Afraid of crowds at Joyce Kilmer Forest? Fear not. Most of Kilmer is remote, remarkable, and relatively unused.
Joyce Kilmer, whose most famous poem, Trees, starts, I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree, was a poet and soldier from New Brunswick, New Jersey, only six miles from where I lived for over 30 years. However, I know more about Kilmer now that I’ve walked in the forest than I ever knew when I walked through the Kilmer Campus of Rutgers University. Kilmer, killed in World War I, never set foot in the North Carolina Mountains. Yet, the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked the Federal Government to name a suitable forest as a living memorial for Kilmer. The two-mile Memorial Loop is in an enchanting old-growth forest with giant trees, but you’ll have plenty of company here.
Solitude, at various levels, comes from hiking the longer Kilmer trails that surround the Memorial Forest. Few people walk the Deep Creek Trail. Though several helpful signs have been placed at confusing junctions, there are no blazes. Trail maintenance is kept to wilderness standards and blowdowns stay down. Because of the low level of maintenance and foot traffic, this hike is more challenging than its distance and elevation gain indicate. Beyond solitude, the hike offers contrasting terrain from moist, green paths crossing creeks and minor rivulets to dry, almost Mediterranean-like landscape.
To reach Deep Creek Trail, hike from the Haoe Lead Trailhead (pronounced Hey-O) which climbs for 1.1 miles up to Deep Creek Trail on the right. Deep Creek is a rugged trail through ferns, mountain laurel and galax, with wet slippery moss in many spots. The trail starts down, alternating between slick, rocky sections and gentle downhills on firm soil. At 2.7 miles, among tall nettles, a fresh-looking sign leads you to the left and soon, a second sign leads you up. Follow the next sign to Saddle Tree Gap, your goal. At 4.9 miles, after walking an overgrown but clear trail, reach the ridge.
From this point, you can hike back down, or turn left on the Hangover Lead Trail going toward the Haoe Lead Trail, which provides a ten-mile loop with Deep Creek and offers glimpses of the Cherohala Skyway and Santeetlah Lake.
Afterward, drive up to the Maple Springs Observation Point. This road (SR 1127) was planned as a state highway into the Slickrock watershed. When the area was designated a wilderness area, construction was stopped, leaving another “road to nowhere.” A short paved loop trail takes you to outstanding 180 degree views of mountain ranges.
Directions: From Robbinsville, take NC 143 West for 12 miles. Turn right on Joyce Kilmer Rd. (SR1134) and go 3 miles. At the 4-way intersection, go straight toward the Maple Spring Observation Point. After 4.4 miles, park at the Forest Service sign board on the right. The Haoe Lead Trail starts across the road and over the guard rail.