The Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Creek Wilderness in western North Carolina is best known for its ancient trees of yellow poplar, American beech, red oak, hemlock, and red maple. These trees are over 100 feet tall and more than 500 years old, and many people come to this area in the Nantahala National Forest every year to see the virgin forests.

In October of 2001, I planned a hike here with a few friends. As I studied the map and read through Tim Homan’s guidebook, I noticed a high alpine meadow in the western part of the wilderness. I hadn’t heard much about this area but it looked interesting, and after some more research on the Internet our group decided to hike in this area.

The drive to the trailhead was a long one. The fall colors were at peak and the leaf lookers were everywhere. Traffic was brutal in north Georgia and western North Carolina and moved no more than 5 mph in some areas.

We finally reached the parking area and trailhead around 4pm. Sunset was due in two hours, so we took a few pictures, loaded our packs, and hit the trail immediately.

It was only a few miles to the summit where we planned to camp but much of the hike was uphill, and we were all moving slower than we expected. The ridges and high meadows were covered in fog and mist and the wind blew rain that clung to the leaves and trees. Needless to say it was pretty cold in the higher elevations.

We took a break on the ridge around 5:30pm about 0.3 miles from the summit. CC and Wild Turkey seemed content with a small campsite that was five feet off the trail. The Senator, Candy Andy, The Operator, and I dropped our packs and decided to hike ahead to the alpine meadow before we pitched our tents. It took us 30 minutes to do the recon, but it was well worth the trip. The summit turned out to be even better than we anticipated and it had a nice campsite right on top. We rallied the ladies and hiked the final 0.3 miles by 6pm.

Darkness came quickly this evening with the cloudy skies. I pitched the tents while the others checked the area for firewood. Some guys from a Christian misson that were pitched on the ridge brought up a nice load of wood and invited us to an 8am service in the morning. The bundle was appreciated since we didn’t have much time to search and temperatures were forecast for the 20’s tonight.

As darkness fell, I cooked up an outstanding dish of Kielbasa. The fire was a challenge to start since all our wood was wet but the MSR stove eventually did the trick.

It was warmer and drier on the bald tonight than we expected. The wind died down and the mist and fog ceased. Within a couple hours the sky was packed with stars, and there were a few meteors that streaked across the sky and burned bright for 2-3 seconds.

We didn’t realize it until about 9pm but there were three to four other groups on the bald tonight. Each was tucked in the trees, so we didn’t notice them when we first hit the summit. Kevin, from a nearby camp, came to visit bearing gifts – a bottle of cinnamon schnapps and Wild Turkey. Another couple from his camp followed and they hung out with us for a while.

We stayed up until 12:30am and huddled around the fire to stay warm. Sometime around 10pm the moon came up and we could finally get a good look at the meadow with the clearing skies. Our neighbors let out a rebel yell around midnight, and two other groups responded (including ours). So there were a lot more people camping here than I expected.

We woke the following morning to find frost on the ground. The thermometer on my watch recorded a low of 27 degrees just before sunrise and it stayed cold until almost noon.

Most of us were up by 9:30am. We cooked eggs with left over Kielbasa for breakfast, then packed up our gear and hit the trail. We considered a side-hike to a nearby rock outcrop at Hangover since the weather was sunny, cool, and breezy but decided to come back another time.

CC lead the hike to the trucks, followed by The Operator and Wild Turkey (who we caught up with at a trail junction 0.3 miles from the summit.) They had just taken a wrong turn but we stopped them in time and immediately got them back on track. CC was no where to be found, however, and we didn’t know if she went the wrong way or not.

We considered sending someone down the trail to check but thought we might be chasing a ghost. So we all headed to the parking lot and hoped CC made the right turn. As it turned out, she didn’t and we waited for 45 minutes for her to show up at the parking area (and consumed a few brews that Kevin had in his cooler during this time of crisis). At 1:30 pm, The Senator and I decided to do a rescue mission and we left a radio with Candy Andy, our base camp supervisor. We found CC after hiking for fifteen minutes. She had turned back toward the summit thinking she had missed the side trail to the parking. We took her pack and made it back to the trailhead by 2pm.

It took 45 minutes to get off the bumpy and rutted Forest Service road and another 3 1/2 hours to get home. A different route saved us at least an hour and we stopped in Robbinsville for some Subway.

Overall, this hike exceeded my expectations and turned out to be much better (and much more crowded) than I anticipated. The virgin forests had been the constant focus of most of the trail guides and articles that I read, but some of the higher elevation areas in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Creek Wilderness are equally impressive. As a result, this hike exceeded my expectations (more so than any southeastern hike I’ve done in a long time.)

~ BirdShooter

Click the Stratton Bald destination page for access to photos, maps, and a trip report on this hike. For more hikes in the State of North Carolina, follow this link.

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