Mt. Sterling is located on the east side of GSMNP. It can be reached via several routes and trailheads. The route described here is a loop hike, utilizing Big Creek Trail and Baxter Creek Trail. This is a strenuous 17 mile round trip hike that includes approximately 4,100 feet of vertical gain.
Exit I-40 at exit 451 - Waterville Road to reach the Big Creek area of GSMNP. It is a 3.4 mile drive from the exit to Big Creek.
The trailhead for Big Creek Trail is located near the picnic area parking lot in Big Creek Campground.
The route described here starts at Big Creek Trail and takes a counterclockwise approach. Using this approach, there is an 11 mile, 4,100 foot climb to Mt. Sterling. This longer approach makes for a less steep climb up to Mt. Sterling, making it a more enjoyable alternative than starting up Baxter Creek Trail. If you start by going up Baxter Creek, you will have to climb that 4,100 feet in only 6.2 miles. A very tough climb through the forest! If you start at Big Creek you will be fresh to enjoy the pleasant hike along the Big Creek and save the long hike down Baxter Creek for the end of the day.
Big Creek Trail, 5.0 miles, 1,200 feet of elevation gain
Swallow Fork Trail, 4.0 miles, 2,200 feet of elevation gain
Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail, 1.4 miles, 500 feet of elevation gain
Mt. Sterling Trail, 0.5 miles, 200 feet of elevation gain
Baxter Creek Trail, 6.2 miles, 4,100 feet of elevation loss
Big Creek Trail
It is a 5.0 mile hike with 1,200 feet of elevation gain up Big Creek Trail to the junction of Swallow Fork Trail. This is enjoyable hike along Big Creek. Highlights include Midnight Hole at 1.5 miles and Mouse Creek Falls at 2.0 miles.
Mouse Creek Falls
Swallow Fork Trail
At 5.0 miles Big Creek Trail connects with Swallow Fork Trail. It is a 4.0 mile hike with 2,200 feet of elevation gain up Swallow Fork Trail to Pretty Hollow Gap. For the first several miles the grade is fairly gentle and you will be hiking near one of several streams, including Big Creek, Swallow Fork and McGinty Creek. There are a few stream crossings requiring some rock hopping. The trail gets steeper as you approach Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. The hike is primarily through forest, although there are a few open spots near the end of the trail with views of the Mt. Sterling ridgelines and Mt. Guyot.
Views from Swallow Fork Trail
Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail & Mt. Sterling Trail
From Mt. Sterling fire tower
At the end of Swallow Fork Trail is the junction with Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. This is a 1.4 mile stretch. While the net elevation gain is only 500 feet here, you will gain and lose at least an additional 200 feet for a total elevation change of 700 feet before reaching Mt. Sterling Trail.
It is a short 0.5 mile climb through the woods to the summit of Mt. Sterling and the summit's fire tower. The views are obstructed at the summit, so to see the beautiful ridgeline views you will have to climb the steps of the tower.
Baxter Creek Trail
From the summit of Mt. Sterling it is a steep 4,100 foot drop in 6.2 miles down Baxter Creek. The entire hike is in the woods with all views to the ridgelines obstructed. Baxter Creek Trail ends at the same picnic area parking lot that you started at.
As always in the Smokies, rain gear is a must.
If you plan to carry water purification equipment, water is available on Big Creek Trail and on the first few miles of Swallow Fork Trail. Otherwise pack plenty of water as this is a long strenuous hike.
There are two backcountry campsites along the route for those preferring to break this loop up into two days. Campsite # 36 (Walnut Bottoms) is located on Big Creek Trail, 0.1 miles past the junction of Big Creek Trail and Swallow Fork Trail. Campsite # 38 is located at the summit of Mt. Sterling.