Universally considered one of the most challenging trails in the country.

8:30 a.m. and we’re winding our way down Highway 129 near Robbinsville, NC. The fog is still thick over the Little Tennessee River as we slow down crossing the bridge into Graham County. “I think we missed it,” I say as we continue onward. Within minutes the Tapoco Lodge comes into view. My pre-hike reconnaissance tells me that the lodge is one mile past the trailhead. I turn around in a pull-out and head back. I finally see it: a non-descript gravel road dipping away from the highway at the edge of the bridge. I turn in and we park at a small hydroelectric station on the banks of the river. It’s an unusual place to find a trailhead, especially one which carries as much legend and myth as the one we came here for. I don’t see any signage, so I send one of my hiking partners up ahead on foot to scout. Within a couple of minutes he comes back with the thumbs up. We’re here. We’ve found it. We’re at the entrance to Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness in Nantahala National Forest. 

We’ve found Slickrock Creek Trail #42.

I first heard about the Slickrock Creek Trail via a magazine article in Backpacker Magazine, where it was named one of their toughest hikes in America. After researching online, I found a few articles about the trail, and most of them seemed intent on talking me out of hiking it. Everything I could find, however, consistently ranked the trail as one the most difficult hikes in the country. This only intrigued me more.

I purchased a topographical map of the area, and map-wise it didn’t look that tough. I saw the creek crossings and that there was a final push up the mountainside that didn’t contain switchbacks, which usually denotes a tough climb. Just a year before I’d hiked the Black Mountain Crest Trail from Bolens Creek to Mt. Mitchell with its 5,390 ft in total elevation gain (3,000 of that in the first 4 miles). The Crest trail is revered in the hiking community as one of the most challenging on the east coast. But somehow the Slickrock Creek Trail had flown under my radar and I needed to experience it for myself.

It CALLED to me.

Back at the trailhead we checked over our route and made final preparations (Did anyone bring toilet paper? A headlamp? Enough water? Snacks?). Then we set off into the wilderness on a very muggy mid-July morning. We passed the wilderness entrance then followed the sign pointing us onto Slickrock Creek Trail #42. The first 2 miles followed the ridge alongside the Little Tennessee River. Though there was obvious recent trail maintenance, sections of blowdown, overgrowth, and rocky terrain were harbingers of things to come. 

At around mile 3, the trail turned away from the river at the mouth of Slickrock Creek, generally headed in the southern direction. Here is where the Slickrock Creek Trail formally began. We noticed primitive campsites along the way. Bear scat littered the path. For the most part, the trail was level up to Upper Wildcat Falls (mile 7 or 8). Though gaining elevation the entire hike, it’s a gradual ascent. The tricky part were the creek crossings. There were at least 12 major crossings, with several secondary crossings. We counted around 16. Pay close attention to the crossings. They are marked with wooden signs, some very old and moss-covered and easy to miss. Plot your course on the map as you go and the creek crossings are fairly obvious. Some of the crossings are tricky and require crossing deep water as well as rock hopping (Watch out, they're slick!), and even climbing over woodpiles and walking across logs.

We found out quickly how this wilderness got its name. The rocks on the trail, and especially across the creek, might as well have been made of ice. Watch your footing. We wore water shoes. Trekking poles or a staff will help you keep your balance. Crossing Slickrock Creek is best not attempted in high water. I’ve heard several stories of hikers having to turn back after just a few crossings due to high water, and it was easy to see why. I joked and said that by “creek” they meant “raging river” -- and this is an accurate description. Even though it hadn’t rained substantially in the area for a couple of weeks prior, the creek was still full and powerful. As if this wasn’t enough, we had a couple of snakes jump out of trees near us. (Um, watch out for dive-bombing snakes!)

After plowing through mostly level trail and contending with ever-increasing blowdown, at around mile 4-5 we came upon Lower Wildcat Falls with it’s two mighty cascades. This seemed like a great area to take our packs off, hydrate, and rest. I think I drank half the creek through my LifeStraw. The water here was clear and pristine -- and perfectly inviting.

Being on a time limit, we spent half an hour at the falls then got right back to business. We noticed the wilderness becoming more dense and dark. We passed evidence of an old railroad in the form of cables and track. This was an attempt many years ago to extract the giant old growth trees from the area. The wilderness obviously won and man left his tools as a reminder of just how rugged this place is. The final major creek crossing was just above Upper Wildcat Falls at mile 7-8. Exercise extreme caution here as it’s a multi-level drop off a roaring, high falls.

There was one last campsite just across the creek. If I had to do this hike all over again, we would’ve probably camped here and completed the next 4-5 miles to the trail’s terminus the following day. However, we opted to continue onward and turned a hard left away from the creek. 

We were immediately greeted with a trail that literally disappeared under thick bushes and blowdown as it began to ascend more steeply. We climbed over and under massive ancient trees. It is no wonder this trail is nicknamed the “Ball Buster” and “Widow Maker” - it’s tough on the body. We began to figure out this trek was more of an obstacle course than a traditional hike. As we pushed onward/upward, the mid-summer heat and humidity bore down on us. The forest closed in around us. Water sources disappeared. We were soaked from sweat. We were bleeding from pricks and scratches. We picked ticks off us like picking blackberries from the saw-like patches we were hiking through. Our hiking pace slowed considerably, averaging just under one mile an hour. An app we used showed we were well over 2,000’ at this point. We found a small creek and filled up our bladders and bottles. I drank through my Lifestraw until I was waterlogged. I don't ever remember feeling this thirsty! Hiking 10 hours straight in these conditions will do that.

As we continued to climb steeply through barbed bushes and over trees and rocks, we reached a fairly level switchback at around mile 10. With daylight rapidly fading pitched our hammocks in a rhododendron and heath thicket. After grabbing a snack, pulling ticks, and changing into dry clothes, we were asleep by 9:00 pm.

The next morning we were awakened by singing birds, sun rays, and dew. Lots of dew. After quickly packing up, we were back on the trail and were immediately greeted with rapidly increasing elevation. Sore legs from the day before made this section even more challenging. The trail became more muddy and rocky. As we pushed onward, the trail continued to give us false hope. The wilderness would seemingly open up, only to close back in on us. The trail would appear to be leveling out, only to become even steeper with every turn. We hiked in and out of dew-soaked thickets, over slick rocks, and up ankle-deep mud sections of mucky drainage. The final mile was a straight push upward that had me on my knees gasping for air more than once.

Just when we thought we could climb no more, and had had enough of Slickrock Creek Trail... there was more climbing. More mud. More briers. More rocks. Always giving false hope. This hike will take as much out of you mentally as it will physically.

As we continued steeply climbing on all fours, suddenly we found ourselves standing in a clearing at Naked Ground staring at the endless layers of Appalachians in front of us, and the trail sign indicating we had reached the terminus of Slickrock Creek Trail #42. 

I’m not sure I’ve experienced as much joy and relief in my life as at that moment. We’d done it! We’d challenged and defeated the mythical monster. 

After a short victory rest, and itching to finish, we continued down Haoe Lead to Hangover Lead to Big Fat Gap. This section is literally one long descent. It wasn’t easy on the knees. At Big Fat Gap we basked in the sunshine and dried our socks. We had the option of continuing on Hangover Lead to Ike Branch Trail, but we opted to hike the forest service road down to Highway 129 and back to the trail head, not wanting to contend with tired footing and a fast-approaching thunderstorm.

The total length of this loop was in the neighborhood of 30 miles.

Recap

I can say with all honesty Slickrock Creek Trail is the toughest, most off-the-chain trail I’ve ever hiked. It was as mentally demanding as it was physically demanding. There were many times I wanted to quit. Slickrock Creek Trail is not a hike for recreational hikers. I would not suggest it to just anyone. It’s a serious hike. It is a dangerous hike. It is a marathon and an obstacle course. If you cannot use a map and compass, do not attempt this hike. 

However, Slickrock Creek Trail is a seriously rewarding hike. It is truly an unforgettable wilderness experience. I felt as though we'd graduated to another level after getting back to my vehicle. Talking afterwards, we were wondering, "Where do we go from here?"

Much love and respect -- I truly enjoyed you Slickrock Creek Trail #42 -- But I won't be going back to you any time soon.

Synopsis

Hike what is widely considered one of the toughest trails in the country.

Features

Over a dozen creek crossings (some very tricky); Solitude; Giant trees; 5,000 ft. summit; More like a 13 mile long obstacle course than a traditional hike.

Length

13.3 miles one way. 27-30 miles round trip; Plan on more if you make side trips to Stratton Bald or The Hangover. Miles [NOTE: Most of the mileage and direction here is estimated based on my NatGeo topographical map and compass readings. The official trail length is 13.3 miles.]

Rating

Off the charts Strenuous; Extremely remote and rugged terrain.

Find It

The trailhead is unmarked and located on a turn-off immediately before or after the bridge that crosses the Little Tennessee River below Cheoah Dam on Highway 129, depending on which direction you’re traveling. It is exactly one mile from the Tapoco Lodge. There is enough parking for a few cars. Park and follow the road a short distance past the small hydroelectric station to the entrance sign for the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. The hike begins here.

Pack List

  • Backpack (I'd suggest using a smaller one for maneuverability)
  • Water filtration device or purification pills
  • Water shoes
  • Hammock or light tent
  • First-aid kit
  • Change of clothes, extra socks are a must
  • Energy blocks or other high glucose/potassium/magnesium supplement to prevent cramping
  • At least 3-4 liters of water
  • Headlamp
  • Knife or machete
  • Trekking poles/staff
  • Map and compass (and know how to use them)
Show More
RT Distance 30 Miles
Elevation Gain 3700 Feet
Activities Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Expert
Season Year Round
Trail Type Loop
Features
Forest
Scenic
Waterfall
Wildlife

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