Old Growth
Step It Up
Joyce Kilmer
Memorial Forest
Great Smoky Mountains
North Carolina

PHOTO: DYarrow 12/2/2001

Joyce Kilmer
Memorial Forest
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Robbinsville, North Carolina

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of the last and greatest stands of virgin forest east of the Mississippi River. Hardly any other place offers such splendor and beauty as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The 3,800 acre preserve commemorates Joyce Kilmer, a fallen World War I soldier and poet who was killed in action in France at the age of 31—best known for his poem Trees, written in 1913—a simple, yet elegant expression of the beauty of nature. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest embodies the affirmation of Kilmer's poetic masterpiece on the power and inspiration of these ancient giants:

"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."
Joyce Kilmer

December 6, 1886-July 30, 1918

This ancient Cherokee hunting ground was dedicated on July 30, 1935, on the 18th anniversary of the poet's death. At the dedication, a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt was read:
"In this most beautiful, unmarred and natural setting, that was the unchartered hunting ground of the Cherokee Indians, virgin trees grow more than 100 feet tall and some 20 feet around the base. In addition to these trees, there is an outstanding variety of shrubs, vines, ferns, mosses, lichen, liverworts and herbaceous plants. In Spring, wildflowers take advantage of the sunlight which will not be available after the hardwood trees are covered with shade producing leaves. The Memorial Forest, comprised of huge poplars, giant red oaks and magnificent hemlocks, as well as many other varieties of trees, is maintained in its primitive and natural state. No plants living or dead may be cut or removed."

A walk through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a journey back in time through a magnificent forest with towering trees as old as 400 years. The floor is carpeted with a garden of wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. The huge trees are very old; some are dying, creating potential falling limbs and trees. Because the forest is in a designated wilderness, dead trees are not removed.

Rare butterfly
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
January 2007

PHOTO Jon Nilsson May 2007

The only way to see the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is on foot. A combined trail forms a 2-mile figure-8 loop, is well used, easy to follow, rated an easy hiking trail, with steps built into the trail, highly recommended for novices or families with small children. Benches along the route allow you to stop and admire this untouched forest. The longest trail through the Memorial Forest winds upwards from Santeetlah Creek through the forested mountain cove to the site of the largest virgin trees still standing. The upper portion of the trail passes a cove of tulip poplars well over 100 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet in circumference.

Beyond the memorial forest, the greater Wilderness area continues to reward its visitors with rugged and untrammeled habitat. Most of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness is comprised of the cascading Little Santeetlah and Slickrock Creek drainages. More than 60 miles of hiking trails in the 14,000-acre Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness Area follow mountain streams, misty waterfalls, flowing cascades, over bold ridges and sharp peaks.

Joyce Kilmer
Memorial Forest

15 miles from Robbinsville
in western Graham County
  • from Robbinsville, take Highway 129 North
  • go 1.5 miles to Highway 143 (Massey Branch Rd.)
  • turn left onto on Highway 143 west
  • go about 5 miles to STOP sign
  • turn right onto Kilmer Road
  • drive 7.3 miles to Santeetlah Gap and Cherohala Skyway
  • bear right and continue another 2.5 miles
  • turn left into Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest entrance
  • it's about .5 mile to the parking area
    picnic tables and restrooms available
    for more information: 828-479-6431
    Or write: Cheoah Ranger District
    Route 1 Box 16-A, Robbinsville, NC 28771
  • The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is home to more than 100 species of trees, including virgin stands of sycamore, basswood, oak and yellow-poplar. The memorial forest is an outstanding example of a cove hardwood forest—characterized by rich, thick soils, abundant moisture, and a variety of flora.

    This tract in the Little Santeelah Creek valley miraculously escaped the lumbering of the 1920s that led to clear-cutting much of the surrounding areas. In 1935, the regional forester wrote the Chief of the Forest Service that the forest was one of the "very few remaining tracts of virgin hardwood in the Appalachians...(and) we ought to buy it to preserve some of the forest original growth in the Appalachians."

    Veterans of the Foreign Wars asked the government to set aside a fitting stand of trees to serve as a living memorial to Joyce Kilmer. In 1936, the Forest Service bought 13,055 acres for the lofty sum of $28 per acre (at a time when most land was going for $3 to $4 per acre). While most of the surrounding land was logged, the area around Little Santeetlah Creek was spared—protected by a recognition of its uniqueness and a drastic drop in lumber prices after the crash of 1929.

    Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
    Robbinsville, North Carolina

    PHOTO Jon Nilsson May 2007

    Notice was served to the world that the exploitation and desecration of our forest lands had come to an end. The forest once an isolated region known only to the few who penetrated its boundaries as Poplar Cove has now become an attraction to thousands.

    Sheltered beneath the towering canopy is a tapestry of life in smaller proportions. In early summer, broken morning sunlight briefly touches scattered patches of wildflowers and raise steam off the areas small creeks, creating the mystical illusion of an enchanted forest. Thick mosses, slick green rocks, tangled roots, huge mushrooms, and brightly colored newts heighten the magical feel of this rare forest. Within its deep, misty shadows, the imagination is called to run wild and time is called to stand still. The damp air and profusion of vegetation that blankets its floor like a living quilt create a peace and quiet found in few other places in the populous east.

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    The Earth Restoration and Reforestation Alliancewww.championtrees.orgupdated 4/14/2003