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About two hours from Asheville and Knoxville, two-and-a-half from Chattanooga, and three from Atlanta, you’ll find a peculiar, otherworldly forest that doesn’t hit many “Best Hikes In The South” lists. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is nestled deep within the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina and is one of the last remaining old-growth forests in the eastern United States.

Joyce Kilmer Forest

The 2-mile loop trail is good for all fitness levels, but there are a few other connecting trails for more intense hikes. Image: Emily Beckett/Instagram

The 3,800 protected acres of forest boast more than 100 species of trees, including sycamore, basswood, oak, and yellow poplar that tower over wildflowers and verdant ferns. The most magnificent species, however, is the tulip poplar, which is the reason why people have treasured and photographed this forest for decades. Clocking in at 300 to 500 years old, up to 100 feet tall, and 20 feet wide, these poplar trees are absolutely jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring.

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The Forest’s GIANT History

This tract of woods escaped the rampant clear-cutting by the lumber industry in the 1920s and was set aside by the U.S. Forest Service in 1935 as a memorial to the author of the poem “Trees,” a man named Joyce Kilmer. The poet and war hero was killed in action in France during World War I and now has a living memorial to uphold his service and words.

“I’ve seen big trees before, but this blew me away,” says professional arborist and general tree enthusiast Matt Archibald. “These gigantic tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) are all throughout the park. They range from 300 to 500 years old. [This] park is one of the last old-growth forests on the East Coast. It is amazing to me to think that trees of this size existed all over the United States before European settlers cut them down.” Still maintained in its primitive state, the only way to see the forest is on foot.

Joyce Kilmer Forest

The juxtaposition of the giant wood trunks with the soft green moss is striking. Image: Jordan Mitchell

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Matt absorbs a giant tulip poplar. According to most people I spoke to about these trees, you have to see them in person to truly grasp the size. Image: Matt Archibald/Instagram

Visiting The Forest

A few hours is all you need to walk the gentle loop trail and stop to read the midway memorial. Admission is free. Most visitors stay on the 2-mile figure-eight Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail that begins at the main parking area and climbs up to Poplar Cove where you’ll see the tremendous poplars. Hike-able in either direction, the two loops join at the middle of the figure-eight where a stone monument pays homage to the forest’s namesake, Joyce Kilmer. Pack snacks and enjoy lunch in the picnic area.

Conquered the memorial trail and still want more? Adjoining trails like Naked Ground and Bob Stratton’s Hangover (ha!) will take you deeper into the wilderness north and west of the memorial trail to the North Carolina-Tennessee state line, where Joyce Kilmer joins the Citco Creek Wilderness in the Cherokee National Forest.

More Reasons To See For Yourself

Overnight backpackers can camp within the forest at Horse Cove Campground or Rattler Ford Campground. Night owls will also catch sight of another otherworldly natural phenomenon: the glow-in-the-dark fungi that light up the North Carolina mountains at night. While you’re in the Robbinsville area, rent a boat on the pristine Lake Santeetlah, drive the scenic Cherohala Skyway, and shop for art at the famous Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center. ​

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Back to Matt, the arborist: “I can only describe it as a religious experience. I have an unquenchable passion for trees that continues to grow every day, and this experience only deepened my passion for these amazing organisms. It made me realize how small I am and how much more I want to learn. I hope everyone gets to have one of these experiences — whether it is with trees or something else — that puts things in perspective and makes you realize what you are grateful for.”

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

There’s just as much to see at ground level as there is to behold above you in this forest. Image: Emily Beckett/Instagram

Let’s seize the chance to visit this unspoiled, unique piece of old-growth forest. To prepare you for your forest hike, I’ll end with the poem that named it.

By Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.


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