Slickrock Creek Trail 18M Hike - Tapoco, North Carolina

Min Elevation:  1199'   Max Elevation:  5380'     Elevation Gain: 4181'     Photo Album
November 9, 2014 - Slickrock Creek Trail #42 in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness is
considered one of the twelve toughest hikes in America by Backpacker Magazine.  The upper
section is widely acknowledged as the hardest hike in the southern Appalachians, termed
"the Ballbuster" by locals.  Following the Slickrock Trail along Slickrock Creek is leisurely
until the trail rockets skyward 4000 feet through dense rhododendrons before summiting at 
the Bob Stratton Bald at 5380' for spectacular views of untrammeled wilderness.  The
descent is just as dramatic following Haoe Lead from Naked Ground over Haoe Bald at
5249', Hangover Lead, and the Ike Branch Trails back to the car at the TH.

This adventure was absolutely wonderful and wicked.  After running a technical 50K the day
before at Sky Valley in Georgia, up and down Rabun Bald two times, I arose after a restless
night sleeping in the car at the trailhead to 36-degree temps and a body that wasn't tired
from the race at all.  After a look in the mirror to make sure it was me, I pulled my shorts
on and wet shoes from yesterday, grabbed my pack and was making tracks before the dawn.

This would be a solo adventure as all my sensible friends had better places to be.  In
retrospect, I was glad I didn't have to share the tentative challenge of this day, as there
were some questionable times when I wondered if I was even going to survive this.  The
southern Appalachians are wilder and more formidable than one might imagine from reading
a guide book.  The trails, which are not blazed, are also not maintained, leaving a lot of
room for doubt as to whether you are even still on the trail.  An incredible number of blow
downs, windfalls, and lean-overs impede steady progress.  Despite very manageable
gradients, there is nothing easy about hiking these trails.


Initially I imagined shuffling along at a mild jog, covering ground at a reasonable 4 mph 
even with the climbs, but soon discovered 2 mph of progress was all this terrain would allow.
The trail begins along Lake Calderwood, the beautiful backwater from what would have been
the beautiful Little Tennessee River before it was dammed.  The narrow singletrack is
angled such that I slipped off its ledge multiple times in the profuse deciduous leaf litter
that covered the rocky, rooty pathway.  Once the trail turned south to follow Slickrock
Creek it leveled off as it wound its way through abundant rhododenron.  The creek was
named by early native Cherokees who must have encountered the same difficulty in their
movement back and forth across the greasy rocks lining its course.

The trail required 12 crossings in its 7+ miles with a couple more thrown in inadvertently
because I lost my way.  The roar of its waters never ceased for the entire traverse.  With
company, conversation would have had to be done at a shout.  This is one rushing, raging
river of runoff.  Given that the season is autumn, and that precipitation has been minimal,
there was an incredible amount of water coming out of these steep mountains.  I would
not attempt such passage in the spring or early summer.

Each crossing was tenuous.  While I may never have been at risk of drowning, the ever-
present threat of losing my footing and falling in never eased, even as the stream narrowed
at its upper reaches.  At one crossing I used two lean-over trees to avoid wading across.
My aerial adventure was exhilarating; had I lost control here it would have made quite a 
splash.  (Should have done a selfie here.  Oh well!!!)  

The fall foliage was brilliant and the air brisk for much of the morning as I hiked up through
the shadows of the precipitous mountains on either side.  Spying nice sized trout here and
there I vowed to return with hook, line, and sinker.  The morning ticked away before I 
reached ten miles.  Realizing the day had reached half way, but I had not, I chose to divert
from my original circuitous plan and cut my day short to avoid getting stuck on a trail that
was hard to follow in broad daylight.  A night hike, despite having a full moon, would have
been impossible.  As I was having difficulty finding trail, I turned around after five hours and
examined my topo maps for an alternative route back to the start that would avoid all the
stream crossings.  There are not too many things that terrify me, but wading into white 
water raging around you comes close.

I prefer climbing steep inclines in slippery leaves, so identified a patchwork of trails that
would zig and zag me back to the car.  Over the course of the next three hours I followed
Nichols Cove Trail, Yellowhammer Trail, Hangover Lead, and Ike Branch Trail, paths named
for former denizens of these hollows, and a woodpecker.  While there was evidence that 
the area had been somewhat settled and timbered a hundred years ago, they didn't
cut the virgin beach, some of which today may approach 300 years old, towering over much
of the rest of the dense canopy.  I encountered a circle of stones in the middle of the
forest that marked the grave of twin baby girls that died after birth out there on the edge of 
the frontier in 1914.  I couldn't help but imagine what it was like then; what hardships and
joys early settlers experienced.  A day hike crossing hollow to spur to hollow to spur all
afternoon was rigorous enough.  It made me appreciate how soft I have become.

After eight hours and 18 miles I reached the car, somewhat exhausted, with bloody shins
and thorny scratches up and down my bare legs.  The day put my racing into perspective,
if nothing else.  Running pales in comparison to the arduous endeavor of negotiating such a
landscape as this.  Beautiful, stark, wild, and still dangerous.  One missed step, rattlesnake
bite, fall into the creek, or getting stranded in such remote wilderness in the cold of
darkness could bring a tragic end to an otherwise glorious adventure.  I don't forget to
give thanks for the grace that surrounds me.  After a five+ hour drive home I get to ponder
it all, reflect on life, and dream of my next foray into wild places.