Mount Sterling Trail – Mount Sterling Fire Tower – GSMNP

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 Mount Sterling Trail – Mount Sterling Fire Tower – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

 

Details:

Location: Mount Sterling Gap; on Mt. Sterling Road (Old Hwy 284) between Big Creek Ranger Station and Cataloochee.

Distance: 2.8 miles. (5.6 miles round trip.)

Elevation Gained: 2006 feet.

Difficulty: Strenuous.

Time: 2:35 (up.)

Weather: Clear; 32 degrees at trailhead; 41 degrees on return.

Gear: Vasque Bitterroot Boots, Superfeet insoles, Baselayers, MH Warlow softshell pants, Marmot fleece, Leki Trekking Poles.

Summary: Mount Sterling Trail is the shortest and easiest route to the 5,842 foot summit of Mount Sterling. In clear weather, this is a phenomenal strenuous hike with breathtaking views both from the trail and from the top of the fire tower on the summit, which is the highest elevation fire tower remaining in the Eastern US. The transition from Hardwood Forest to Spruce-Fir Forest helps keep your mind off the elevation gain, as the ever-changing scenery encourages you to stop and take it all in.

 History:

The Mount Sterling Trailhead is located at Mount Sterling Gap, on the eastern border of the Great Smokies in North Carolina.

This area is rich with history and tradition, and no story of Mount Sterling seems complete without the riveting tale of “Grooms Tune:”

Near the end of the Civil War, the Big Creek and Cataloochee area around Mount Sterling was a perfect hideout for those who chose not to participate in the war. These outliers were pursued by scouts for both sides.

One such Scout was Confederate Captain Albert Teague, who, along with his Home Guard, appear to have been persons of “questionable integrity;” perhaps looting and killing under the guise of searching for outliers.

On April 10, 1865, Captain Teague and his Guard captured three men of draft age who lived in the Big Creek area: Henry and George Grooms, and their Brother-in-law Mitchell Coldwell. The three were bound and marched over Mount Sterling Gap to an area on the Cataloochee side of Mount Sterling.

Somehow, Henry Grooms, a noted fiddler, made this trip with his fiddle and he was commanded to play a last tune before the men were executed. Henry chose “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and the song was referred to thereafter in the mountains as “Groom’s Tune.”

The three men’s bodies were left beside the road, and it is said that a bullet scarred tree remained as a testament to the story. Later in the day, Henry’s wife, Eliza, came with others with an ox drawn sled and carried them back over Mount Sterling. They were buried in the Sutton Family Cemetery, near Big Creek.

 

Mount Sterling was mistakenly named after a 2 foot wide streak of silver that was discovered in the Pigeon River just North of the mountain; this streak turned out to be lead.

Story:

Time for some altitude and what is arguably one of the best views in the Smokies!

Mount Sterling Trailhead.

Mount Sterling Trailhead.

I arrived at the Mount Sterling trailhead just before sunrise. As the trail runs West up the East side of Mount Sterling, I hoped the golden light of sunrise would cover the mountain in radiant hues. I wasn’t disappointed:

Sunrise from the Mount Sterling Trail.

Sunrise from the Mount Sterling Trail.

The trail is steep right out of the parking area. At .4 miles the trail descends to the junction with Long Bunk Trail at .5 miles. Enjoy it, the trail does not let up from this point until the junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail, 1.8 miles away.

Junction with Long Bunk Trail, at .5 miles.

Junction with Long Bunk Trail, at .5 miles.

The trail begins it’s unrelenting steep ascent of Mount Sterling just past this junction and the sunrise rewarded me with these stunning views of the Hardwood Forest:

Sunrise bathes the mountains in golden hues.

The power lines running to the summit of Mt. Sterling pass over the trail.

Sunrise bathes the mountains in golden hues.

Sunrise bathes the mountains in golden hues.

Sunrise bathes the mountains in golden hues.

Ah, the Golden Hour. What else could make a bare winter forest explode with the colors of fall?

Sunrise bathes the mountains in golden hues.

Mt. Sterling trail passes through an explosion of sunlight.

Sunrise bathes the mountains in golden hues.

The beautiful sunrise illuminates the forest.

At .7 miles the trail switches back across the ridge and offers views of the ridges to the North:

Mt. Sterling Trail rises steeply over 2.8 miles.

Mt. Sterling Trail rises steeply over 2.8 miles.

The trail offers glimpses of surrounding ridges through the trees.

The trail offers glimpses of surrounding ridges through the trees.

Mount Sterling Trail begins in Hardwood Forest, but as you ascend the ridge after the first switchback you begin the transition into the Spruce-Fir forest of the higher altitudes in the park. Red Spruce trees begin to populate the ridge, and above on Mount Sterling ridge you can see the dark green canopy of Spruce and Fir and the “Ghosts” of Fraser Firs; the Park Service first discovered the Balsam Woolly Adelgid on Mount Sterling in 1963.

Near the halfway point, Mt. Sterling Ridge and the spruce-fir forest can be seen.

Near the halfway point, Mt. Sterling Ridge and the spruce-fir forest can be seen.

Deadfall near the halfway point, in the transition elevation between forests.

Deadfall near the halfway point, in the transition elevation between forests.

Mt. Sterling is where the Park Service first discovered the Balsam Woolly Adelgid in 1963; here are sunlit members of the "Ghost Forest" that resulted from the devastating insects.

Mt. Sterling is where the Park Service first discovered the Balsam Woolly Adelgid in 1963; here are sunlit members of the “Ghost Forest” that resulted from the devastating insects.

The footing on the trail transitions along with the forest. The trail begins as dirt covered in leaves, along this section it becomes dirt and rocks, and higher up until the summit is almost like walking along a stream bed, the rocks are large and at points you are rock hopping.

The path transitions along with the forest; going from clear dirt and leaves to an almost creek bed appearance with large rocks.

The path transitions along with the forest; going from clear dirt and leaves to an almost creek bed appearance with large rocks.

Mt. Sterling Ridge viewed through a gap in the trees.

Mt. Sterling Ridge viewed through a gap in the trees.

At 1.2 miles the trail switches back and crosses to the south side of the ridge, where it continues until the junction with the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Along this section the transition to Spruce-Fir forest deepens, with Hobblebush and moss becoming the prevailing ground cover, and increasing shade from the evergreens.

Sunrise casts my long shadow on the increasingly rocky trail.

Sunrise casts my long shadow on the increasingly rocky trail.

The switchbacks on the trail offer views North, South, and East from the trail.

The switchbacks on the trail offer views North, South, and East from the trail.

Further into the transition, Hobblebush covers the ground beside the trail.

Further into the transition, Hobblebush covers the ground beside the trail.

Past the halfway point, the forest is completely different than when you started.

Past the halfway point, the forest is completely different than when you started.

Several trees along the trail, like this one, have had the soil eroded under their roots, leaving a stack of loose rocks.

Several trees along the trail, like this one, have had the soil eroded under their roots, leaving a stack of loose rocks.

Thick moss covers the side of the trail.

Thick moss covers the side of the trail.

Near the junction with the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail, the transition to Spruce-Fir forest is complete.

Near the junction with the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail, the transition to Spruce-Fir forest is complete.

The thickness of the Spruce-Fir forest makes for an interesting abstract.

The thickness of the Spruce-Fir forest makes for an interesting abstract.

Just before the junction with the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail, breaks in the trees offered views of Cataloochee, the snow covered ski slopes were easily visible (though not in this photo.)

The view South off the ridge just before the junction; the Cataloochie ski slopes (not pictured.) were clearly visible.

The view South off the ridge just before the junction; the Cataloochee ski slopes (not pictured) were clearly visible.

At 2.3 miles the trail reaches the junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. Multiple trails join along it’s path to offer a variety of possible loops and shuttle hikes. To the left, this trail leads 5.3 miles West into the heart of the Eastern side of the Great Smokies. To the right, .5 miles to the summit of Mount Sterling, Campsite #38 and the Fire Tower.

At 2.3 miles, the junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail is reached.

At 2.3 miles, the junction with Mount Sterling Ridge Trail is reached.

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail offers many alternate routes off Mount Sterling.

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail offers many alternate routes off Mount Sterling.

The half-mile trail to the summit is through dense Spruce-Fir forest. There isn’t much opportunity for views through the thick canopy. At points the trail is slightly rutted from the 4 wheel drive that occasionally visits the tower for maintenance. This “Ghost” was spotlighted by the rising sun, it’s stark white color contrasting against the green background:

A lone "Ghost" spotlighted by the sun.

A lone “Ghost” spotlighted by the sun.

About the time you start thinking “I should almost be there,” you are. Unlike Mount Cammerer, which taunts you from miles away, the summit of Mount Sterling appears out of the forest:

Despite trying to catch a glimpse the whole way up, the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower sneaks up on you; appearing from behind the trees as you reach the summit.

Despite trying to catch a glimpse the whole way up, the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower sneaks up on you; appearing from behind the trees as you reach the summit.

The summit of Mount Sterling is a small clearing in the dense forest with Campsite #38 on the North side and the Fire Tower on the South. The only view from the summit is by the junction with the Baxter Creek Trail, where the clearing for the tower’s power lines reach the summit:

The junction with Baxter Creek Trail is just past the fire tower.

The junction with Baxter Creek Trail is just past the fire tower.

The 60 foot tall Mount Sterling Fire Tower. Built by the CCC in 1935 on the summit of 5,842 foot Mount Sterling. The US Geological Survey marker is just beside the tower.

The 60 foot tall Mount Sterling Fire Tower. Built by the CCC in 1935 on the summit of 5,842 foot Mount Sterling. The US Geological Survey marker is just beside the tower.

The Mount Sterling Fire Tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. It is reportedly the highest elevation of any fire tower remaining in the Eastern US. The tower was manned 5 months out of the year (Feb. 15 to May 15 & Oct. 15 to Dec. 15) until the 1960s, when technology rendered it obsolete. The crews stayed in a small cabin that was located on what is now Campsite #38.

Go ahead. You know you want to climb it. The steel says "Carnegie" on it, it must be sturdy...

Go ahead. You know you want to climb it. The steel says “Carnegie” on it, it must be sturdy…

The 60 foot tall “abandoned” Fire Tower is still used by the Park Service as a repeater tower, evidenced by the multiple thick cables running up it’s base to the antennae at the top, the hum of power from the cables that lead up parts of the trail, and the replaced antenna lying discarded at the base of the tower.

The steel of the tower and the wood planks that make up the stairs and floor of the cabin all seem to be original, however, and the climb to the top had me as scared as I’ve been in years. OSHA clearly didn’t exist when this tower was built. The indeterminable “squeak, squeak, squeak” heard from the top did not instill confidence. The handrails on the stairs don’t connect to each other, so at each landing you have to hold on to the outer structure, test the planks with each step, and move gingerly to the next stair case and handrail. Six staircases in all. Each one higher, steeper, and more frightening than the last. Just for kicks, there is a missing bolt in the middle of one handrail, and a second at the top of another; these lead to very exciting screeches and shifting supports, which up the sphincter factor exponentially.

Oh; did I mention the wind? Every landing takes you higher above the protection of the trees, and the wind does not help the climb up! “The cabin, when I make it to the cabin I’ll be out of the wind and safe!” Almost right. The mysterious squeaking heard from the ground? That’s all the loose panes in the cabin slipping back and forth in their frames. The wind continued to howl through the missing windows, the door in the floor, and the missing door to the roof. The “floor” of the cabin didn’t offer much reassurance; the East side is the opening for the door, and a very small landing from the stairs, the center has a second layer of flooring added, probably to support the antenna structure that goes through the roof (and along with the broken off door leaning against it took up the center section of the cabin,) and the West side looks, well, bad. I stayed on the center section just beside the landing.

The views, on the other hand, are extraordinary, arguably the best in the Smokies, and worth every moment of terror on the way up. 360 degrees of unrestricted viewing pleasure:

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies... the floor of the observation cabin, however, does not inspire confidence.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies… the floor of the observation cabin, however, does not inspire confidence. This is the view North; looking across Big Creek valley towards Davenport Gap and Mount Cammerer.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking Northwest; the high ridge is the Tennessee – North Carolina border, and the Appalachian Trail runs across it’s spine.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking West; along the TN-NC border toward Camel Gap and Mount Guyot.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking southwest; Mount Sterling Ridge points towards Cherokee, NC.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking South; toward Mount Sterling Gap and Cataloochee.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking Southwest; through the Smokies towards Fontana Lake.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking Northwest; towards the spine of the Smokies.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking Northwest; toward the Appalachian Trail.

The view from the tower is spectacular, arguably the best in the Smokies.

Looking North; Over I-40 towards Newport.

I really wanted to set up the tripod and get the stellar images that the view provides. But with the weak looking floor and being alone, I didn’t want to risk a fall and left stranded. I definitely plan to return with company and thoroughly photograph all the surrounding mountain views.

Getting down was almost as bad as going up, except I knew where the missing bolts were. The floor in the top right corner of this shot is what the whole west side looks like:

Now that you're up, you have to get down...

Now that you’re up, you have to get down…

... and it's a long way down.

… and it’s a long way down.

Lest the photos and my description don’t instill the proper level of trepidation associated with the climb up the steps, here is a video for you:

I took the same trail back down to the parking lot. There are many ways to descend from Mt. Sterling, including the Baxter Creek Trail; a very strenuous 6.1 mile hike that leads back to the Big Creek Picnic area.

MCJ

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5 Responses to Mount Sterling Trail – Mount Sterling Fire Tower – GSMNP

  1. Shannon Lindsey says:

    This is wonderful! Very informative. I love the pictures of the ghost trees and the fire tower but they are all very awesome! Great Job Matt.

  2. Julia says:

    Looks like a very interesting hike. However, I don’t see myself doing strenuous anytime soon. So, thank you for the “view”. It will have to suffice until I am strong enough for those kinds of hikes again.

  3. Connor says:

    Greetings! We met as you were packing your car back up after this hike, and I wanted to let you know I thought this was a solid article with some great photos. One of my crew members had a busted knee so we only made it up about a mile. But it was nice to see what we missed! I’ll definitely be back to check it out myself sometime.

    Cheers

    • MCJ says:

      Thanks for the comments, Connor.

      It was a beautiful day, hope you enjoyed your time in the area and had a safe trip back North.

  4. Hulda says:

    Good info. Lucky me I discovered your website
    by accident (stumbleupon). I’ve saved it
    for later!

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