed interior trail can be walked as a connecting leg along many different loops originating from both Big Fat Gap and Slickrock Creek Trailheads. Combining segments of Slickrock Creek and Ike Branch Trails with Yellowhammer Gap makes a good day hike or a leisurely in-and-out backpacking trip. The trail is somewhat easier to walk as it is described, from northeast to southwest, from Ike Branch Trail to Nichols Cove Trail.

Early on, Yellowhammer Gap disposes of its hardest ascent – a switchbacking, progressively harder climb to the crest of the first spur. Along the way, a big quartzite boulder, upslope to the left, gives you a good reason to rest a moment or two. After crossing the shoulder of the spur, the walking is easy on a slope that affords winter views of Little Fodderstack Mountain, nearly 3 miles distant across the Slickrock Creek valley.

From the first spur to near its southwestern end, the treadway follows the familiar pattern of most well-constructed slope trails: it ascends to and tops a spur, descends to and winds around the heads of one or more hollows, then rises to the next spur. The hollows are steep-sided, notched at the bottom of the V. The only reasonable way to traverse this cut-up country is to half-circle around the heads (upper ends) of these hollows, more or less following the contour of the slope.

At 0.8 mile the route varies from the pattern. Here, instead of winding around a hollow, the path drops moderately into the hollow before continuing along the slope. On the way down you will pass a large, lone white pine (dead and soon to be down), noticeably responsible for hundreds of sapling pines up and down the hollow.

After crossing a permanent branch at mile 1.5 and rising over the final spur 0.1 mile farther, the trail follows the wide walkway of a former sled road down to the gently sloping land in Nichols cove. This land, as the piled-rock terraces testify, was once settled and farmed.

Yellowhammer Gap ends at its junction with Nichols Cove Trail. This junction is usually marked with a sign and always marked with a cemetery – a small, circular, rock-lined plot with two stark gravestones, one each for the twin sisters who died seven days after their birth in 1914. Nichols Cove Trail makes a 90-degree turn at the cemetery. Straight ahead, it leads to the southwest, toward its connection with Big Fat Trail. To the right, it crosses its namesake branch after 0.1 mile, then parallels the stream to the north, toward its junction with Slickrock Creek Trail.

Nature Notes

This trail passes under the canopy of a predominantly deciduous hardwood forest – oak-hickory on the spur tops, low-elevation cove hardwoods in the hollows, and a mixture of the two types on the slopes between. The evergreens – eastern hemlock, American holly, pitch and white pine – are minor components. Yellow poplar is the dominant tree in the northwest-facing hollows and on the formerly cultivated land in the cove. Tall, mature white oaks and pignut hickories are much more numerous here, below 2,000 feet, than they are at higher elevations.

Near its Nichols Cove end the track ventures beside a few old-timer beeches. These old-growth trees – remnants of the virgin forest before logging – escaped with their skins because they were deemed useless. The settlers didn’t want them for firewood (you can’t split green beech), and the loggers didn’t want them for lumber. Lucky for the trees and lucky for us. Large beeches, 8 to 11 1/2 feet in circumference, 200 to 300 years old, scarce over most of Southern Appalachia, add beauty and diversity to this wilderness. As the route drops into the cove beyond the last spur, look for the largest trailside beech ten paces upslope to the left. Badly hollowed out, it measures 11 feet 3 inches in circumference (measurement from low side).

Classified as a northern hardwood, the American beech is characterized by its smooth, smoke-gray bark, which remains unwrinkled even in old age, and by its saw-toothed, sharp-pointed dark green leaves. A few other trees, primarily Fraser magnolia and yellowwood, may be mistaken for beech in winter. But if you see the gray bark and slender, reddish brown buds, sharp pointed and up to 1 inch long, there will be no mistake in identification. There is another way to distinguish a beech in winter. It is the only deciduous tree in the wilderness that regularly retains many of its withered leaves, light tan in color, through the winter and into spring.

Mature beeches on good sites average 60 to 80 feet in height and 2 to 4 feet in diameter at breast height (DBH), 4 1/2 feet from the ground. Its maximum size is 150 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter. American beeches grow slowly even under the best of conditions. But like the hemlock, they grow slowly for a long time: they may attain an age of 300 to 400 years.

The beech offered a welcome look of stability and familiarity to the early colonists because our species does not differ significantly from the beech of Europe. The European beech is closely linked with the history of writing. Historians write that the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark. This practice spread to Europe, where the earliest scribblings of the Germanic people were inscribed upon beechen tablets. In fact, our modern word “book” was derived from the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for beech. Gutenburg printed the first Bible from movable type carved from beech wood.

Yellowhammer is another older and more rural name for the northern flicker. This bird flicks up insects, primarily ants, with its long, flexible, sticky tongue.

Yellowhammer Gap has a fair early spring wildflower display, starting with rue anemone, hepatica, sessile trillium, and trout lily in late March or early April and ending with showy orchis, crested dwarf iris, and wakerobin in late April. Frequently found along this and most of the other trails in the wilderness is the downy rattlesnake plantain. A member of the Orchid family, this distinctive plant was probably named for its resemblance to sloughed snakeskin. Both the Indians and their botany students, the early settlers, considered this orchid a cure for snakebite. And both cultures once believed that the physical appearance of a plant was a direct, divine hint of its highest human use, usually medicinal. Today, many of our common botanical names – liverwort, birthwort, spleenwort – still reflect the ideas of medieval Europe.

The downy rattlesnake plantain has a basal rosette of easily recognized, dark green leaves, 1 to 3 1/2 inches long, reticulated with a lacework pattern of white veins. These attractive leaves remain prominent throughout the winter. The white flowers – small (1/4 inch) and numerous, not particularly showy for an orchid – occur on a cylindrical cluster that crowns a leafless, woolly stalk. The small clumps or colonies bloom in June and July.

Directions

Yellowhammer Gap is an interior trail that connects two other interior trails, Ike Branch and Nichols Cove. To reach Yellowhammer Gap’s southwestern terminus from the Big Fat Gap Trailhead, walk Big Fat Trail 1.4 miles to its usually signed junction with Nichols Cove Trail, then turn right (north) onto Nichols Cove Trail and follow it for 1.6 miles to its gravestone junction with Yellowhammer Gap. At this usually signed junction, Nichols Cove turns sharply to the left onto path, and Yellowhammer Gap continues straight ahead on the old road.

To reach Yellowhammer Gap’s northeastern terminus from the Slickrock Creek Trailhead, walk Slickrock Creek Trail for 0.6 mile, then turn left (southwest) onto Ike Branch Trail and follow it for 1.6 miles to its junction with Yellowhammer Gap. Ike Branch Trail has two junctions in quick succession. Ike Branch reaches its usually signed junction with Hangover Lead North Trail at mile 1.5. Continuing from this first junction, Ike Branch turns to the right and heads downhill for a little less than 0.1 mile (135 yards) to its usually signed junction with Yellowhammer Gap Trail. Yellowhammer Gap heads up and to the left; Ike Branch continues to descend.

Tim Homan

This hiking guide to the Yellowhammer Gap 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.

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