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. Some enormous yellow-poplars are over 20 feet in circumference and stand 100 feet tall. The floor is carpeted with a garden of wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs from fallen giants. The only way to see the impressive memorial forest is on foot. The figure-eight Joyce Kilmer National Recreation Trail covers 2 miles and has two loops: the 1¼-mile lower loop passes the Joyce Kilmer Memorial plaque, and the upper ¾-mile loop swings through Poplar Cove, a grove of the largest trees. The trailhead parking area has a flush toilet and picnic tables. No camping or overnight parking is allowed. The memorial forest is beautiful in all seasons. Many wildflower show off their blooms in the spring before tree leaves open and shade the forest floor. Summer is wet, green, and lush — a time when the forest is noticeably cooler than the parking area. Fall signals the gradual color change from greens to red, orange, yellow, and maroon. Then the leaves fall revealing the “bones” of the mountains.
The memorial forest is an outstanding example of a cove hardwood forest — a forest characterized by rich, thick soils; abundant moisture; and a variety of flora. 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.”
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 the drastic drop of lumber prices after the “crash of ’29.”
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, who was killed in action during World War I. Although Kilmer was both a soldier and a poet, he is most remembered for his poetry about common, beautiful things in nature. Kilmer’s best known poem is “Trees.”
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is located about 15 miles from Robbinsville in the western part of Graham County. From Robbinsville, take Highway 129 North for 1½ miles to the junction with Highway 143 West (Massey Branch Road). Turn left and proceed West on Highway 143 for approximately 5.0 miles to a stop sign. Turn right onto Kilmer Road. You will drive for about 7.3 miles and arrive at the top of Santeetlah Gap and the junction with the Cherohala Skyway. Bear to your right and continue on for another 2½ miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Turn left into the entrance and it is about ½ mile to the parking area. There are picnic tables, grills, and restrooms available.
Information provided by Graham County Star