This weekly series aims to inspire you to go out there and experience amazing backpacking locations in person. Simply looking at them on your phone or monitor is not enough. Feel the wind, breathe the air and bask in the sun.
Our destination this week is perfect if you just want to take an overnight or short weekend trip. It’s time to take on the North Sterling Loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Featured Photo: Mouse Creek Falls (photo by Jim Liestman)
Why this Hike?
This is a fairly difficult hike for beginners but the scenery and fresh air will be worth the trouble. The first day of the hike will be mostly uphill as you climb to around 4,000 feet. However, after the long climb, the rest of the hike will be downhill and much more enjoyable.
- A total length of 16.9 miles
- Moderately difficult with some significant elevation gain
- Some expert hikers could finish the loop in one very long day, but we suggest at least 2-3 days especially for beginners
- The trail features varied landscapes and terrains with gorgeous views
- You have the option of climbing the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower which features a breathtaking panoramic view of the surrounding mountains
Take note of these factors before starting your adventure:
- It is best to visit this trail in the spring and fall seasons
- Parking passes are not required, but parking spots are limited
- Campsites should always be registered
- Pets are not allowed on the trail
- Climbing the Fire Tower may be dangerous for children
How do I get there?
The trail is accessed from the Big Creek Trailhead, which is easily accessed from Interstate 40. Take exit 451 which will get you on Tobes Creek Road. After crossing the bridge right next to the interstate, turn left on Waterville Road and continue down to the Big Creek Entrance Road (head straight through the Stop sign intersection).
If you're not from the area, the nearest airports are Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC.
The following map outlines our recommended route.
- Day 1 - Big Creek Trailhead to Backcountry Campsite #38 (10.7 miles)
- Day 2 - Backcountry Campsite #38 to Big Creek Trailhead (6.2 miles)
Coming from the Big Creek Campground, head to the trailhead where trail officially starts. The trail will take you uphill through gravel paths, creeks, and some swimming spots. The most famous places to swim are the Midnight Hole (1.5 miles) and Mouse Creek Falls (2 miles). Day hikers usually stop here and then head back to the trailhead.
From here you will follow Big Creek until you reach a bridge a short distance from Mouse Creek Falls. The trail begins to climb from this point. Next, you’ll get to Lower Walnut Bottom (5.5 miles), where Campsite #37 is located. If you are planning to spend three days/two nights on the trail, this would be the best stop for your first night. Otherwise continue on with the climb.
From Lower Walnut Bottom, follow Swallow Fork Trail until you reach the summit of Mount Sterling. You have the option of climbing up the Fire Tower for a marvelous panoramic view of the mountains. Just be careful because the steps up the tower might be dangerous, especially for children. Near the Tower is Campsite #38, the stop for overnight campers. Fire pits are provided and there is plenty of firewood available in the area.
The next day, start your descent from Mount Sterling via Benton MacKaye Trail, back to where you started the trek. This, by the way, is the alternate path for day hikers wishing to come up to Mount Sterling. Starting from the Big Creek Trailhead, follow the Benton MacKaye Trail up to the summit of Mount Sterling.
What will I need?
Your gear will vary depending on the season, but overall we recommend a comfortable pair of trail shoes or hiking boots because of the elevation gain on the first leg of the hike. We highly recommend bringing trekking poles to aid you on the climb as well as the descent.
There are several water sources along the trail and at the campgrounds, although we still recommend filtering your water. There are also designated fire pits and plenty of available firewood in the area. You can cook over a fire, or use a lightweight backpacking stove.
To help you prepare and make sure you don't forget something, check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List which includes a handy printable checklist.
Do I need a permit?
You will be required to get a permit from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in order to use the backcountry campsites.
Have you explored North Sterling Loop or other places in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.