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Hit the Road: an adventure to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest


Photo of Lake Santeetlah by Reggie Tidwell

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We’re kicking off our summer road trip seriesHit the Road — with a trip to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest: home to 400 year-old trees and one of the largest sites of old-growth forest in the eastern US.

With its awe-inspiring hiking trails and close proximity to the stunning Lake Santeetlah, this remote area (with the closest town being Robbinsville) is a great destination for experienced adventurers + novice nature seekers alike.

Before you start packing your bags, here’s everything you need to know about the area + our insider recommendations.

Drive time: ~1.5 hours

Est. Robbinsville population: 854

Avg. high in June: 85°

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

AVLtoday Editor Laura, with her partner Aaron and dog Iroh, for scale. | Photo by AVLtoday

🥾Things to do

Hike with the big trees

  • In the heart of Joyce Kilmer, there’s an easy, two-mile loop trail that takes you deep into old growth forest that not even loggers managed to reach. Expect towering tulip poplars, rushing streams, and lush layers of fern throughout the hike. Do not rely on your GPS to guide you through this winding route — we recommend these written directions.

Get panoramic views at Maple Springs Overlook

  • You may want to pack a picnic for this one, as it’s the perfect spot to watch the sunset and moonrise (and a stone’s throw away from the loop trail mentioned above). Follow the boardwalk out to the deck for a sweeping view of the Slickrock Creek basin, which includes the sparkling Lake Santeetlah off to the right.

Hang out at Lake Santeetlah

  • Head over to Cheoah Point to swim, fish, boat, or simply laze in the sun along one of the most unspoiled lakes in North Carolina. You can also rent kayaks, ski boats, or pontoon boats at the Santeetlah Marina.

This massive quart of blackberry lemonade cost only $5 and it was amazing. | Photo by AVLtoday

🍽️ Fuel up

T.Dubbs, 448 Rodney Orr Bypass

  • The ultimate post-adventure meal awaits at this local barbecue joint. Burgers like the “Dragon Slayer” and “Hotmess,” the latter which comes topped with pulled pork + bacon, are guaranteed to put you in a food coma. There’s also lighter options available like the BLT sandwich and blackened chicken salad. See Facebook for more info.

Graham Coffee Co, 61 Johns Dr.

  • Caffiends, this one’s for you. Snag coffee or an espresso drink at this conveniently stationed food truck. There’s also bagels, breakfast biscuits, or hot pretzels on deck. Pro tip: Don’t miss the Pineapple Whip truck across the street, which has sublime tropical + dairy-free desserts.

Miller’s Nak Nak Shack, Rodney Orr Bypass

  • The best lemonade that Editor Laura has ever had (not an exaggeration) can be found at this little roadside trailer operated by Graham County local Johnny Miller. Customize your order with flavors like blue raspberry, watermelon, mango, and Starburst (modeled after the essence of the pink Starburst, specifically). Johnny also makes stellar kettle cornand if you’re into them, cracklins.

Photo via @riversedgetreehouses

🏕️ Cozy campsites + cabins

River’s Edge Treehouse Resort, 195 Old US 129

  • Become one with the trees at one of the resort’s six treehouses (one of which is handicap accessible). Perks of staying here, besides the serene views, include king memory foam beds, a gas grill, free wifi, and fishing gear available for rent.

Snowbird Mountain Lodge, 4633 Santeetlah Rd.

  • If you want a wilderness experience without having to rough it — this historic, scenic lodge is your best bet. TV is intentionally absent to encourage true respite for visitors, and reader Reiney A. tells us that the lodge’s “gourmet food is delicious” and that “they will even pack you a lunch if you’re going out for the day.”

Horse Cove Campground, Joyce Kilmer Road, Tapoco

  • This rustic campground is perched right at the entrance of Joyce Kilmer. Eight of these primitive campsites are available year round for $15 a night. While there’s no plumbing or running water, there is a creek nearby. Spots are first-come, first-serve.

Cheoah Point Campground, 1373 Thunderbird Mountain Rd.

  • Just 20 minutes from Joyce Kilmer, this oasis of a campground sits on a peninsula of Lake Santeetlah and is an amazing spot for paddleboarding, kayaking, swimming, and other shoreline recreation. Be sure to make a reservation in advance.
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