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Trail Illustrated Map for the Eastern Smokies. Includes Mt. Sterling, Cataloochee, Big Creek, Mt. LeConte and Clingmans Dome.

Mt. Sterling (via Mt. Sterling Gap)

Trail Features: Panoramic Views mount sterling
Trail Location: Mt. Sterling Gap
Roundtrip Length: 5.6 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2000 Feet
Avg. Elev Gain / Mile: 714 Feet
Highest Elevation: 5842 Feet
Trail Difficulty Rating: 9.60 (moderate)
Parking Lot Latitude 35.70022
Parking Lot Longitude -83.09746

Directions to Trailhead:

From I-40, take the Waterville Road Exit (#451). Turn left after crossing the Pigeon River and proceed 2.3 miles to an intersection. Turn left onto the long gravel road that connects the Big Creek ranger station with the Cataloochee Campground. The trailhead for the Mount Sterling Trail is located at Mount Sterling Gap, roughly 6.7 miles from the intersection (at roughly the halfway point to the Cataloochee Campground).

Trail Description:

There are several routes that will take you to the summit of Mt. Sterling. The shortest route to the fire tower is via the Mount Sterling Trail from Mount Sterling Gap.

The Mt. Sterling area is one of the more historic places in the Great Smoky Mountains. According to early residents of the area, the mountain was named after a 2-foot wide streak of lead was found in the bed of the Pigeon River, near the mountain's northern base. Those residents mistakenly thought they had found silver.

One of the most famous stories associated with the area occurred during the Civil War. Towards the end of the war, Cataloochee and the remote valleys at the base of Mount Sterling became popular hideouts for deserters. Both Union and Confederate detachments consistently made raids into the area to find them.

One local legend relates an incident in which Captain Albert Teague of the Confederate Army captured three deserters: George Grooms, his brother Henry, and a simpleton named Mitchell Caldwell. The three were forced to march on foot from Big Creek to the Mount Sterling Gap area (the actual location varies from one account to the next). Henry Grooms, a talented fiddle player, was forced to carry his fiddle during the long march. Before executing him, his captors commanded him to play one last tune. Fittingly, Grooms chose the tune "Bonaparte's Retreat," a haunting melody that, to this day, is still called "The Grooms Tune" in many parts of the region.

Upon completion of his performance Grooms asked his captors if he could pray for a moment before killing him. His brother, George, is said to have died cursing the scouts. Mitchell Caldwell, who was described as a slow-witted man, simply grinned at his captors, so unnerving them that they were forced to cover his face with a hat before they could bring themselves to execute him. Teague's unit left the three bodies along the side of the road. Eventually, Henry Grooms' wife, Eliza, and a Sutton boy, took the bodies back to Big Creek by ox-sled where they were buried in the Sutton Cemetery.

Back to the Trail:

spring-beautyClimbing nearly 2000 feet in less than three miles, the ascent to the summit is a bit challenging, however, it's a steady climb and the trail is in fairly good shape. The only real break in the climbing is just prior to reaching the Long Bunk Trail, which forks off to the left less than a half-mile from the trailhead.

In early springtime, the appropriately named spring beauty carpets the ground along the trail. This route also passes through old growth forest, including some magnificent red spruce groves, some of which have trunks that are nearly three feet in diameter.

Once past the junction you'll resume your ascent and will climb through a series of long switchbacks with occasional views of Little Cataloochee and the surrounding area.

At roughly 2.3 miles you'll reach the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail junction. Turn right here and travel for another half-mile to reach the 5842-foot summit.

mt sterling fire towerOn a clear day you’ll be able to make out Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob towards the west, Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max Patch to the east, and the Cataloochee Valley to the south. If you have a very good eye you can even make out the Mount Cammerer fire tower, which lies towards the north.

It was here atop Mount Sterling, in 1963, that the Balsam woolly adelgid infestation was first noticed in the Smokies. This tiny insect is now responsible for killing most of the park's Fraser firs.

The 60 foot fire tower at the summit was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. In the park's early days a lookout spent many hours in the tower, keeping a close eye on the forested terrain of the surrounding mountains. From February 15th to May 15th, and then again from October 15th to December 15th, the tower was manned by lookouts who lived on the premises on two-week tours. When he wasn't at his station, the watcher stayed in a cabin that once stood just north of the tower.

Today the Park Service uses the tower as a radio repeater. The trap door is still open, and if you don't mind a shaky old structure, the views are breathtaking.

According to Peter Barr, author of "Hiking North Carolina's Lookout Towers," the Mt. Sterling lookout has the highest elevation of any true fire tower left in the eastern U.S. In addition to a wealth of historical background on fire towers, the book also serves as a hiking guide to many of the towers in the region.

maphiking north carolina lookout towers