The Hardest Trail in North Carolina - Slickrock Creek Trail

If you're thinking of hiking up Slickrock Creek Trail in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, I have some advice for you: don't do it.

I'm pretty sure that hike was the most miserable hike of my life. I'm also pretty sure I'm going to have scars from that hike.

The trail was completely overgrown with rhododendron and blackberries and briars and my legs looked like they were the loser in a fight with some barbed wire. My arms weren't much better and I think my feet will never forgive me for that day.

Slickrock Creek

I almost didn't make it up that forsaken trail. I got just past a campsite a couple miles above where the trail breaks away from Slickrock Creek when suddenly the trail was buried under a slew of fallen trees. I followed the trail through a couple of the downed trees - if you could call these old-growth behemoth hardwoods "trees" - but by the third or fourth fallen log with the trail lost under wood rot and brambles I suddenly felt afraid and headed back. I made it about a quarter mile back down the trail to the campsite when I ran into a group of backpackers. They asked me how far up the trail it was until the ridgeline and I had to admit I hadn't come from there and that I'd just turned around. I leaned against a tree at the campsite and watched the four guys, two women, and one Shar-Pei pick their way up the unforgiving path. I looked at them, looked at the map, and looked back at them disappearing on the trail, and decided to try it again.

Everything's bigger in a pristine old-growth forest.

Old-growth forest in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock wilderness along the Slickrock Creek trail. This was the friendliest part of the trail (which is why I stopped and took a picture)

It wasn't long before I caught up with them again, and they exclaimed, "You're here!"

"Yep. I hadn't seen anyone all day and I was convinced I'd lost the trail, but when I saw you all I figured I couldn't be totally crazy, so I thought I'd just follow you all."

I hadn’t seen anyone all day and I was convinced I’d lost the trail, but when I saw you all I figured I couldn’t be totally crazy

I am so grateful that I came across them. These hikers were the best sort of trail magic because I'm not sure I would have made it up the trail by myself, what with the mud slides and fallen logs and overgrown brambles and the trail that meandered in and out of sight. But I made it up to the Naked Ground camping area and that evening I swung in my hammock, so indescribably happy that I was there.

It was a strange sort of happiness though. It wasn't the tear-jerker happy of wedding day happy, or the elated happy of dance party happy. This was an exhausted sort of happy, a grateful sort of happy: grateful to be there, grateful to be alive, grateful to just be around other people. My hiking crew headed on towards Bob Stratton Bald where they would meet up with a crew of friends for the solar eclipse. In my little clearing where I swayed in my hammock a family set up their tent next to a pair of guys who were in Maine just a couple days before and were in Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock for the eclipse. The two guys had also hiked up Slickrock Creek Trail and the way they talked about the trail they sounded just as traumatized by the hike as I felt.

"I swear we must have been the first ones to hike that trail all year, it was so overgrown and miserable," one of the guys said.

"I hear it's the hardest trail in North Carolina, and the second hardest trail east of the Mississippi," the other guy replied, and his friend said, "I believe it."

Me too, guys. I believe it too.

I hear it’s the hardest trail in North Carolina, and the second hardest trail east of the Mississippi

I tucked into my hammock early, and I again saw the stars winking at me, this time through a canopy of birch and oak. I could see more of the stars but not enough to make out any constellation as they blinked in and out from behind unseen leaves.

In the morning the little bit of the Blue Ridge that I could see through the underbrush from Naked Ground was covered in a mist of pastel pink and blue, and the sun glowed golden through the trees, gilding everything in its glow. It was hard to believe the sun would not shine all that day, that around 2pm it would go dark with the eclipse. If only all ominous darknesses could last as briefly as the solar eclipse.

It was hard to believe the sun would not shine all that day, that around 2pm it would go dark with the eclipse.

For once a very helpful cairn pointing hikers along the right way.

I dreaded standing up. I dreaded hiking more that day to the Hangover to watch the eclipse. My legs were covered in lacerations and scabs as a reminder of the torture up Slickrock Creek the day before.

It won't be that. Come on, let's go, it won't be that bad. And sure enough, it wasn't that bad.

 

Clarification: I'm not saying you *can't* hike this trail, but I am saying you shouldn't. Hike the bit around Slickrock Creek, sure, but the section that goes from the creek up to Naked Ground? I'd say skip it. There are no views, it's agonizingly difficult, and there are other trails in the area that go to the same spots and are better in every way - more traveled (read: there's actually a *trail* there), more views, more switchbacks, etc. If you do hike Slickrock Creek just for the sake of doing it then please be familiar with your map and compass, and be prepared for some pain. Seriously, you may need survival skills on this hike.

What's the hardest hike you've ever done? How did you make it through that hike?

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