By Bill Steiden
It’s a silly little poem, almost a bit of doggerel. But in its day, it was its creator’s greatest hit, known to millions and even sung by some.
I think that I shall never see/
A poem as lovely as a tree…
It’s doubtful the author, Joyce Kilmer, would be much remembered today had it not been for the tragedy of his early death at age thirty-one as a soldier fighting in World War I. In 1935, as momentum grew behind the movement to preserve the East’s vanishing woodlands, the Veterans of Foreign Wars petitioned Washington to establish a memorial to their fallen brother.
In western North Carolina, efforts were already under way to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its tracts of untouched timber. But other scattered tracts of virgin forest that had somehow escaped the loggers’ saws were in need of preservation. The largest of these covered some 3,800 acres along the banks of Little Santeetlah Creek near Robbinsville, N.C., an already remote area that had been rendered largely inaccessible by the construction of the Lake Santeetlah reservoir in 1928.
The U.S. Forest Service purchased the land for the then-princely sum of $28 an acre and in 1936 dedicated the stand of towering oaks, sycamores, poplars, beeches and basswoods, some over 100 feet tall and 400 years old, as the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
The grove here is a remnant of the unbroken broadleaf forest that once covered much of the eastern half of the country. Strolling through the Joyce Kilmer Forest today brings to life the vast, ancient wilderness, described in the novels of such authors as James Fenimore Cooper and Conrad Richter, that American Indians called home and into which the first European settlers ventured some three centuries ago.
Now easily reached via paved forest service roads, the Kilmer forest remains an alternative to the often-overcrowded Smokies. An easy trail winds through the some of the most spectacular trees. Those more intrepid can follow the Naked Ground trail up the pristine Little Santeetlah Creek into the deeper reaches of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, a roadless area with some of the region’s finest back-country camping.
For those who want to just park the car and pitch a tent, there are more convenient alternatives. Along the shores of Santeetlah Lake in either direction from the Kilmer forest are numerous primitive campsites. Or, for a greater level of comfort, the National Forest Service maintains the Horse Cove Campground just north of the forest entrance and, on the other side of the lake, Cheoah Point Campground, which offers hot showers.
The Kilmer forest has its far more famous Western analogues in California’s Redwood and Sequoia National Parks. But the first popular accounts of the huge conifers that are the planet’s largest living things came from an encounter in what is now known as Calaveras Big Trees State Park, about equidistant from Sacramento and Stockton.
Legend has it that one Augustus T. Dowd, while hunting to supply game to Gold Rush miners in 1852, stumbled across the largest tree he had ever seen, standing amid a grove of similar giants. The largest still surviving, known as the Agassiz tree, is 250 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter above its base, and is estimated to be 2,000 years old.
Though eventually eclipsed by the discoveries of the even more spectacular redwood groves that became the national parks, the Calaveras stand was for many years the most popular tourist attraction in California. Some damage was done over the years – the original “Discovery Tree” was cut down so specimens of its wood could be shipped East. But redwood is among the most durable of woods, and the stump, once used as an outdoor dance floor, remains along with a section of the felled tree as a reminder of its grandeur.
Lumbering eventually threatened the area. Around the same time as the Kilmer memorial was established, California created a state park to preserve the Calaveras trees, though the battle to acquire what is now the entire extent of the parkland continued for another twenty years.
The park encompasses two stands of redwoods. The original North Grove – the site of Dowd’s fateful encounter — is accessed by an easy 1.5-mile loop trail with interpretive and historical markers. Reaching the much larger South Grove requires a hike of 3.5 to 5 miles, depending on the loop you choose. The longer one takes you to the Agassiz tree.
Two developed campgrounds – North Grove and Oak Grove – offer 129 campsites with restrooms and hot showers. A limited number of primitive campsites are also available. The park operates year-round, and is a popular destination for cross-country skiing in the winter.
Kilmer’s sing-song meter doesn’t quite fit the majesty of these ancient trees. But if his most famous poem has a saving grace, it is that he appeared to recognize that in a closing line whose sentiment is hard to dispute:
Poems are made by fools like me/
But only God can make a tree.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest/Nantahala National Forest
Cheoah Ranger District
Robbinsville, North Carolina
Calaveras Big Trees State Park
Top photo: Giant Sequoia, Sequoia National Park. Photo by Stacey Dougherty.
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at email@example.com.