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Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest: Best Kept Secret In Western Carolina

  • Post last modified:September 27, 2020
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Ancient, untouched, and awe-inspiring, a visit to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is unlikely to be forgotten. Despite its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains, this magical forest is relatively unknown. A Graham County tourist brochure in our hotel room brought this special place to our attention. Yet, this secret forest was definitely a highlight of our recent trip to the Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina.

What is so special about the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest? Let us show you…

At first glance, this forest looks like any other. It only takes a short walk to see what makes this place so special.

Spared from the heavy lumbering of the early 1900’s. Today, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the oldest and largest contiguous tracts of old growth forest in the eastern U.S.

Over 100 species of trees, share the land. However, it’s the giant Tulip Poplars that command attention. 20 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall, many of these gorgeous trees are around 450 years old. Though their age and size don’t compete with the famous Redwoods and Sequoias of California, they are rare and impressive for the east coast Appalachians.

Protected And Wild

The hiking area with the large poplar trees is only a small section (3,800 acres) of a much larger designated wilderness area, called Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock (17,394 acres).

To protect naturalness and solitude, a “wilderness” area has additional protections than a typical national or state park. Motorized or mechanical vehicles or equipment are strictly prohibited. Even the park service cannot use chainsaws or other machinery to maintain the area.

Trails are primitive, with few signs or blazes. However, Poplar Cove Trail is very easy to follow and well maintained. Though, you will notice many fallen trees on the side of the trail, as they remain to decay naturally. 

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Hiking Trail

At the start of the trail, near the parking lot, is a picnic area and restroom. Along with some informational boards on the trail.

The main hiking trail consists of a 2-mile upper and lower loop. The lower loop is 1.2 miles, while the upper loop is .8 a mile. Though the lower loop makes a lovely walk, crossing streams and fairy like bridges, the upper loop is what you are here for.

Take either way, around either loop, it doesn’t matter. The lower loop gains a bit of elevation, but nothing strenuous. It’s an unpaved trail, with a few stairs.

For the most part, the upper loop is flat. The majority of the largest trees are around the mid-point of the upper trail. 

Due to heavy rain in February 2020, parts of the left side of the lower loop collapsed. The trail was still closed during our August 2020 visit. Considering they can’t use machinery, I imagine it may be a while before it reopens. No biggie. Just use the right trail to get out and back.

Though there were over two dozen or so giant trees near the trail, everyone seemed to have the same favorites.

Near the top of the right side / lower loop trail, is the first massive tree we found. Its remarkable size immediately grabbed our attention.

Around the mid-point of the upper loop trail, you can’t miss the double tulip poplars.  Growing amazingly close to one another, these two stretch up and out of sight.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Standing between two giant Tulip Poplar trees

Finally, my personal favorite was the striking root system of this tree. Stretched out in a spaghetti-like maze, a true example of nature’s artwork.

Answering Your Questions

Who Is Joyce Kilmer?

Where the upper and lower loops intersect is a memorial plaque to Joyce Kilmer.  A journalist, a poet, and a solider, Kilmer died in WW1. You are likely to recognize his most famous 1913 poem “Trees.”

In 1934, the Veterans of Foreign Wars felt the dedication of forest land to be a fitting tribute. After petitioning the government, the Forest Service identified this piece of land as a living memorial.

Trees - by Joyce Kilmer (1913)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

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

Are Dogs Allowed At Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?

Yes, the trails at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest are dog friendly. However, dogs must be on a leash.

Is There Camping At Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?

Next door to the entrance of the park are two campgrounds, open April to October. 

  • Horse Cove Campground
  • Rattler Ford Group Campground – better for those with large groups

What Are The Best Hotels Near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?

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