December 12-13, 2015
Nestled in Graham County, the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness is secluded and sacred. Just walking over the terrain, sleeping on the forest floor, one can sense that there is a deeper story waiting to be told. In the center of this Wilderness is a wonderful, difficult loop waiting to be hiked.
The Weeks Act, passed in 1911, allowed the federal government to “[e]xamine, locate and recommend for purchase … such lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as … may be necessary to the regulation of flow of navigable streams….” 1 This Act was the first in a series of federal interventions that have saved and preserved precious forestlands for use and enjoyment by the American citizenry.
Eric and I parked at Big Fat Gap off of Forest Service Road 62 and started south on Hangover Lead Trail. The initial climb is a stark, straight uphill ascent with no switchbacks. We gained 1,982 feet in elevation over 2.6 miles. Just prior to Saddle Tree Gap we walked out onto a rock lookout, unmarked on the map, with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. Hidden below were the watersheds and our campsite for the night.
It is a short uphill hike to Hangover Alternate Trail, another epic vista of the surrounding area. We headed .7 miles on Haoe Lead Trail to Naked Ground and the trailhead for Slickrock Creek. Haoe Lead is essentially ridge walking with views to Joyce Kilmer. At Naked Ground, we encountered the only other hikers we saw, a trio camping. The older gentleman sitting down, asked us our plans, and we indicated we were going down Slickrock Creek Trail to camp. He chuckled and said, “Have fun on the ballbuster!”
I thought that I have hiked some difficult trails, thought that I have seen some rough terrain. I have been thinking incorrectly. This trail is almost too much to handle. Our destination at Slickrock Creek was only 3.7 miles away. That’s nothing. We were sorely mistaken.
Backpacker Magazine had this to say, when writing about the toughest trails in the United States: “The upper section of the Slickrock Creek Trail is widely considered the hardest hike in the southern Appalachians. Its nickname among local hikers is “The Ballbuster.” As we found out, all kinds of body parts get worked over on this hike. The fun begins where Slickrock Creek Trail leaves the creek and rockets skyward through dense rhododendron. Successfully completing this climb takes stamina and willpower.” 2
Usually, when a place is named a certain thing, it’s for a reason. Slickrock is very apropos. The trail is pure downhill. Every turn, leaves disguised wet roots, rocks and holes. Fallen trees block the trail frequently. Every 500 feet I would yell, “ohhhhhhh”, “ahhhhhhh” as I skidded. This trail is a beast. More than once, Eric and I remarked that while going downhill was tough, the alternative would be hellish.
After, what could have been interpreted as a vaudevillian show, rather than hiking, we reached the basin of the watershed. There are many, large camping areas along the base of Slickrock Creek Trail. We stopped at the first alluring spot and made camp for the night. The skies began to clear, dinner was made and the descent of Slickrock Creek was forgotten.
In the morning, we hiked 1.5 miles to Wildcat Falls. Along the way we saw more than a one railroad tie. Eric remarked that this was probably a short rail line used in the transportation of lumber.
In 1915, the Babcock Land and Timber Company (Babcock Company) bought a large swath of land at the base of the Slickrock and Citico Creek watersheds. 3 Based in Pittsburgh, PA, they are still operating today. “The Babcock Company (formed in 1907 in Maryville, Tennessee) operated more than one-quarter million acres in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Maryville plant was considered the most modern of its kind and lumberman from all over the world came to see it and declare it a model operation… [They were] producing and shipping in excess of 1,000 carloads of hardwood per month.” 4
Jack Hooper was the foreman for the logging camp in the Slickrock area until 1918. 5 “Slow, but dependable Shay locomotives pulled logs to flatcars in the landing areas. Jack Hooper and his wife Belle lived at a camp on Slickrock Creek in November 1918.” On Thanksgiving Day Hooper and his crew worked cutting trees, “before settling down to a large supper Belle fixed.” “Jack’s home was called a “shanty car” and it sat close to the tracks where the train ran and just across the way from the spring that supplied water for drinking and bathing. While Jack and several men who worked with him were getting ready for supper, Belle’s younger sister went to the spring for water. At about that same time, at a point some 300 yards above the camp a crew started three loaded flatcars down the grade behind the Shay engine.” When the engineer started down the mountain he realized he had no air pressure and thus, no brakes. “The crew on board had time to react and before the train picked up too much speed, they jumped. Some suffered injuries, but all survived.”
Belle later stated, “Most of the shanty car living quarters were situated in a curve that the runaway train was unable to negotiate.” It [the train] came through the bend plowing up rails and crossties, and the engine left the track and crashed through at least two of the shanty cars, both occupied at the time the huge logs came undone and rolled off the flat car, crushing the shacks. 6
In the end three people died.
Based on this accounting, it is highly likely that where we camped and the surrounding area were the home sites for this crew. In 1921, the US Forest Service bought this land from the Babcock Company and in 1975 the area was further protected under the Wilderness Act. As Eric and I hiked out of the basin on the Big Fat Gap Trail for 1.4 miles, we did not know this history. What we did know is that this wonderful forest is worth protecting.
Total mileage is 11.4 miles.
*A special thanks to Mr. Bill Crawford with the Genealogical Society at the Jackson County Library who was invaluable in finding these stories.