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;
Sadly, 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
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.
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.
3. 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.
The Smoky Mountains provide visitors with thousands of things to do, and for first time visitors and weekend warriors it may be daunting to figure out how to squeeze it all in to three days. Hit the highlights of this outdoor-lover’s paradise with this three-day itinerary that will help you discover some of the region’s best attractions and outdoor adventures.
Planning for your trip to the NC Smokies
Before we dive into the itinerary, here are some things you should know when planning your trip to the Smokies.
North Carolina versus the Tennessee Side of the Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park, thanks in large part to its expansive geographical footprint. It spans two states and deciding which side to visit mostly depends on the type of experience you want.
The NC side offers more outdoor adventure and fewer crowds, while TN offers popular tourist towns like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg surrounded by peaceful scenic beauty. You’ll find the crowds are mostly found at the center of the national park.
If you’re most interested in discovering scenic vistas, then exploring the hiking trails along the border of the two states are your best bet.
How to Get to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina
By car: From the north, east and west the I-40 corridor will bring you to the heart of the NC Smokies. From points south, US-23 N (accessible from I-85) and then US-441 will be the best way to get here.
Day 1 – Explore the Highest Peaks
Get a bird’s eye view of the Smokies by taking a scenic drive to some of the area’s best overlooks and hiking trails. We recommend you check out:
Clingmans Dome: From Cherokee, travel along US-441 N to this popular scenic overlook with 360-degree views of the Smokies. The 1.2-mile hike to the observation tower is paved, but it’s too steep to push a wheelchair.
Andrews Bald: From the Clingman Dome’s Trailhead, take the Forney Ridge trail to this mountain bald. The hike is 3.6 miles roundtrip.
Mount Cammerer: For the more ambitious hikers, this 11-mile roundtrip hike takes you to the summit of a 4,928-foot mountain. Along the way, you’ll travel a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Whiteside Mountain: Near the towns of Cashiers and Highlands, this moderate 2-mile loop trail has you hiking along the highest cliffs in the east.
Alternatively, you can drive North along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a route also known as America’s favorite scenic drive. Beginning in Cherokee, NC, the southern portion of this road offers spectacular vistas. Popular destinations include:
Waterrock Knob – At 5,820-feet in elevation, this mountain peak is the highest of the Plott Mountains. Located at milepost 451.2, it’s the closest hiking trail on the Parkway when traveling from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Black Balsam Knob – At milepost 420, you can take a short hike to this stunning mountain bald. It’s the second highest mountain in the Great Balsam Mountains.
Graveyard Fields – Located at milepost 418.8, there are multiple hiking trails including a 3.5-mile loop and two waterfalls.
Day 2 – Waterfall Hunting & Other Adventures on the Water
The Blueways of the Smoky Mountains offer a number of ways to cool off during the warmer months. Enjoy the thrill of whitewater rafting, take a lazy river excursion on a tube, or go stand-up paddle boarding in one of the numerous lakes around the region. The NC Smokies also offer amazing trout fishing opportunities and gorgeous waterfall.
For a fun, family-friendly adventure, take a guided trip with the Nantahala Outdoor Center down the Nantahala River. For the more adventurous spirit, the Cheoah River offers challenging Class IV and V rapids. Kayakers consider the Cheoah one of the best of the whitewater world.
There are hundreds of epic waterfalls to discover across Western North Carolina. No trip to the Smokies would be complete without a waterfall hunting adventure. Here are some of our favorites. Look here for more waterfall excursion.
Whitewater Falls: Near Sapphire, NC, you’ll discover a 411-foot waterfall, the highest in the eastern United States.
Dry Falls: Outside of Highlands you’ll find this 75-foot tall waterfall. You can view it from an observation platform or take a short trail to get a closer look.
Cullasaja Falls – Also near Highlands it this 250-foot cascade. It’s located along US Highway 64 and can be seen from the road.
Discover some of the most tranquil lakes in the mountains. Whether you’re looking to go boating, fishing, or swimming here are some of your best bets.
Lake Santeetlah – This lake offers 76 miles of shoreline, multiple primitive campsites and access to numerous hiking trails. A large portion of the lake’s border is the Nantahala National Forest, which provides gorgeous natural scenery from your boat.
Fontana Lake – A popular lake with fisherman, boaters, and paddle-boarders, this lake provides access to some of the most remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s considered by locals to be the best area to find smallmouth bass.
Lake Glenville – When you’re looking to beat the summertime heat, go for a swim in this refreshing mountain reservoir. The Pines Recreation Area offers a sandy beach and fishing pier. If you rent a boat, then you can visit one of the three waterfalls found along the river banks.
Day 3 – Small Town Exploration & Cultural Adventures
Discover numerous small towns and cultural activities to gain a stronger understanding of the people who call the Smoky Mountains their home. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Explore Cherokee – The Cherokee tribe has called the Smoky Mountains home for over 11,000 years. Learn about their rich history by visiting the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and catch an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills.
Highlands – This quaint mountain town is a perfect basecamp for outdoor adventure. Visit one of the many area waterfalls, explore scenic hiking trails, or go golfing at a nearby course. In town you’ll find fine dining and tons of great shops and galleries to peruse.
Waynesville – Located just west of Asheville, NC, this vibrant mountain town is among the largest in the NC Smoky Mountains. The vibrant, walkable downtown offers great shopping and dining experiences. Nearby, Maggie Valley serves as a gateway to the Cataloochee Valley section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, where you can hike, ride horseback, or get an up close view the elk grazing in the fields (from a safe distance of course).
Where to Stay in the Smokies
When choosing a place to stay in the NC Smoky Mountains, here is what you’ll want to consider. If you want to plan a day trip to Asheville, then areas around Sylva and Waynesville will be your best bets. If you want to be closer to the center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then Murphy, Robbinsville, and Bryson City should be your target areas. For points south, you’ll want to choose the Highlands or Haysville/Brasstown area.
The Smoky Mountains are one of the most beautiful places to visit during autumn, with cool mountain weather and brilliant fall foliage blanketing the slopes. From late September through early November, numerous fall adventures await leaf-peeping visitors. Check out these popular experiences, from serene mountain lakes to thrilling ziplines.
Bonus: Social distancing comes naturally for many of these outdoor activities; check with outfitters and tour companies about any special arrangements for your visit.
Feel the thrill of flying above the colorful forest canopy on a mountain zipline. The ridgeline-to-ridgeline course at Nantahala Outdoor Center boasts 360-degree views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala Gorge.
Whether you’re in search of mountain top views or breathtaking waterfalls, an easy walk or a strenuous trek, there’s a Smoky Mountain hiking trail perfect for your next adventure. Check out this list of popular hikes.
Pack a picnic and hit the road for an unforgettable fall drive. By car or by motorcycle, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an excellent choice, especially in early fall when the colors arrive at popular spots like Graveyard Fields and Black Balsam Knob. Or check out US Route 64 between Franklin and Highlands to see waterfalls tucked among the brilliant trees.
Tour by Train
Bring the family and make fall memories touring the beautiful Nantahala Gorge by riding the rails. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers twice-daily tours (closed on Mondays) on their steam-powered trains. Choose open-air or enclosed train cars and order a boxed lunch for your excursion.
Get to know these mountains through the stories of the people who have lived here for thousands of years. Enjoy an interactive cultural experience at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian then head over to Ococnaluftee Indian Village to immerse yourselves in the living history of the Smokies.
Enjoy the autumn forest from a new perspective as you ride along with your new equine companion. Book a horseback trail ride alongside your reservation at a local resort, or choose from a wide variety of guided tours at Chunky Gal Stables, which welcomes guests of all experience levels year-round.
The Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina are a prime destination for birdwatchers, or “birders,” thanks to a wide range of elevations and a diversity of habitats that welcome both permanent residents and migrating species.
The arrival of spring marks the first of the year’s big seasons for birding, when migrating songbirds arrive at lower elevation areas. These travelers move into the area throughout the spring and into the summer, when eagle-eyed birdwatchers can find dozens of species singing and nesting in the trees.
Early fall marks a second big migration season and is notable for the opportunity to see Broad-Winged Hawks and other awe-inspiring species.
Prime Locations to Bird Watch in the Smokies.
Pack your binoculars for these favorite birding hotspots in the N.C. Smoky Mountains:
Just a few miles from the crystalline lakes of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, scenic Stecoah Gap is famous for its variety of stunning wildflowers, as well as a diversity of warblers during the spring breeding season in April and May.
Hop on an easy-to-hike forest road and look out for Blackburnian Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Wood Thrushes. Or choose the Appalachian Trail for a more strenuous hike and a possible sighting of the vivid Cerulean Warbler.
Kituwah Farm & Cherokee
The site of one of the original “mother towns” of the Cherokee Nation, Kituwah Farm offers 300 acres of open field to explore—perfect for spying raptors like the American Kestrel and sparrows such as Savannah and White-crowned sparrows, even in late winter and early spring. A few miles away, the Garden Trail at the Oconaluftee Indian Village offers an introduction to native plants and those cultivated by the Cherokee people, as well as sightings of Pileated Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Hooded Warblers.
Situated in an idyllic valley a few miles from downtown Waynesville, Lake Junaluska is home to dozens of bird species, from waterfowl like swans (see baby cygnets April-June), herons and ducks, to a number of vireos and woodpeckers.
Bird enthusiasts have been very excited to see a nesting pair of Bald Eagles at Lake Junaluska in recent years. Pick up a birding checklist at the welcome center, or check the calendar for a guided bird tour in summer.
Little Tennessee River Greenway
In the town of Franklin, the Little Tennessee River Greenway offers a pleasant paved walk along the river, plus many family-friendly recreation options. Birders will find plenty of species along the main trail, and don’t miss the small wetland area adjacent to Big Bear Park where you’re likely to see White-breasted and Brown-Headed Nuthatches, Red-winged Blackbirds and a variety of ducks and woodpeckers.
Blue Ridge Parkway
With its wide diversity of elevations and habitats, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a birder’s paradise. Devil’s Courthouse is a favorite nesting area of the Peregrine Falcon, with the parking area at milepost 422.4 offering the best views. Visit this area at sunset for a stunning view, then stick around during the spring months to hear the songs of Veery and Winter Wrens and to listen for the call of the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
Pack a picnic for Waterrock Knob at milepost 451.2, which boasts a panoramic view and a convenient loop trail perfect for spying Ruffed Grouse, Brown Creeper, Cedar Waxwing and many species of warbler.