Exploring the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Large poplar tree at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, N.C.,  inspires the kind of hushed awe that can only be found in rare old-growth forests. Widely undiscovered by most, this forest, part of the Nantahala National Forest, lives under the protective watch of the US Forest Service and has remained untouched by logging and development since 1936. In fact, this land is so shielded from intrusion, all-terrain vehicles and chainsaws are not permitted, even by the forest’s keepers.

Featuring one of the largest contiguous growths of hardwood trees and encompassing 3800 square miles near the town of Robbinsville, NC, this majestic paradise will have you questioning when exactly you stepped through time and into these primordial woods.

Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918), the American poet and writer for whom the forest is named, is probably best known for his 1913 poem ‘Trees” that worships their splendor and disparages even his own attempt to write words worthy of their beauty.

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

With your first few steps into the forest, Kilmer’s words resonate as you are greeted by the heady scent of the dark, rich earth; the organic decay and life-giving rebirth of the fallen trees and mossy underbrush; and the purity of the crisp, sweet mountain air.

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

On your visit, you will spend as much time looking up as you do around. Over 100 tree species define the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest as one of the most unique and varied forests on the east coast; its old-growth hardwood varieties can only be found in our Appalachian Mountains. White Oak, Beech, Red Oak and Basswood trees are plentiful, insulating you from the brightest summer sun or coolest snowy day.

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

plaque at joyce kilmer memorial forestSadly, the once-plentiful American Chestnut and Hemlock trees have been decimated by disease and pests, but the majestic Yellow Poplars (also known as Tulip Poplars) still tower over the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at an astounding 100 feet tall Leaning your head back and straining to see the treetops is a dizzying but must-do activity. And spanning 20 feet around, these giants could make for an all-day game of hide-and-seek.

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is an experience of a lifetime and quite possible for most to explore with an undemanding 2-mile roundtrip trail. In the shape of a figure eight, the trail is defined by an upper and lower loop. The easy upper loop winds through the grove of colossal Yellow Poplars, but you don’t want to miss the lower loop featuring the memorial plaque in honor of the forest’s namesake.

Not only was Joyce Kilmer a poet, but he served his country in WWI where he was killed by a German sniper in 1918. The Veterans of the Foreign Wars requested that the government create a living memorial named in honor of the brave man. Fittingly, this memorial forest with trees that have been standing for over 450 years, was named for Joyce Kilmer, the man who wrote so eloquently yet so humbly about them.

Driving Directions to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

From Robbinsville:

  • Head north on Highway 129 for 1.5 miles.
  • Turn left on Highway 143 west (Massey Branch Road) and drive 5 miles to Kilmer Road.
  • Turn right onto Kilmer Road and drive for 6.9 miles and then take a slight right onto Santeetlah Rd.
  • Keep going for a 2.3 miles to the entrance of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Our Five Favorite Spring Hikes in the NC Smokies

Spring is the perfect season to get out on the trails and immerse yourself in the scenic beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Wildflowers are in bloom, wildlife is emerging from winter dens, birds are singing from the tree branches, and waterfalls are gushing with the spring rains.

Here are five of our favorite hiking trails to explore this spring:

family hiking in the smoky mountains1. Graveyard Fields

One of the most popular stops along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields (at milepost 418.8) has it all — wide open meadows that show off blue skies, two breathtaking waterfalls, and thickets of native wildflowers like flame azalea and mountain laurel that bloom in May and June. Take a short hike to the lower falls (great for cooling off on hot days!) or choose the 3.5-mile loop trail to see the whole area.

2. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail

Experience spring in a virgin forest along this 2-mile moderate loop trail that twists through a pristine mountain cove. The trees here are hundreds of years old, and some are more than 100 feet tall! The trail climbs gently and crosses the creek via several wooden bridges. Keep your eyes open for wildflowers on the forest floor, and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy among the trees.

waterfall in the smoky moutains3. Oconaluftee River Trail

This pet-friendly hike is located just outside Cherokee, N.C., and is easy enough for the whole family. The 1.5-mile trail follows the Oconaluftee River and begins at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which offers public restrooms and maps of the area. Look out for elk enjoying the cool water of the river or the open meadow near the visitor center.

4. Kephart Prong Trail

This trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park combines natural beauty with national history along its 4.2-mile out-and-back route. Find the trailhead located on side of the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) about 7 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. Enjoy the rush of the scenic Kephart Prong creek and explore the ruins of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was stationed here from 1933 to 1942. The Kephart Shelter marks the turnaround point at the end of the trail.

5. Whiteside Mountain Trail

Whiteside Mountain’s sheer rock face is an iconic sight in the Nantahala National Forest near Highlands and Cashiers. A moderate, sometimes steep 2-mile loop trail leads from a parking area to the top of the 750-foot cliffs and boasts breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. Wildflowers such as false Solomons seal and white snakeroot bloom here, and keep an eye out for peregrine falcons — these endangered birds like to nest among the rock faces in spring.


Find more area hiking trails here.