Smokies 900 Round 2 – 4/24/15 – Big Creek/Swallow Fork/Mt Sterling Ridge/Mt Sterling/Baxter Creek Trails – 17.1 Miles
Danny Bernstein invited me to participate in a Smokies 900 discussion panel at the Smokies Life Magazine reception as part of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (whew!) in Gatlinburg, TN. Danny authored a wonderful article about Smokies 900 completers for the magazine’s spring 2015 issue. I was flattered and eager to sit on the panel as an excuse to visit my happy place, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Driving all the way to Gatlinburg from Charlotte for a 5:00 p.m. event, looks like I’ll have to spend the night…
Been a couple of years since I saw the Tennessee side of the Smokies and I was jittery with anticipation. Everyday life is complicated and I needed to unplug and enjoy an infusion of outdoors. As I turned off Highway 40 at Exit 451, Dolly Parton’s celebration of the Smokies came on the radio: “My Mountains, My Home.” Is that a tear in my eye?
First come, first serve, only 12 sites, I was lucky enough to set up camp right beside the boisterous namesake.
I met Danny an hour before the event started, not enough time to truly catch up but we did our best as we ate Kilwin’s ice cream. The reception and panel discussion was great fun, with many audience members tallying up more Smokies miles than the panelists. (P.S. I was vindicated to hear several 900 milers agree with me that the “worst” trail in the Park is Cold Spring Gap.)
Twisty-turny again (thank goodness it was still daylight) back to Big Creek and I met my next-campsite neighbors, a man and woman from Louisville. They had hiked up to Mount Sterling via Baxter Creek Trail, part of my planned route for tomorrow. They started a little campfire and produced wine flasks and a bottle of fireball whisky. I was compelled to swap backpacking stories for an hour before turning in. And what a sweet treat to sleep on a flat tent pad – my last several nights out have been on sloping backcountry sites.
Daylight woke me at 6:00 a.m. I ate a little breakfast, packed up, moved my car to the picnic parking area where I said hello to a backpacker getting ready to head out at the same time: 7:05 a.m. A little morning chill. I’ve done this exact hike before but felt as excited as if I were discovering a new country – a different season, and every day in the Smokies is a new adventure.
The trail itself was built by the CCC in the 1930’s. The same crew constructed the Mount Sterling fire tower that I would pass later in the day. The five miles of Big Creek Trail that I walked rises about 1,500 feet, barely noticeable, and is a wildflower mecca. As I walked the broad trail I looked mostly to the right bank, stopping constantly to photograph the blooming plants, not trying to win awards, just trying to record what I saw to help in identification later. If I had tried to look at the left-hand side too, I’d still be there.
Enough words, now let’s look at the pictures:
This is an easy backpack- ing destina- tion, a base camp to explore more trails of the park, or a turnaround point for a respectable 10-mile wildflower dayhike (enjoy the opposite side bank on the return trip). My route turned left at 5.1 miles onto Swallow Fork Trail, nicely graded with several rock hop creek crossings as the trail climbs. The ascent felt effortless as I took my time.
This looks like a very tempting place to camp, but backcountry camping in the Park is restricted to designated sites and shelters which must be reserved.
Ah, I thought, congratulating myself on getting all the uphill done with ease. Then as I started on the 1.4-mile section of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail I realized that my vague recollection of it was inaccurate. More elevation gain than I expected. But I didn’t mind as I walked among the shady hemlocks.
Then there was that half-mile of Mount Sterling Trail that isn’t designated on the little $1 map, more uphill. I was surprised to see hoarfrost coming up from the ground.
There is a backcountry campsite at the base, an open grassy area and some flat spots under the trees, very popular for nighttime lookouts from the top of the tower. The six flights of stairs seem trustworthy but the flooring inside the cab is layers of plywood that look damp and rotten. I was aware of being all alone as I climbed carefully up and down.
Only 6.1 miles! But with 4,100 feet of descent, this is the steepest stretch of trail in the Park. At the tower the chill was back, and although I had on shorts and short sleeves, I put my gloves on.
Loved this moss- covered boulder.
But this - what is this? Yellow bead lily? Clinton’s lily? So much to learn.
Two miles on Baxter Creek Trail and I started to feel it, knees hurting, wondering if blisters were underway. But what are you gonna do? Four more miles. Keep looking at the flowers. I could feel the temperature go up as the trail went down.
All together over the course of the day I identified 43 different wildflowers. Not pictured are:
one fire pink on Big Creek Trail
round leaved violet
one fire pink on Big Creek Trail
round leaved violet
This was one of the best days of my hiking life.
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’” ~Sylvia Plath