6 - 7
FATMAP difficulty grade
This loop hike ecompasses some of the most dramatic terrain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and one of the few 4,000-foot ascents to be found in the Eastern US.
There are multiple ways to reach the summit of Mt.
The shortest way is a 5.6-mile out and back from Mt.
Sterling Gap, but the more scenic and varied loop of 17 miles is described here.
It begins and ends at Big Creek Campground, linking four separate trails along creeks and ridgelines for a difficult but rewarding tour of this corner of the Smoky Mountains.
It can be done as a long day hike but is best enjoyed as a 1-2 night backpacking trip.
All backcountry camping requires a permit and campsite reservations from the national park. Baxter Creek Campground is a short drive from Interstate 40, but the hike leaves road noise and day hike crowds behind after only a few miles.
Begin along the Big Creek Trail, a wide gravelled path that leads gently upward through a forested valley above a tumbling creek.
Many swimming holes and waterfalls, most notably Midnight Hole at mile 1.5 and Mouse Creek falls at mile 2.0, where most day hikers turn around. Shortly after Mouse Creek Falls, the trail crosses a bridge over Big Creek.
The grade gradually steepens as you move up the valley, but the real climb begins after turning left onto Swallow Fork Trail at Walnut Bottom (mile 5.5).
Just past the intersection is the first possible campsite, Lower Walnut Bottom #37. Swallow Fork Trail follows a steep drainage straight up the side of Mt.
Sterling, climbing 2,000 feet in about 4 miles.
Watch the forest change as you ascend, from tall mixed hardwoods like oak and poplar to stunted trees and an abundance of conifer.
The trail gains the ridgeline at a 4-way intersection.
Turn left to follow the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail for the final push to the summit.
You will soon be weaving among dark stands of fir, which grow only at these high elevations in the Smokies. At about mile 11 you reach the 5,840-foot top of Mt.
To this point, views have been limited by trees, but a lookout tower on the summit provides a panorama by climbing the stairs above the canopy.
The campsite here, #38, makes an excellent but possibly chilly place to spend the night. The other end of the ridge has even better scenery than the ascent.
A small mountaintop meadow shortly below the summit grants a view to the southeast, then re-enters the fir glades to continue downward.
The trail joins the Baxter Creek drainage to find its way back to Big Creek and your starting point. Sources: https://www.outdoorproject.com/adventures/north-carolina/hikes/mount-sterling-big-creek-loop https://www.backpacker.com/trips/great-smoky-mountains-national-park-big-creek-loop https://www.hikingproject.com/trail/7005578/mt-sterling-loop-big-creek-baxter-creek http://www.protrails.com/trail/464/great-smoky-mountains-national-park-mouse-creek-falls