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Naked Ground trail June 23, 2014

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Southern Appalachians.
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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it is really good on historical background of the areas (and incidentally contains a lot of great info about trails no longer maintained).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 When we came to a sign that said “Naked Ground Trail,” we looked it up in the book, found the outdated writeup, and decided to follow the trail anyway.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.


Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock extensions July 15, 2012

Posted by Jenny in conservation, history, Nantahala National Forest, nature, poetry.
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Tulip poplar soars to the sky

This post is one of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society.  For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website.

Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock has had the wilderness designation since 1975. However, two proposed extensions to the wilderness will connect it to important adjacent lands, including Topoco conservation lands, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Santeetlah Headwaters (the latter described in my Huckleberry Knob post). These additions lie along the northeastern and southern boundaries of the wilderness.

One of the guiding principles of the Wilderness Society is to safeguard connecting corridors between protected areas. These corridors allow for unimpeded movement of wildlife and for continuity of plant species—developed lands create barriers.

I visited Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock the same day I visited Huckleberry Knob. I didn’t do any major hike there but wandered around the area dedicated in 1936 as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The VFW had asked the Forest Service to set aside an area to honor Kilmer, who had been killed in action in World War I.

Of course, Kilmer is best known as the author of “Trees,” which might be the poem most frequently memorized by schoolchildren in the twentieth century. The poem’s simple sentiments and predictable rhyme have made it an easy target for parody. But how many poems have been cherished by so many people over the years?

Fewer people these days know anything about Kilmer’s service in WWI. He enlisted within a few days of the US declaring war on Germany in April 1917 and sailed to France with the 165th Infantry in November 1917. The regiment saw deadly action starting in March 1918.

Joyce Kilmer

As a member of the regiment’s Intelligence Section, he was involved in scouting enemy positions. During the Second Battle of Marne in July—the final phase of the German Spring Offensive—he led a party to locate the position of a German machine gun. His companions later found him slumped on a hill, killed by a sniper at the age of 31, on July 31, 1918. I have written about another person’s experience in the German offensive here.

Fighting in Second Marne

Like the VFW, I find it fitting that a soldier who loved trees should be remembered this way. What follows is a gallery of the memorial forest.

Base of tulip poplar


Clethra (Sweet pepperbush)

New life in old stump

Cimicifuga (Black cohosh)

Closeup of cimicifuga


A giant among ordinary trees

Actea alba (Doll’s eyes)

Jewelweed drooping in the heat. It was the middle of our ten-day heat wave.

Ripening blackberries

Rosebay rhododendron along the stream

Huckleberry Knob July 4, 2012

Posted by Jenny in conservation, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, nature.
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I’m not sure which was better, the meadow or the sky.

This post is one of a series about “North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures,” lands targeted for higher protective designation by the Wilderness Society.  For more information about this campaign, please visit the Mountain Treasures website.

Huckleberry Knob is a 5565′ peak located in the Santeetlah Headwaters north of the Cherohala Skyway and adjacent to the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness. The tallest of the Unicoi Mountains, it is a grassy, meadowy bald that is mowed once a year to keep it open. I found it to be a remarkable place.

The trail starts off through a high-elevation beech forest that’s become ghostly because of the frequent fogs that foster lichens and moss on the tree trunks. Soon you reach open meadows filled with many wild grasses and buttercups, pale purple vetch, and fleabane. The colors run in swathes, forming a patchwork.

The tall grasses had a wonderful texture.

Vetch and buttercups.

The pale purple vetch grows all along the borders of the Skyway.  I passed several mysterious signs that showed the diagonal red bar (the “don’t do it” of traffic signs) across images of a tractor and a person spraying herbicides. I can only guess that random individuals have taken it upon themselves to spray along the highway to make it tidier. As it stands, the vetch makes a lovely undulation of color along the road.

It seemed as though motorcycles outnumbered cars on the highway, as bikers went out to connect Cherohala with the “Tail of the Dragon” section of US 129. Since the time I lived in Knoxville in the 80s, the “Dragon” has become a big-time biker mecca. It didn’t used to be that way. I just thought of it as the road that made quite a few people carsick (fortunately I’m not susceptible myself).

But back to the trail. I passed over the first bald, called Oak Knob, and saw ahead to Huckleberry Knob.

Approaching Huckleberry Knob.

The meadows with their shifting configurations of isolated, scrubby trees reminded me of Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia, which I visited last year. The main difference is that the Santeetlah Headwaters have no red spruce. I halfway expected to see red spruce as I drove past 4500′ elevation, then recalled that the Alarka Laurel bog near Bryson City is the southernmost location of spruce. According to the Wilderness Society, the Canadian northern flying squirrel lives in this area, a species that normally lives mainly in spruce forests. It had been flying from hemlock to hemlock instead of from spruce to spruce, and now that most of the hemlocks are gone, there are plans to plant red spruce in the area to sustain these remarkable creatures. It seems as though the climate would be suitable for spruce—it’s just that this area is not contiguous with other areas that have spruce.

Wikimedia photo of flying squirrel.

At the top of Huckleberry Knob I encountered a cross marking the grave of a logger named Andy Sherman, who perished from cold on December 11, 1899. His body and the body of a companion were discovered by a hunter nine months later. Sherman’s body was too disintegrated for removal; the other body was sold to a doctor for use in medical study. An unkind fate for both of them.

Grave of Andy Sherman on summit of Huckleberry Knob.

This was a very short, easy hike of about 2 miles roundtrip and 250′ vertical. I combined this trip with a visit to Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock—I’ll save that description for another post.

Sprinkling of vetch in the meadow, in front of the shrub.