Beginning in the Big Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP), this hike climbs 4,200 feet over 6.1 miles (factoring in a few downhills on the hike up, the trail climbs roughly 650 feet of elevation per mile) to the top of Mt. Sterling – surrounded by spruce and fir trees, and marked by a 60-foot fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 that still stands.
The Baxter Creek approach demands an average to moderate level of physical fitness for those attempting the trek, but provides one of the most diverse hikes in GSMNP, switching from dense hardwoods and mosses at the beginning, then thinning out to tall conifers at the end. The summit is a few hundred feet shy of crossing the alpine level like some of the neighboring peaks – the level that stretches between the snow and tree line, often home to unique plants and wildlife – but the proximity gives it a distinctive ecosystem not frequently found in other areas of the park or Western North Carolina.
The Mt. Sterling Trail is wide and easily to follow – it should be noted that there are no blaze markers, but none are needed. With the exception of a short couple hundred yards of level trail at the junction with Long Bunk Trail, you will hike at a moderately difficult grade of 700 feet per mile throughout.
The trail, itself, is rocky and offers little views – though some of the switchbacks offer more to see in winter when the trees are leafless. A power line also runs to the peak of the mountain, and there are a few clearings to make way for the lines that provide a view of Cataloochee Valley below.
As you approach the summit, follow the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail to the right. This is also called the Benton MacKaye Trail, named for one of the original founders of the Appalachian Trail. You’re almost there when you reach the hitching posts for the horses, and after following the trail, again, to the right, you’ll see the fire tower and know you’ve reached the top.
While the fire tower at the top is 81 years old, hikers can climb the wooden plank steps to the top where the park service has left the trap door to the tower open for visitors. Despite the rust, lack of double hand railings, and 60+ mile per hour wind gusts, I slowly ascended to the top to take in the view. The summit has been incredibly windy each time I’ve hiked, and the fire tower leans with the gusts – for all intents and purposes, it’s safe, but nerve wracking at times. Hiking up a few platforms offers the same views of Mt. Cammerer, the Balsam Mountains, and beyond.
There is an established fire pit and camp site at the top, which is nice to take advantage of for a quick break before heading back down the mountain. The hike up took approximately 2 to 2.5 hours, and the return hike took about an hour and fifteen minutes – the loose rocks posing a little bit of a challenge on the return.