Hiking in Nantahala National Forest - Cheoah Ranger District
The Cheoah Ranger District has 120,500 acres in Graham and Swain Counties. These lands surround four large mountain reservoirs.
From the Cherohala Skyway, a road similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can enjoy mountain vistas. The Appalachian Trail and other trails make up a 320 mile network that crosses the district.
Several lakeside, streamside, and scenic developed campgrounds, and picnic areas provide a variety of outdoor experiences while hiking here.
Highlights of this district include:
- Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (see below)
- Lakes, including Fontana Lake and Lake Santeetlah, two of the most spectacular lakes in the entire region.
- Fontana Dam, and all the history pertaining to it.
- Snowbird Backcountry Area featuring its rugged mountains and waterfalls.
- Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest & Joyce Kilmer - Slickrock Wilderness
One of the most popular areas for hiking within the Cheoah Ranger District, this forest is an impressive remnant of virgin forest, representative of the vast Eastern forest that used to stretch from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and beyond. While much of the forest around Western North Carolina has been logged and since recovered, this area spared the logger's axe. It is one of the largest contiguous tracts of old growth forests in the Eastern US.
The Little Santeetlah Creek basin was being eyed by loggers as they ate up the forest resources in all the surrounding valleys by the early 1930's. A rail line built along the Little Tennessee river was used to extract the high quality timber. Some say a mysterious force kept the lumbermen from destroying the forest around Little Santeetlah Creek as well. It might've been that the exceptionally large, healthy trees filled them with awe. A variety of practical reasons, such as the flooding of the rail lines by Santeetlah Lake, contributed to the saving of the forest.
Whatever the reason, it was left alone, despite being owned by several different parties interested in reaping the monetary value of the timber. In 1935, the Forest Service bought the land at $28 per acre and designated the forest to a fallen World War I veteran - Joyce Kilmer (1886 - 1918) - whose poem "Trees" was well-known at the time.
Today, the basin is protected as the Joyce Kilmer - Slickrock Wilderness designation and the area within the Little Santeetlah Creek basin is still dubbed the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Most hikers stay on the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail. This 2 mile figure-eight loop trail begins at the main parking area and climbs into Poplar Cove, where some tremendous poplars still grow today. The loop can be hiked in any direction. The lower portion of the loop climbs the side of the cove on one half, crossing several tributaries and leading into the large trees which awed the lumbermen. The other half follows the creek for a ways. At the middle of the figure "8" is a stone monument, with a plaque engraved with a short biography of Joyce Kilmer himself. The upper portion of the loop passes through the largest of the trees on somewhat drier ground. It is impressive to see these giants; some are 20 feet around, 100 feet tall and 400 years old!
Trails do continue beyond the memorial trail into the heart of the wilderness, which extends far north and west of the memorial trail to the Tennessee state line, where it adjoins with the Citco Creek Wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest.
To Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail Parking
From Robbinsville, NC, there are signs directing you to the forest. Follow US Hwy. 129 North for 1.5 miles to NC 143 West (Massey Branch Road). Turn left and go 5.0 miles to a stop sign. Turn right onto Kilmer Road. Follow this road for 7.3 miles to Santeetlah Gap and the junction with the Cherohala Skyway straight ahead. Turn right; continue for another 2.5 miles. Turn left on the access road for Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest; it is about 1/2 mile to the parking area. There are picnic tables, restrooms, and information boards available at the parking area.
Places to Stay
Tsali Recreation Area, Cable Cove Recreation Area, Horse Cove Campground, Rattler Ford Campground, Cheoah Point Recreation Area are all Forest Service camping areas within the District.