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View from Mt Sterling Fire Tower

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Isn't that how many grand adventures get started? You're sitting in your comfortable, air conditioned living room, looking at maps and trail data, and you come up with some brilliant plan. With eagerness and optimism you set out to tackle a mountain.

As you'll come to discover if you read this blog regularly, I'm madly in love with the Great Smoky Mountains (GSMNP). There's something that just feels magical about being there. The Smokies are my happy place. So when I was looking to plan a training hike I naturally went right to a map of the trails in GSMNP. I found a website that lists all the trails in the park by difficulty and jumped straight to the bottom of the list to the most difficult hikes. That's how I came up with the brilliant plan to backpack up Baxter Creek Trail to the top of Mt Sterling and camp at campsite #38. And to my delight I even managed to convince Daniel to go with me. You might think I'd question this plan when, upon calling the park's backcountry office to inquire about water sources, the park ranger let out a hearty laugh when he heard of my intended route. "Are you sure that's the route you want to take?" he said. Here's what the website says about the hike:

There are several trails that will lead you to the summit of Mt. Sterling; however, the toughest route to the historic fire tower is the Baxter Creek Trail, which begins from the Big Creek area. In fact, the Baxter Creek Trail to the top of Mt. Sterling is one of the toughest hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. Although even and well-graded, the trail climbs roughly 4200 feet in just 6.2 miles.

I took these things as a sign of a challenge that needed to be met, so off we went on Friday afternoon, with packs loaded up for an overnight stay and total confidence in our fitness. Here's how the hike went in my head:

Mile 1: This isn't so bad! I'm in such great shape! Oh I'm so happy to be here, what a lovely day.

Mile 2: Gosh, it's hotter than I expected. I wish I'd worn shorts. But I feel great. I got this.

Mile 3. How have we only gone 3 miles?!! That's ok, my legs still feel pretty good. Just keep walking. Look at all these beautiful wildflowers!

Mile 4: My back hurts. Why does my back hurt? Why is it so hot out? How much further is it?

Mile 5: I think I'm going to just sit down here and die.


Mt Sterling is one of those devilish mountains that, on approach, you can't see the top. You can see plenty of ridges that make you *think* you're almost at the top, but then you come around a bend and oh look, the trail goes up again. It didn't help that the side trail to the water was another 5 miles downhill (not really, but that's what it felt like at the time). But eventually, after some cursing and joking, we made it to the top. We were the only ones there so had the pick of camp spots. The usual routine followed: set up the tent, throw a bunch of stuff inside, start boiling water, eat dinner, hang your food bag/pack, crash.

Daniel climbing the (sketchy!) firetower

We climbed to the top of the firetower the next morning (all 80 steps of it; yes, I counted them). In classic Smokies style it was a bit overcast and foggy, but we still had some lovely views. Then it was off to the hike the 11 miles down the Big Creek Trail back to the car. There was considerably less cursing on the way down.

Spring in the Smoky Mountains is a wonderous thing. Wildflowers blooming, streams rushing by, birds chirping their happy songs. Though a difficult hike it was one of the prettiest I've experienced in all my adventures in the park. I hope to do it again someday, maybe, possibly, probably not.


Click on any of the images below to see a larger version.

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