Mount Sterling Trail – Mount Sterling Fire Tower – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Wednesday, March 20, 2013.
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.
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.
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.
Time for some altitude and what is arguably one of the best views in the Smokies!
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:
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.
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:
At .7 miles the trail switches back across the ridge and offers views of the ridges to the North:
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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:
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 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.
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:
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:
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.