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Naked Ground trail June 23, 2014

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Southern Appalachians.
Tags: , , ,
Along the trail.

Big, small, and medium.

I revisited Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness this weekend and realized that I need to come here more often. It is a very beautiful place.

My friend Gary was visiting from out of town, and he came up with the idea. I don’t have an up-to-date guidebook or map for the area, but we decided to wing it. The only information I have is in the old Sierra Club “Blue Book” guide to the Smokies and surrounding areas, published 1973. Things have changed just a bit since then: for instance, the Naked Ground trail was called the Little Santeetlah Creek trail. There’s a Naked Ground trail in the book, but it was a short ridgetop route.

The Blue Book still has one big thing to offer: it is really good on historical background of the areas (and incidentally contains a lot of great info about trails no longer maintained).

In the world of conservation, there have been two big changes since the Sierra Club published the book. In 1975 Congress designated the basins of Little Santeetlah and Slickrock as the Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness. The Little Santeetlah basin had been protected since 1936 with the creation of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, but the Forest Service was still advertising for bids from logging companies in the Slickrock basin through the late 1960s.

Before 1936, most of the Little Santeetlah basin was spared logging only because the Belton Lumber Co. went bankrupt in 1890.

The other change is the Cherohala Skyway. The Blue Book talks about a proposed scenic highway connecting Robbinsville NC with Tellico Plains TN, and it urges people to write to the Forest Service opposing it. That battle was lost, and the Skyway was completed 1996. It has become super popular with bikers, who use it to connect with the “Tail of the Dragon” on US 129 along the southern boundary of the Smokies.

Well, the consolation is that you leave the biker noise behind pretty quickly when you exit the Skyway and get into those big old-growth woods.

So Gary and I drove to the Joyce Kilmer picnic area and went around the loop trail, a little vague as to trailheads to get up into the basin. When we came to a sign that said “Naked Ground Trail,” we looked it up in the book, found the outdated writeup, and decided to follow the trail anyway. We figured it would take us up along the stream, and it did.

The trail leads through a beautiful forest of big trees carpeted with partridgeberry, ferns, moss, dwarf iris, and many other plants of all descriptions.



You start at 2,200′ in the parking lot and reach 4,845′. The climb is gradual for the first three miles or so, steepening considerably toward the top. Naked Ground is a saddle in the horseshoe-shaped ridge that surrounds the basin—apparently it used to be bare, but it’s wooded now, with just one viewpoint down into the valley.

We had lunch at Naked Ground and chatted with a nice pair of backpackers who had driven from Atlanta that morning. A big thunderstorm was coming in. As the weather soured, we opted to go back the way we’d come. The rain pelted down as we descended the steep upper switchbacks. Gary was wearing running shoes and found himself slipping and sliding.

The shower let up after a half hour, and we enjoyed the moist woods, where all the trees looked refreshed by the rain.

Gnarly tree trunk.

Gnarly tree trunk.

Tributary of Little Santeetlah Creek.

Side stream.

Red fungus.

Red fungus.

Little Santeetlah Creek.

Little Santeetlah Creek.

Hollow tree.

Hollow tulip poplar.

The sun emerged as we reached the lower section of the trail, and it was the best of both worlds: shining light hitting the moistened leaves and blossoms of the forest.

The Wilderness Society is now working to expand protection for this valuable area.

Rosebay rhododendron.

Rosebay rhododendron.



1. Dana Koogler - June 23, 2014

Gorgeous! I have never done this hike, but I need to move it up onto the short list! Sweet! Your write ups and photography is excellent! 🙂

Jenny - June 24, 2014

You would really enjoy this hike, Dana. Thanks for visiting!

2. Andrew Sisson - June 24, 2014

Hi Jenny, SSSHHHH! This is a secret place in my opinion! I have been exploring this area Joyce Kilmer as well off and on the last couple years. The Naked Ground trail goes through old growth forest I believe. I have backpacked and spent the night before at Naked Ground before. The trails are a little wild, and more difficult than the GSMNP. Nothing too difficult for an off-trailer like you, but with a full pack can be a little more difficult. Hope you are doing well. All my best, AJ Sisson

Jenny - June 24, 2014

Hi AJ! We did notice that everyone we encountered—probably about 20 people altogether coming and going—was a backpacker. That might be because it’s a pretty long drive for most people, whichever direction you come from. I’m relatively close, with a 1.25 hour drive from Sylva. The evil thought crossed my mind that it would be a great adventure to try bushwhacking there.

3. gary howell - June 27, 2014

Some beautiful pictures, actually the trail is pretty good, except that I should have had shoes with some tread, so did some sliding down hill. If you have friends who aren’t great hikers, I think they’d still like the trail. All those huge mossy trees and soft underfoot. Many views of the creek.

4. kd4ywbMichael Orr - August 1, 2015

All Joyce Kilmer has been logged. It was some of the first in that area of in now Graham County to be logged because it was the easiest to get to and get the trees out. Poplar Cove was John H Denton’s farm so sorry no 400 year old trees there. Denton was the one that started the logging for the Belton Lumber Company in around the middle 1800’s and logged a large portion of it before their mill in TN burned down.They built splash dams to float the lumber to TN. They inspired other loggers to use them on up Santeetlah, Snowbird and West Buffalo before they built roads to Andrews, NC the railroads came here. My moms side of the family worked for John then his Son. Then Sherman Stewart also had a pretty big farm in Kilmer, Brownlow Blevins and Many more had settled there. Babcock then bought it and logged about 2/3 of Slickrock and the upper part of Joyce Kilmer. before Calderwood dam was built ending their logging Then Gennett Lumber Company bought Joyce Kilmer, set up a mill at the parking lot and W.T Cloer finished logging it. Now there is your true story. It is difficult but if you search enough all this info is available online.

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