Remember the commercial where those guys are sitting around the campfire drinking beer and one of them says, "You know, it just doesn't get any better than this"? Well, he could have been talking about the loop hike along Big Creek and the summit of Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's one of the finest backpacking trips in the southern Appalachians, even without the beer. With cascading streams, waterfalls, unique geological formations, old-growth forests, historical significance, prime wildflower viewing, and incomparable views from the historic fire tower atop 5,842-foot Mount Sterling, this grand adventure features everything the Smokies are famous for. If you're not up for a two-night backpack, you can shorten the hike to an overnighter. If that's still too much for you, Big Creek Trail makes a terrific day hike.
It's a wet Friday in mid-April when I pull into the gravel parking area for the Big Creek picnic area. Though remote, the Big Creek section of the Smokies sees an increasing number of visitors, and on weekends between April and November you can expect lots of company. On this rainy day, however, the only people here are thrill-seeking kayakers who came to ride the Class III-VI rapids on the rain-swollen creek. They can have it; I came to see the waterfalls and wildflowers, and to watch the sunrise from Mount Sterling. I don't care anything about busting my butt on Big Creek's boulders.
On the far side of the picnic area lies a steel footbridge arching over Big Creek. The bridge marks the trailhead for Baxter Creek Trail, a 6.1-mile tortuous route to the summit of Mount Sterling. I'll be camping Saturday night on Sterling, but I'll use an easier route to get there. The plan is to hike a little over 5 miles on Big Creek Trail to the Lower Walnut Bottom Backcountry Campsite #37 for the first night's stay. On Saturday, I'll take Swallow Fork Trail up the mountain to Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. From there I'll continue along the ridgeline to Mount Sterling Backcountry Campsite #38 on Sterling's summit. On Sunday, I'll use Baxter Creek Trail to return to the parking area for a total round-trip hike of 17.4 miles.
After packing up, I walk back up the entrance road a short distance to the Big Creek Trailhead. Even though it's early in the morning and I have only 5.3 miles to hike today, I know it will be late-perhaps after dark-before I make it to Walnut Bottom. There's just too much to see and photograph along this trail.
The trail is an old motor road built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who had a camp near the present-day parking area. Much of the trail follows an old logging railroad grade, and as such, it is wide and well graded. Logging occurred over most of the Big Creek watershed before park establishment. I see occasional reminders along the hike-an old steel cable poking out of the ground, a rusted railroad spike lying in the trail, and nearly pure stands of pencil-straight, second-growth yellow-poplar trees, which is a sure sign of clear-cut logging in the mountains.
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The wildflower show begins right from the start. In the first mile, the tally includes yellow trillium, stonecrop, crested dwarf iris, golden ragwort, chickweed, long-spurred violet, fire pink, purple phacelia, fringed phacelia, toothwort, squirrel corn, Canada violet, white wake robin, and wild geranium. I've hiked all over the Smokies, but the wildflower displays on this trail are unsurpassed.
At a little over a mile into the hike, I look up the right bank at a huge rock overhang. Known as the Rock House, this massive geologic structure supposedly served as temporary shelter for loggers before park establishment. On this rainy day, it's easy to imagine the early loggers crowded under the overhang. From this point on, the trail never strays far from Big Creek. Now my attention turns away from the wildflowers and to the thundering cascades in the stream. About 0.2 mile from Rock House there is a nice waterfall on a side stream that drops directly into the far side of Big Creek. In a few weeks when the leaves come out, it won't be visible from the trail.
Less than 0.1 mile farther (1.5 miles from the start) is one of the most scenic and photogenic spots on Big Creek. Two boulders restrict the entire flow of Big Creek to only a few feet, with the water dropping eight feet into a large, dark-as-midnight pool known as Midnight Hole. With the rainy day providing perfect conditions for photographs, I go through several rolls of film at this location. The rainbow trout I see swimming in Midnight Hole in an almost teasing fashion should be mighty glad I brought a camera and not a fly rod. Half a mile farther up the trail is one of my favorite waterfalls in North Carolina. Mouse Creek Falls drops directly into Big Creek over moss-covered boulders. There goes another roll of film.
Shortly beyond Mouse Creek Falls, the trail crosses Big Creek for the first time on a wide bridge and then passes through dense tangles of dog hobble. The next two miles feature even better wildflower viewing than the first mile, with several springs and seeps on the left bank covered in a profusion of herbaceous growth. One of these spots is a well-known landmark. Back during the logging days, a train engineer placed a brake shoe on the dripping bank to collect the water-in a fashion similar to the pipes you see at some of the park's backcountry campsite springs. Brakeshoe Spring, as it became known, was a regular stopping point for hikers for more than fifty years until some bonehead stole the brakeshoe in the early 1970s.
At 5.1 miles, Big Creek Trail passes Swallow Fork Trail on the left and continues 400 feet to cross Big Creek at Lower Walnut Bottom Backcountry Campsite #37. Walnut Bottom is the sight of a pre-park logging camp; today, it is one of the most scenic campsites in the park. From late March to early May, it also features one of the finest wildflower fields in the Smokies, with carpets of spring beauty appearing first and fringed phacelia blooming a little later. Even though it's close to dark and I have to set up camp, I can't help but spend some time exploring the area. I'll set up the tent with a flashlight if necessary.
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With the steady rain over the past several days, all available firewood is soaked and so I don't bother trying to get a fire started. I fire up the backpacking stove instead and heat up a couple of packs of Ramen noodles. After supper, I lie awake in the sleeping bag thinking about the day's events. If I hiked back out tomorrow, this would have been a grand adventure. As it is, I have much left to see. I also remind myself that the easy hiking-the nearly flat hike to Walnut Bottom-is all behind me. Tomorrow, I have some climbing to do.
The rain breaks overnight and the morning dawns clear, with temperatures in the mid-forties. It's perfect weather for hiking up a mountain, but I know tonight is going be cold on top of Mount Sterling. After a quick breakfast of flavored oatmeal and coffee, I break camp and start out on Swallow Fork Trail. The first mile or so is on a gentle rise through a scenic, open forest. After crossing Swallow Fork on a picturesque footlog, I cross McGinty Creek and notice several old artifacts off to the left. There are steel hoops and cables and a metal drum that once served as a belt drive for something. No doubt these are relics from the logging days. Imagining what this forest looked like eighty years ago when these artifacts were in use, I am amazed at nature's resiliency.
Wildflowers are especially profuse now as I climb along Swallow Fork, but as the trail gets higher and higher, they become fewer and fewer. By the time I reach Pretty Hollow Gap-4 trail miles and 2,100 feet in elevation above Walnut Bottom-I've climbed back into winter. I can feel it, too, as I take a quick breather. The sweat generated from the climb acts as a heat sink, and I need to keep moving. Three trails lead off from Pretty Hollow Gap. Straight ahead, Pretty Hollow Gap Trail descends to Cataloochee Cove. To the right, Mount Sterling Ridge Trail leads to Laurel Gap Shelter on Balsam Mountain, while to the left it follows the ridgeline 1.4 miles to pick up Mount Sterling Trail for the remaining 0.4-mile climb to Sterling's summit.
As I climbed up Swallow Fork Trail, I couldn't help but notice the changing forest-from mixed hardwoods at Walnut Bottom, to the spruce-fir forest I'm now hiking through. It's been said that driving from Cherokee (under 2,000 feet) to Newfound Gap (5,046 feet) is akin to driving from North Carolina to Canada, and I can see how this could be. Right now, at over 5,400 feet in elevation, and with gusty winds and temperatures in the lower 40s, it sure feels like I'm in Canada.
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I arrive at Mount Sterling before noon, just as planned. Like Lower Walnut Bottom, the campsite here is extremely popular. Even though I made reservations well in advance, site selection is on a first-come basis and I'm glad to be the first person here. After setting up the tent in the most secluded spot I can find, I grab a dromedary bag and head for the spring to stock up on water. At most Smokies campsites, the water source is fairly close by, but obtaining water on Mount Sterling is a chore. I have to hike a quarter mile down Baxter Creek Trail to a side path that leads another few hundred yards to the spring.
Once camp is set and water secured, it's time to enjoy the spectacular scenery from atop the old steel fire tower. The CCC constructed the 60-foot structure in the early 1930s, during the same period in which they built Big Creek and Swallow Fork Trails, and also Baxter Creek Trail, which I'll use tomorrow on my return to the parking area. The view from the fire tower is spectacular in every direction. To the northwest, I can just make out the fire lookout on Mount Cammerer, also constructed by the CCC. (The term "lookout" typically refers to observation structures that are at or near ground level, while "tower" refers to structures built to rise about the trees.) To the east lies Max Patch Mountain, and to the south is Cataloochee Divide, with Cataloochee Cove in the foreground. Mount Guyot, the Smokies' third highest peak, is clearly visible to the west. Later in the evening, I'll climb back up to watch the sun setting behind Guyot. Right now, the wind is whipping up something fierce, so I carefully make my way back down and spend the rest of the afternoon poking around the spruce-fir forest.
It's clear and frigid the next morning as I pull myself out of the sleeping bag an hour before sunrise. The only thing better than watching the sunset from Mount Sterling's fire tower is watching the sunrise from it. The valleys below are often enshrouded in fog, while the surrounding mountains poke tower above in the clear air. As a nature photographer, I've witnessed countless sunrises from locations all over the southern Appalachians, but none can surpass the experience from sixty feet above Mount Sterling. With the sun up, photos made, and my camera tucked back in the pack, I gaze one last time from the top of the tower and recall what Harvey Broome, one of the Smokies' early advocates, once said: "I have never wanted to leave the top of a mountain."
After sunrise, I pack up and head down Baxter Creek Trail through my favorite forest in all the Smokies. Luxuriant mosses cover every square inch of ground. Even in winter, the verdancy reminds me of a southeast Alaska rain forest. After descending enough to leave the Fraser firs and most of the red spruces behind, the trail passes through a section of old-growth deciduous forest that somehow escaped the logger's axe. Ask at the Smokies visitor centers where to see the big trees and you usually hear of Albright Grove, Laurel Falls Trail, or the trail to Ramsey Cascades. Fine destinations indeed, but for old-growth forest, I'll take Baxter Creek Trail.
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While numerous big trees grow right beside the trail, to really get a feel for the place I strike out through the woods to the ridgeline above and go on a wide parallel of the trail for a quarter mile or so. Seeing the enormous silverbells, maples, eastern hemlocks, yellow buckeyes, and yellow-poplars, I can't help but imagine what the entire Big Creek watershed must have looked like before the loggers came.
At 3,800 feet in elevation, the old-growth forest here is still somewhat wintry, but farther down the wildflowers are out and the tree foliage is starting to emerge. In fact, the lower sections of Baxter Creek Trail are as impressive as Big Creek Trail for spring wildflowers, and today is no exception. Trilliums, Dutchman's breeches, wild geraniums, foamflower, violets, and many others grow in profusion. Near the end of the hike, my senses feel like they've gone into overload.
There's still one more site to explore. About 0.4 mile from the parking area, a side trail on the left leads 240 yards to a large stone chimney beside Big Creek-evidence that people not only logged these woods, but lived here as well. At maybe 35 feet high, it's the tallest chimney I've seen in the park. I'm rewarded today with a garter snake sunning on the path and clumps of purple phacelia growing out of the mossy rocks on the chimney.
Once back on the main trail, it takes only a few minutes to get to the parking area. While unshouldering the heavy pack and stuffing it in the back of the truck, I reflect on everything I've experienced in the past forty-eight hours. How sad that most of the Smokies' ten million annual visitors never get out of their car, and those who do rarely venture more than a few hundred yards from the parking area. Harvey Broome once said, "It borders on ignorance to say that one can see or feel the mountains from a motor car." If I hadn't experienced both sides of the coin, I might feel a little insulted by that remark. But having spent many weekends just like this one, I believe Harvey knew just what he was talking about.