Editor’s Note: Wildfires in November 2016 have led to parts of the wilderness area being closed. Check the Forest Service website for updates.
Even during the summer months it’s not usually the heat that takes a toll on you in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s the humidity. A trip up Slickrock Creek into the wilderness along the Tennessee-North Carolina border is no exception, though soggy feet and heavy air are no reasons to avoid this lush, solitary hike.
Ranked among the toughest hiking trails in the country, the Slickrock Creek Trail is not for the inexperienced traveler, but with adequate preparation and the right equipment, it makes a great weekend getaway in the Unicoi Mountains while avoiding the crowds wandering around just north in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The rough-shod trails can be hard to follow at times, and numerous creek crossings along Slickrock add the to challenge.
This route cuts into the heart of the nearly 17,400-acre Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, a remote stretch of woods that makes up one of the largest tracts of continuous woodland east of the Mississippi River. Renowned for being home to some of the last old growth forests in the Eastern U.S., this particular loop hike does not pass through the largest patches of ancient trees, though (they are are concentrated along watersheds in the southern and southeastern portions of the wilderness area). Instead, it offers a rewarding hike along a smooth-cobbled waterway far from the trappings of civilization and a network of remote footpaths for a variety of hiking options, routes, and cut-throughs—plenty to fill a weekend outing or a weeklong wilderness adventure.
Planning for Slickrock Creek
The close proximity to both Knoxville and Asheville means it’s possible to get out of town on a Friday after work and make a backcountry camp before sundown (at least during the summer months). In the fall and winter, prepare for cooler mountain temperatures, which could be down 10-15 degrees compared with the surrounding valleys.
Make use of the primitive camping at the mouth of Slickrock Creek, just three miles in from the trailhead. While it’s feasible for a trail runner or fast hiker to make this entire loop in a single day, it’s not advisable to head into this remote section of woodland without adequate supplies to survive at least one night in the woods. The trails are rough and ragged, at some times presenting hurdles like downed trees that can turn a short section into an hour-long zigzag up steep mountain sides. (On a recent trip, nearly a dozen felled trees along Ike Branch made for a particularly exhausting half-mile section, which took more than an hour to clear.)
Water is plentiful along the creek trail, but virtually none-existent on these sections of Ike Branch, Nicholas Branch, and the Benton MacKaye. Be sure to fill up before looping away from the waterway. As always, it’s advisable to treat the water before drinking.
Bring a good map -- either section of the Cherokee of Nantahala national forests will do -- and solid hiking boots or trail-running shoes. And tell someone on the outside world where you’re going, you’re planned route, and when you expect to be back.
On the Trail
Get right to it. Start off at the Slickrock Creek trailhead near Highway 129 heading northwest, following along the banks of Calderwood Lake. Within a few miles, as the trail turns left at the mouth of Slickrock Creek, the sounds of passing cars and rumbling motorcycles will fade into the distance.
There are several miles of trails that connect in this remote wilderness, some named and all numbered on National Forest maps of the area. The wilderness area falls mostly in North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest, though a portion spills over into the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. A map of either should include details of Slickrock Creek (trail no. 42), which mostly follows the Tennessee-North Carolina border, as well as adjacent trails.
The Slickrock Creek trail bisects the wilderness area, from Highway 129 to the north, south to Beech Gap. A roughly 20-mile through hike is ambitious and popular with die-hard trekkers, but beware: this is the path ranked among the 12 most challenging in the country by Backpacker Magazine.
For shorter, yet still challenging jaunt, follow Slickrock to its intersection with Ike Branch trail (no. 45), take Ike Branch east to the Benton MacKaye, then head back north for a solid 11-mile loop hike. This will allow you to take in the scenic wonder of the Lower Falls, the first of two noteworthy sites along Slickrock, and also splash in the swimming hole beneath.
To add a few more miles to the trek, continue along Slickrock past the turnoff for Ike Branch, hooking east at the next intersection along Nicholas Branch trail (no. 44), then looping back north along Yellow Hammer Gap trail (no. 49), which merges with the Benton MacKaye after several miles. This will add at least three miles of walking and take you across Cold Spring Knob.
With the exception of some portions of the Slickrock Creek, the trails are mostly narrow, singletrack paths flanked on either side by dense forests. From the north trailhead, the trail holds tight to a hillside, rising high above the turquoise waters of Calderwood Lake, which glimmers through the trees. Primitive camping sites are situated at the mouth of Slickrock Creek, about three miles from the trailhead.
Once you make the turn into the Slickrock watershed, the trail widens for a ways, with several offshoots that follow along the waterway only to deadend. Don’t fret, doubt back and look hard for the small footpath heading up the hillside, or a creek crossing, which are often wide and poorly marked near the mouth of the river. There are several creek crossing, though they’re not nearly as numerous or daunting as a hike along the Eagle Creek Trail just to the north.
Ike branch is a narrow footpath that follows the concave of the valley floor for much of its length, back to the banks of the Little Tennessee River at Calderwood Lake. Here it collides with the Slickrock Creek trail not far from a shared trailhead. Once you’ve made it this far, you’re nearly home free after a short gain back to the starting point and parking area off Highway 129.
Don’t expect to encounter many other hikers, even on the weekends. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re venturing into an expansive, remote wilderness area, and even on the busiest days these trails host very few travelers compared with even some of the least-transverses trails at the nearby national park. Plan accordingly.
From Knoxville, take Highway 129 south (called Alcoa Highway in town), and be sure to bring your driving gloves. This section of road through the southern Appalachian Mountains is known as the Tail of the Dragon, a popular stretch for motorcyclists and car enthusiasts with 318 turns in an 11-mile stretch. To reach the turn turnoff for Slickrock Creek, you’ll need to navigate the majority of these twists and turns, an adventure on its own.
Cross into North Carolina along U.S. 129 and continue on about three miles, keeping an eye out for a concrete bridge across Little Tennessee River (you can’t miss it, though it tends to sneak up along the windy mountain roads). The dirt and gravel parking area for the Slickrock Creek trailhead is immediately to the right after crossing the bridge. It is not well-marked. Another option, or if you miss the turnoff, is to continue on for another half mile for a pitstop at the historic Tapoco Lodge. Here you can fuel up on pizza, coffee, or beer before hoofing it into the unknown.