Big/Baxter Creeks with a view from Mt. Sterling – 8/28/11

On Sunday, a friend and I went to the Big Creek area of the Smokies, a place where we’d never been before.  Big Creek is absolutely stunning and truly seems unspoiled when it comes to places in the Smokies.  We both were instantly in love and have decided to go back to this area again very soon!

We began our hike from the Big Creek picnic area and it was a little chilly here Sunday morning.  Lots of shade and early morning meant for cooler temps, so it was great we were hiking to warm up a little!  We began our slow and gentle climb of Big Creek Trail, which is 5.1 miles.  The trail follows a former logging railroad, which was turned into a Jeep road by the CCC.  Walking went quickly up the gentle grade.  At 1.5 miles, we saw Midnight Hole, which is a deep and dark swimming pool used by hikers.  Even though the creek was running pretty low due to lack of rain, it was still pretty deep in some places.  At 2.3 miles we came to a very large, seemingly new bridge running high over the creek. There were tall walls of solid rock on the other side of the creek, which were actually blasted out at the time the railroad was put in.  We continued the gentle climb and passed Brakeshoe Spring at mile 2.8, which appeared to be dry.  Just shy of the 2-hour mark, we made it to our first trailhead at 5.1 miles.  We decided to go ahead up to the Low Gap Trail, 0.2 miles away, just for the sake of going.  Campsite 37 (hikers only!) lies between the two trailheads.  It was a gorgeous site right on Big Creek.  Plenty of water and easy terrain.  I think I know where I’d like to do an easy backpack!  

We made our way back down to the Swallow Fork Trail and got ready for our big climb of the day.  The first 1.5 miles or so were gentle like Big Creek Trail.  We walked along quickly and the trail was just gorgeous.  Lots of greenery and the sounds of the creek made for an awesome walk in the woods.  Add to that the fact that the weather was mild and the sky was blue, clear, and cloudless.  We made it to the foot bridge at Swallow Fork and the water was just gorgeous.  About 0.5 miles further, we reached our first unbridged crossing at McGinty Creek, which was very low and easy to rock-hop. Now, the true climb was to begin.  Looking to your left, you can see remnants of an old campsite that hasn’t been used legally since the early 1970s.  It was flat, lush, and next to the creek.  Looking across the creek, you could tell that the old railroad used to run over there as well.  The climb was never difficult, but was constant and just enough to keep you moving.  At mile 3.1, the trail takes a sharp right turn to go up the side of the mountain.  They really need a sign here because we continued straight and ran into some backpackers who’d done the same.  They let us know that it just goes straight down and stopped looking like a trail after you got to the bottom.  There were only a few sticks at the junction, looking more like light blow-down than blocker to keep you on the right path.  

From here up to mile 4, the climb was steeper, but again never difficult.  On this last stretch we did end up seeing some wildflowers for the first time that day.  There were pink turtlehead and what I think was whorled wood aster.  After one last push up the hill, we’d made it to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trailhead at Pretty Hollow Gap and stopped for lunch under the blue sky.  

After lunch, it was a short 1.5 mile climb to campsite 38 at the base of the fire tower. The short climb was a bit rocky, but ended on a gentle ridge line on a grassy knoll area. Through some of the trees, we could see a view down into Maggie Valley and the promise of amazing views from Mt. Sterling kept us going.  We met back up with the backpackers, after leapfrogging with them at Pretty Hollow Gap, at the junction of Mt. Sterling Trail and continued up the short 0.4 miles to the tower.  When we got there, the skies were clear and the views were stunning.  We climbed up the 6 flights of narrow and steep stairs to the platform and had 360-degree views of at least 5 ridge lines into NC and all of the Smokies, as well as Max Patch to the east.  We took a lot of photos and then made a careful climb down the stairs to the Baxter Creek Trailhead, a trail where we’d lose 4100 feet of elevation in 6.1 miles.

About 0.3 miles down the trail we came to an illegal campsite with trash in the “fire pit” at the junction of the water source for campsite 38.  People wonder why there were signs up saying aggressive bears are in the area…  We continued the steep climb downhill through forests full of large, dead fir trees and dead hemlocks.  The forest was interesting on this trail, as all the large trees were dead, but the ground was usually covered by thick mosses and ferns, keeping the landscape green.  Two miles down the trail we came to a switchback with a sign pointing us in the right direction of the trail, as Big Branch Manway intersects here.  We also saw lots of galax along this part of the trail.  We continued downward into a rhododendron tunnel that was extensive.  When there were breaks in the rhodo tunnels, there would be chestnut snags to the sides of the trails.  It was encouraging to see sprouts from the root systems, but also sad knowing that the blight would get them too as soon as they grew large enough for the bark to split.  We continued down the mountain in the strangely green dead tree forest.  With about 1.75 miles to do down the trail, it started to level out a bit and the large boulders we’d seen at Big Creek were back, as well as a few very large rock walls that had been blasted in the days of the railroad.  We’d crossed several very dry creek beds in this flatter portion of trail and a few wetter seeps, but nothing that wasn’t easily rock-hopped.  Very suddenly, you can hear the water of Baxter Creek and evidence of CCC trail work is everywhere with rock walls.  

The end of the trail definitely snuck up on us with lots of people at the picnic area watching their kids play in the creek.  We crossed the bridge and were at the trailhead at about 4 p.m.  We saw lots of picnicing families and thought about grabbing us a few hotdogs and chips before we left.  Big Creek is definitely a gem in the Smokies and I can’t wait to return!

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