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Living poetry: Old-growth forest makes Kilmer hike magical
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Afield in WNC

Living poetry: Old-growth forest makes Kilmer hike magical

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Jim Williams

Jim Williams

“Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”

That’s the last line of the poem, “Trees,” written by Joyce Kilmer in 1913.

Fewer than five years later, Kilmer, who had enlisted during World War I and had risen to the rank of sergeant, would be killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Second Battle of the Marne while deployed to the “Fighting 69th.”

In 1934, the Bozemen-Bulger post of The Veterans of Foreign Wars petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to look at areas of trees in the United States to be set aside and dedicated to stand as a living memorial to the memory of Kilmer.

The Forest Service designated an uncut, 3,800-acre area along the Little Santeetlah River to be dedicated on July 30, 1936. It is one of the largest old-growth forests in the Eastern United States and is adjacent to the larger, 17,000-acre Slickrock Wilderness Area.

It was Slickrock that I had planned to hike, but trail deterioration and some closures prevented that from happening. We had driven almost three hours to get this far, so I wanted to do something even if it wasn’t my plan. Reluctantly, I elected to take the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Loop Trail.

That was possibly one of the best decisions I have made since hiking in North Carolina.


Difficulty: Easy to Moderate. There are a few short, steep climbs, but the moderate rating comes from the roots and the mud.

Shoes: If you have a good boot, I suggest you wear it. The trail is often slick and the root mass under your feet can become uncomfortable.

Time: Expect to spend more than two hours round-trip, but I urge you, do not rush this hike.

Distance: Total distance round trip is two miles. One part of the figure-eight loop has been closed because of weather damage, but you will still get in about two miles.

Safety: Nothing to fear from the trail itself. I caution you to stop when you want to admire the surroundings. We found that walking while not looking directly at the trail could lead to almost certain trips and falls.

We hiked this on a weekend. It was moderately crowded for a wilderness hike but not annoyingly so. The people were courteous and respectful of their distance. It doesn’t hurt to have a mask in your pocket. Take water but you probably won’t have a need for a snack.

Courtesy: No bicycles. If you go during the week, your exposure to others will be minimal. Everyone we met seemed to be enjoying the experience and all were pleasant. These days, conversation with others on the trail is less frequent. A shame.

How to get there

Use your map to get to Robbinsville in Graham County. From Robbinsville, go to your GPS or use a local map. There are a couple of ways to get to the Memorial Forest. This is an all-day trip so plan on some time in the car and a couple of stops along the way. When I travel that far, I plan on a meal going and a meal coming home. We found two excellent restaurants, one in Black Mountain and the other in Bryson City.

Here’s a suggestion, if you pass through Stecoah on the way to Robbinsville, stop at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center. It will be on your left as you go through Stecoah. While there, talk to Beth about how to get to the forest. No food there but if you go before Christmas you might find a nice gift for someone.

Go through Robbinsville then wind your way up to the park entrance. It’s about three quarters of a mile from the entrance to the parking area. From the trailhead, the trail starts immediately. The restrooms at the trailhead were open.

The Trail

Some of the trails are closed due to weather damage so it will be easy to find the loop trail that will lead you into the forest and to the big poplar trees.

This hike isn’t about the time on the trail. It’s about the time in the forest and the way it affects your outlook on nature and, maybe, the world in general.

After a short, moderate climb, you will descend a flight of wooden stairs to a small bridge over a stream. Then it’s a climb for a while.

Gradually, you will find that the forest has enfolded you as you become keenly aware of the sights and sounds around you; the stream off and down to your left and the canopy high above. My advice here is to drop your expectations and let your mind, or your spirit if you prefer, ease into the serenity of your surroundings. It can be almost magical if you allow it to happen.

In my experience, there’s something special about hiking an old-growth forest. There is almost a reverence to the earth itself. You not only see the history of the forest, you become a part of it.

When we were there, the weather was perfect. The day was gray and damp with a slight chill in the air. As we approached the top of the trail, the fog would drop down and move effortlessly through the trees. Our vision would be momentarily obscured, and the boundary was blurred between the real and the imagined.

As you look at a gigantic poplar tree, be aware that when this tree, in this very spot, was about 4 feet tall, George Washington had not yet been born. Go ahead, touch it. Now, at some level, you have become part of the forest and its history.

The trail will loop around and bring you back to the original trail you used for entry. Watch your footing on the way out.

I know it’s a long drive and the walk is relatively short, but the length of the journey is up to you.

“I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree.”

— Kilmer 1913.

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