Saturday, September 22, 2018

Slickrock Creek Trail

I rarely bother to do any research on trails I am doing but before I headed to Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness to go backpacking, on a whim I decided to Google the Slickrock Creek trail and was surprised when I saw it being listed as one of the 10th hardest trails in the country. I took that with a grain of salt figuring how hard can it really be?   I've done plenty of hard trails and didn't let the websites and warnings shy me away.

 It was Labor Day weekend and I was looking to get away from people to get some thinking done on my own and picked Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness after I saw how crowded all the campsites were going to be in the Great Smoky National Park. As much as I like the GSMNP that was not the experience I was after for this trip.

I started Friday after work with the plan of camping somewhere near where the trail makes the turn from the Little Tennesse River onto Slickrock Creek itself. Things started out casual enough as I hiked the portion of the trail that follows the Little Tennesse but by the time I reached the confluence the trail had become little more than an eroded sidehill tangle of rocks and roots.



Everything was wet with the forest seemingly breathing water. One misstep here could have penalties.

There were no campsites right where I was expecting but I found a nice one just short of Lower Falls that I called home for the night.


Morning came slow on the second day and it was ten o clock before the sun finally peaked above the eastern ridge high above me and I broke camp and started back up Slickrock Creek Trail. The night before had been hard but I estimated I had gone three miles which meant I still had ten to go before I reached the end of the trail at Naked Ground. Ten miles is not a great distance and I was hoping to be able to cover it in six hours or so.


The morning was challenging from the start with multiple deep creek crossings and a creekside trail that was very overgrown and technical.



Just past Lower Falls, I met a man named Tipi with whom I talked for a bit. He was on day 7 of a 20-day trip and knew the area well. We exchanged trail stories and I told him my plan for the day of taking Slickrock Creek Trail all the way to Naked Ground.

"You aren't going to do all of that today," he said.

I assured him I was and he then looked at his watch and then looked at me before finally replying.

"Well, with that small pack you might make it. You have a big day ahead of you," he said.

Tipi then told me how he had done the trail 42 times, which I now think has to be a record, and he said I would be bug-eyed by the time I got to the top. I was expecting a hard day but was still pretty confident I would be able to cover the ten remaining miles in six or so hours. I bid farewell to Tipi and continued up the trail which very quickly became quite challenging.

There were lots of downed trees. Some were very big and took quite a bit of effort to climb over or crawl under or to try and find a way around them.



When the trail wasn't blocked by trees it was painfully overgrown. And the crossings didn't let up with several of them being thigh deep. As hard as it was the weather was perfect and there was no place I would have rather been than deep in the Appalachian wilderness and I was having the time of my life exploring a new trail.

After an impossible amount of time, I finally reached the point where the trail leaves the creek and starts up the ridge to Naked Ground. I couldn't help but look at my watch and confirm that it was taking quite a bit longer than I had anticipated. My hope was that the long stretch of trail up the ridge would not be nearly as overgrown as the stretch along the creek was. I knew that I could handle the elevation gain without a problem but if I had to wrestle my way through a tangle of overgrowth the entire way I would be pushing daylight by the time I got to the top.

Luckily the overgrowth did let up a little. Up to that point the trail had obviously been old logging rail grades and continued as such a good way up the mountain but eventually, I reached a point where the old rail grade stopped and old growth trees became the dominant feature. There were many of the fallen giants I had to negotiate my through but the views started to open up and things couldn't have been better.


I hadn't bothered to really check the elevation gain or to calibrate my altimeter so I really didn't know how far I had to go. After a long, while I could see an apparent summit on the ridge in front of me I knew it had to be the top. By the time I crawled my way up to it I was indeed bug-eyed just as Tipi had predicted but much to my dismay it was a false top and I could see I still had a thousand feet or more to climb.


The trail stretched on forever.


By the time I hit Naked Ground, it was 6:30 and I was bug-eyed and quite tired. I'd been hoping to hike for a while longer but felt the need to go ahead and find a place to camp. There was a woman camped at the gap so I made a last minute decision to go left on Hoe Lead toward Hangover Rock where I had been earlier in the summer.


After another hour of exhausted hiking, I found this perfect little campsite just below Hangover Rock.



I set up camp and then walked a couple of minutes to the top where the most amazing sunset of my life awaited me. I soaked in the 360-degree view as day gave way to night.






Back at camp and I laid against a rock and sipped on some moonshine as I watched the stars and planets twinkle to life one by one as nature continued to put on a light show that was better than even a Phish concert. Later that night once I was in my hammock the wind picked up to 25mph turning my tarp into a sail and my hammock into a sailboat. I was so tired from Slickrock Creek trail I was somehow able to get a little sleep.

I went back up to the view the next morning to have my coffee before continuing down Hangover Lead trail.


Hangover Lead had been worked earlier in the summer by a trail crew (thanks, SAWs!) so it wasn't overgrown but it was a very steep descent and I was out of water.


I made it on down to the aptly named Big Fat Gap where I took Windy Gap trail which would end up being the closest thing to an easy trail I would take the entire trip.


From there it was onto Nichols Cove which finally had the water I was desperate for but like so many trails in the area it was a challenge with the trail completely disappearing for several long stretches.

Nichols Cove took me back down to the heart of the nightmare that is Slickrock Creek trail but I had time to kill and stopped to fish a bit.


I didn't catch anything and thought it might have been due to how bad I smelled so I went even further down the trail back to Lower Falls. I hadn't seen even a sign of another person all day and since I had the expansive Wilderness all to myself I stripped down and went for a swim.


After my baptism it was back up the trail to Ike Branch trail where I had been planning on spending a third night but there wasn't a campsite where I had been hoping and as the fatigue started to really catch up to me the thunder that had been threatening me all weekend finally gave way to a torrential storm.

There was a campsite somewhere near the Wilderness boundary but by that point, I was just a few miles from the truck so I decided to just push on with the thought of a Mexican dinner in Bryson City on my mind. I fully expected Ike Branch to be easy but it wasn't and Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness continued to torment me to the very end.



  1. Glad to see this post. I was going to solo this trip one weekend and had a friend warned me not to take it casually and without a lot of planning. I decided against it that time.
    I've been going to these mountains forever but I'm always looking for new and better trails which are your favorites?

  2. I have lots of favorite trails. The Black Mtn. Crest trail and Black Mtn. trail near Brevard are the two that immediately come to mind. Thanks for reading!