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Mt. Sterling Loop (Big Creek / Baxter Creek)

Difficult
 4.5 (42) RECOMMENDED ROUTE

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


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Map Key

17.7

Miles

28.6

KM

Loop

5,802' 1,769 m

High

1,681' 512 m

Low

4,234' 1,290 m

Up

4,233' 1,290 m

Down

9%

Avg Grade (5°)

28%

Max Grade (15°)

Dogs No Dogs

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

Overview

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.

Description

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:
nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/b…

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.

Contacts

Shared By:

Max Willner

Trail Ratings

  4.5 from 42 votes

#1

in Big Creek

#122

Overall
  4.5 from 42 votes
5 Star
62%
4 Star
29%
3 Star
5%
2 Star
5%
1 Star
0%
Recommended Route Rankings

#1

in Big Creek

#122

Overall
1,109 Views Last Month
53,342 Since Jun 8, 2015
Difficult

0%
0%
13%
3%
82%
3%

Photos

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

Weather


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Check-Ins

Aug 7, 2020
Nate Akers
17.7mi
Aug 1, 2020
Vivek Patel
Backpacked, starting at Baxter creek and finishing the loop and big creek. Baxter is a steep, water source . 4 Miles from fire tower/campsite 38. 17.7mi
Mar 12, 2020
Dillon McGraw
3 day, 2 night trip with Noah, Alex and Matt 17.7mi
Nov 17, 2019
Kara Ivey
Thankful for being through with Mt Sterling trail loop! — 2h 40m
Nov 16, 2019
Kara Ivey
Nov 16, 2019
Gary Stalnaker
Nov 15, 2019
Kara Ivey
Car at Big Creek 5.2mi
Nov 1, 2019
Jeff Meadows
awesome trail. fall color down low and snow up high.