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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Baxter Creek to Mount Sterling - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

View from Mount Sterling fire tower

May 7th, 2014

For our last Smokies hike, M and I planned to go to the top of Mount Sterling to the fire tower and then loop down Swallow Fork and Big Creek trails, totaling 16.6 miles. The day after we had hiked the Snake Den Ridge Loop, we drove from Cosby campground to the Baxter Creek trailhead. We were on the road by 5 AM and while driving in the dark, we felt motion sickness wash over us. Looking at the national park map, we did not realize that Highway 32 snaked around more twists and turns than the map led us to believe. For future travelers, be forewarned that this road is exceptionally serpentine and one could bypass it by going on Interstate Highway 40. For us, what was supposed to be a 20 minute drive turned into an hour long excursion.

Once we arrived, we strapped on our packs and crossed the bridge over Big Creek. Baxter Creek Trail was 6.2 miles long with a 4,200 ft ascent in order to reach Mt. Sterling. It was the only hikers-only trail that we trekked in the Smokies so I was ecstatic to not be on rocky terrain or worry about stepping on horse poop. This portion of trail was also the Benton MacKaye Trail northern terminus.

Most of the hike was through emerald forests full of vegetation and though the trail was well maintained, it had many areas where we had to hike over/under felled trees. The soft mulched and dirt trails were easy on our joints even with the elevation gain we had to endure. After 4 miles with switchbacks and ever changing forest scenery, we reached the portion of the hike where the terrain changed from steep forest floors to boulder filled mountainsides. The moss and fern covered boulders were a most surreal sight to take-in and renewed our energies. We knew we were getting closer to the top.

About 5 miles in, we passed an overhanging rock with a tiny cave on the left side of the trail. A little ways ahead, we met two hikers who had camped overnight at the top. They told us of a spur trail that led to a spring, the only water source we would have during the 16.6 miles. Since we didn't need to refill our water bladders, we quickly hiked the last quarter mile to the fire tower. M persuaded me to go up the fire tower even though heights aren't my forte. At the top, we were rewarded with clear views of the Smoky Mountains making the fire tower excursion well worth the effort. With the tranquility of the undisturbed forests and the solitude of being the only hikers to go up Mt. Sterling via Baxter Creek, we thoroughly enjoyed this hike and felt that this was the only way to reach the top.

We hiked on Baxter Creek Trail in blue to Mt. Sterling. 6.2 mi with 4,200 ft ascent. The rest of the hike we did in purple.
Start of the hike. 6.2 miles to go. Bridge crossing over Big Creek

Well-maintained wood chip trail. Baxter Creek Trail

Rock formations along Baxter Creek Trail

Gorgeous lush foliage, great footpath, beautiful hike. Baxter Creek Trail

Side view from the trail. Baxter Creek Trail

Dog hobble that grew along the trail. Baxter Creek Trail

Changing forests. Different than at the start of the trail. Rhododendron in the top right corner.

Creek crossing on Baxter Creek Trail

Going up. Looking down the right side of trail.

About 2 miles in. Trail on the left then it veers to the right and rounds the cliff on the far right behind the trees.

Rounding the cliff edge. Trail goes left on this switchback.
Rhododendron tunnel on Baxter Creek Trail

A huge sour wood tree (?) on the trail

Gorgeous trail with the sun peaking through on Baxter Creek

Change in scenery again. The trail continues to climb.

Tulip tree (?) along the trail. Baxter Creek

One of many obstacles we had to deal with. However, this made the hike fun and challenging.

Painted trillium grew along the Baxter Creek Trail

On the sunnier ridge with yet another down tree to maneuver through. Baxter Creek

M hiking through the mess along Baxter Creek Trail

More rhododendron along the trail

Baxter Creek Trail starts to get more rocky

Baxter Creek Trail goes through spruce and hemlocks

Very cool to see trees growing on top of boulders. Baxter Creek Trail

Moss covered rocks and the trail continues to climb. Less than 2 more miles to the end!

Amazing boulder strewn trail through spruce and fir forest along Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling

The most picturesque sight along Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling. Love the moss, ferns, boulders, and trees. 

Rock overhang around 5.5 miles. Cave is on the left.

Tiny cave under the rock overhang along Baxter Creek

Less boulders but the trail still climbs. Almost to the end. Spur trail is around this area.

First sight of the fire tower on top of Mount Sterling!

Trail sign for Baxter Creek

M going up the fire tower on Mt. Sterling in Smoky Mountains

GIS marker for Mt. Sterling

Views from the top of fire tower on Mount Sterling

Views from the top of fire tower on Mount Sterling

M and I in the rickety fire tower

More views from the top of fire tower on Mount Sterling

Views from the top of fire tower on Mount Sterling

Going down the open and exposed fire tower stairs

Follow trail to Mount Sterling Ridge Trail

Campsite #38 on top of Mt. Sterling

Trail now turns into horse trail conditions, littered with rocks. We head downhill now

Trail gets rockier and rockier. Ran into a deer along the trail. It's hiding in the grass on the right.

End of Baxter Creek Trail. This is junction for Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. Take this until it meets up with Swallow Fork.