Hiking Project Logo

Mt. Sterling Loop (Big Creek / Baxter Creek)

  4.4 ( 35 ) Favorite


17.7 mile 28.6 kilometer loop


Ascent: 4,234' 1,290 m
Descent: -4,233' -1,290 m
High: 5,802' 1,769 m
Low: 1,681' 512 m


Avg Grade: 9% (5°)
Max Grade: 28% (15°)


No Dogs
Driving directions Take a virtual tour
Zoom in to see details
Map Key

Trail shared by Max Willner

A three-day journey or long day hike along two large creeks leading to splendid panoramic views from a fire tower.

Max Willner

Features Birding · Cave · Fall Colors · River/Creek · Swimming · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife


Big Creek has some amazing swimming holes, the best of which is Midnight Hole, shortly after Mouse Creek Falls. Following the Big Creek Trail, hikers will make their way to the lovely campsite at Walnut Bottom, before continuing on to the Mt. Sterling fire tower (campsites directly next to it) and then back towards the Big Creek Campground.

Be sure to download the North Carolina area in the Hiking Project mobile app before heading out, there's not much service in the park! You can also view the National Park map here.

Need to Know

All campsites must be registered with the Great Smoky National Park.


Beginning at the Big Creek campground, follow the sign to the Big Creek trailhead. Roughly 1.5 miles in, visitors can find the Midnight Hole Falls and the Mouse Creek Falls at 2 miles.

This is ideal for those looking for a short journey with a nice view of the falls. It's 5.1 miles from the campground to Walnut Bottom (Campsite 37), with a moderate elevation gain. At the campsite, there is ample room for tents and hammocks and a water source in close proximity. Multiple fire pits can be found at the campsite and there is usually a decent supply of firewood in the surrounding area.

There is a significant elevation gain from the campsite at Walnut Bottom (Campsite 37) to Mt. Sterling. This is where the trail becomes strenuous, and using extra caution is highly recommended. Leaving the campsite, hikers must backtrack (not even a tenth of a mile), where they will see a junction where Big Creek Trail and Swallow Fork Trail meet. Following Swallow Fork Trail, visitors will cover 4 miles where they will gradually move out of the forest and onto the Mt. Sterling Ridge.

At 5,179 feet, there is a 4-way trail intersection. It's also a relatively open area, and a great spot to catch a breather before finishing the climb. Mt. Sterling can be accessed by following the Baxter Creek Trail, which will be an additional 663-foot elevation gain.

Atop Mt. Sterling, there is a horse camp and multiple campsites. Again, there is a decent supply of firewood and a nearby water source (.5 miles down Baxter Creek towards Big Creek Campground). The fire tower is accessible, although one should be cautious. There are rails in place to hold on to as you ascend the steps, but this is not a good idea for children unless supervised. The tower provides a spectacular panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains (along with the mountains of North Carolina), one of the best views in the National Park.

For the final stretch, hikers can follow Baxter Creek Trail back down to the Big Creek campground. This is 6.2 miles with a 4,100-foot elevation loss - a rather steep descent. There are multiple points at which one can access water sources on the way back.

Trail Summary:
Big Creek Trail - 5.1 miles, 1,200 foot gain
Swallow Fork Trail - 4.0 miles, 2,200 foot gain
Mt. Sterling Trail - 1.8 miles, 660 foot gain
Baxter Creek Trail - 6.2 miles, 4,100-foot loss

Flora & Fauna

As with any trail in the Smokies, you might see black bears. There are abundant salamanders (31 different species) in the creeks. Spring wildflowers peak from early April through late May along the entire route, with some later blooms at the higher elevations.

For more information on black bears, refer to this webpage:

History & Background

During the American Civil War, Captain Albert Teague of the Confederate States Army apprehended three deserters: George and Henry Grooms, and Mitchell Caldwell. Teague forced the three to march from Big Creek to Mt. Sterling where they were then executed.

The fire tower was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a relief program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the New Deal to provide jobs to individuals in need of employment.

While the fire tower is abandoned, it is equipped with radio capabilities. The tower is accessible, although caution should be exercised - the steps are sturdy and lined with guard rails, but the tower room itself is in a questionable state.

Hiked this trail?

We need help with the following missing trail information:

Family Friendly, ADA Accessible

Is something wrong? Let us know. Have photos to share? Help fellow hikers know what's here.


Rate This Featured Hike

Rate Quality

   Clear Rating

Rate Difficulty

Share This Hike

Check In


Sep 2, 2019
Nic Brauer
Beautiful trail. Strenuous for a beginner carrying a 40+ lb pack, but well worth the experience.
Aug 18, 2019
Alex Perez
Watch out for snakes 18mi
Jun 28, 2019
Nate Lee
Overnight backpack trip, this was a wonderful hike. 17.7mi
Jun 20, 2019
James Marion
Jun 10, 2019
Lola Tche
Jun 4, 2019
Kristen Wahlen
May 5, 2019
Andrew Bauer
May 3, 2019
Patty Walker
Beautiful trip, abundant wildflowers. Tough climb up to the tower but well worth it.

Trail Ratings

  4.4 from 35 votes


in Big Creek


  4.4 from 35 votes
5 Star
4 Star
3 Star
2 Star
1 Star
Featured Hike Rankings


in Big Creek


676 Views Last Month
45,892 Since Jun 8, 2015



Forest on Baxter Creek Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Jul 28, 2015 near Cove Creek, NC
Mouse Creek Falls © Ryan Jones
Jan 16, 2016 near Cove Creek, NC
Midnight Hole © Ryan Jones
Jan 16, 2016 near Cove Creek, NC
Forest on Baxter Creek Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Jul 28, 2015 near Cove Creek, NC
The awesome panoramic view atop the Mt. Sterling fire tower.
Oct 31, 2015 near Cove Creek, NC
A sunny morning on the Baxter Creek Trail about a mile or so above its namesake creek, as it passes through a rhododendron tunnel.
Apr 22, 2019 near Cove Creek, NC


Hiking Project is part of the REI Co-op family,
where a life outdoors is a life well lived.

Shop REI Hiking