The night before this hike I was a guest at an event in Asheville hosted by Danny Bernstein as a thank-you to people associated with the creation of her second book, Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage (okay, I accompanied her to scout one hike from the book, but it still got me in!) It was a most enjoyable evening with some well-known members of the area hiking world. And to think I met Danny quite by chance when I signed up for a random CMC hike to test myself for this hiking adventure – or is anything really random?
Early Saturday morning I drove from Asheville to the Big Creek campground to meet my hiking buddy for the day, Jeff (aka Ken, aka Mr. Wonderful) for a long trek up to the Mount Sterling firetower. As soon as I got to the parking lot, Jeff called to say he would be “a little late.” He had a good story involving solo backpacking in Pisgah and finding his campsite in the dark. While I waited I watched the parking area fill up with hikers for this beautiful, warm, finally-spring day in the Smokies.
Once Jeff arrived, we took off walking up Big Creek Trail, passing a few hikers and being passed by a few horse riders. Big Creek is a level trail and we were so intent on conversation that we completed the 5 miles in about 1.5 hours, so making up a little time. At the Swallow Fork Trail we turned left and began our big climb. We had a couple of average stream crossings. I saw some hikers farther up the trail, so I sent Jeff up ahead so I could take a “trail break.” Just a moment too early (too late?) I saw the hikers coming around the corner and Jeff quickly stopped to chat with them. Moral: be careful where you pee on a spring Saturday in the Smokies! Ya ain’t all by yourself out there!
In total we saw 17 backpackers/hikers on this hike – most of them headed for Campsite 38 at the firetower. Fun!
Jeff and I ate a quick lunch at the junction of Swallow Fork/Mount Sterling Ridge/Balsam Mountain/Pretty Hollow Trails (hey Jeff’s mom – he loves your homemade strawberry jam). I remember being at this intersection back in July with Carol when the weeds were as tall as we were and all I could think about was how many snakes I was going to step on. We turned left onto Mount Sterling Ridge Trail and continued to climb a little bit, glimpsing the Maggie Valley area to our right. (The white streak in the photo – could that be a ski slope? Any guesses?) While on this trail we heard and then saw two helicopters buzzing around, flying towards the AT ridge.
At the Mount Sterling firetower we climbed to the top to gawk at the clear blue sky and unlimited views. This tower felt much more stable than Shuckstack.
Couldn’t resist taking a picture of Jeff taking a picture of the surveyor’s marker at the tower base.
We did not have an abundance of time to hang around so we started down Baxter Creek Trail, six miles of downhill in a bit of a hurry, which hammered my toes and feet until tears came to my eyes. Jeff, who had hiked 20 miles with a backpack the previous day, was not dancing down that hill either. Our dogs were definitely barking on this section! Still, we paid enough attention to see this awesome fallen giant on the side of the trail.
And what about this knotty thing? The trunk has been severed just above the knot. Kind of looks like a fist grabbing it, huh?
On the lower half of Baxter Creek, wildflower foliage became very prominent and colors were emerging – loads of spring beauties, Dutchmans Breeches, huge trilliums as big as my out- stretched hand. By the time you all are reading this, the place will be a carpet of blooms. Get yourself out there! Look high up on the slopes and low down by your feet – it will be stunning. Be sure to tell me all about it!
Crossing Big Creek on the big bridge, we arrived back at the parking area right at 6:00 p.m. Heard later that one of my followers on this blog (hi Andrew) saw my car in the parking lot and wondered if it was me – I guess my bumper stickers give me away. So if you see my car around, leave me a note and say hi!
Felt good to sit down in the car and drive, felt bad to get out and walk to my hotel room in Gatlinburg. Can I really hike 16 miles tomorrow?