There are multiple ways up the commanding summit of Mt. Sterling, set in the far east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As far as a direct route up, the Baxter Creek Trail is the longest and hardest. Indeed, it’s one of the most demanding day hikes in the park. But it has plenty to recommend it!
For one thing, not all that many people tackle this trail. That’s mostly because of its 11.7-mile round-trip distance and the 4,120 feet of elevation gain. Mt. Sterling also rises in a generally quieter corner of the park, off the main crest of the Smokies. The solitude you’ll usually find along the trail is pretty delicious. Especially if you’ve been recently fighting crowds on better-known routes in the park.
You’ll need to be in decent shape to tackle this slog of a hike and give yourself enough time to get up and down before nightfall. (That is unless you’re overnighting it in the backcountry, which is a possibility.)
The Baxter Creek Trail starts in the far-flung, tent-only Big Creek Campground set at 1,700 feet along the namesake river. Initially, the trail follows Big Creek. At about a third of a mile, a marked side path leads a short distance to a hefty streamside stone chimney: remnant of a bygone Crestmount Lumber Co. building.
The trail turns south to follow the gorge of Baxter Creek upstream. Soon, though, it starts climbing up a spur that connects to the north ridge of Mt. Sterling. This is definitely where you start huffing and puffing!
You’ll see some good-sized trees in this lower-elevation hardwood forest. The ruggedness of the country around here limited logging operations, so significant old-growth timber remains. Indeed, some champion-sized trees in this vicinity—including tulip trees, silverbells, red oaks, and cucumbertrees—rank among the largest-known of their kind.
Eventually, those sometimes-huge hardwoods fall away as the trail climbs into the higher-elevation conifer zone of Fraser firs and red spruces. Drenched in precipitation and often wreathed in mist, this spruce-fir zone is a dark, mossy, mysterious realm. It also hints that you’re closing in on the summit of Mt. Sterling.
Said summit is mostly forested, but a fire tower built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps rears 60 feet into the air atop Mt. Sterling. Once manned by fire lookouts and now serving as a radio repeater, this somewhat rickety tower delivers spectacular views. (Those who are afraid of heights might skip the climb—and, therefore, potentially this hike altogether—especially if it’s windy.)
Sightlines from the tower extend over the sea of ridges, knobs, and deep ravines and valleys that characterize the Southern Appalachians. Prominent clear-day landmarks include Max Patch (a famous mountaintop bald along the Appalachian Trail), Mount Guyot (at 6,621 feet, the second-tallest peak in the Smokies), and the similar fire tower-topped Mount Cammerer.
That wild panorama is quite the reward for your calf-straining efforts getting up here. And remember, the return hike’s all downhill!
-There’s a backcountry campsite near the summit of Mt. Sterling that gives you the chance to spend a night out in the high-elevation wilds of the eastern Smokies.
-You can usually drive to Big Creek Campground without trouble in winter (though it’s closed then). This makes the Baxter Creek Trail a good choice for year-round, “off-season” hikes up Mt. Sterling.