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Backpacker Magazine – January 2011

Rip & Go: Big Creek Loop

Hike from a wildlife-choked river valley to soaring mountain views.

by: Christopher Keene

Big Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tad Bowman)
Big Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tad Bowman)
Reader experts Art Fightmaster and Stuart Peck (Courtesy)
Reader experts Art Fightmaster and Stuart Peck (Courtesy)

Download a printable version of this entire trip right here.


“Blackberries, black bears—and photo ops so good, it’s like they popped out of your dreams,” says Art Fightmaster (next page) about the Big Creek Loop, which readers endorsed two-to-one over any other weekender in the region. From Big Creek Campground (1), start this 16.4-mile hike on the gentle Big Creek Trail. Pass Midnight Hole (2), a deep, cliff-lined swimming hole after 1.4 mile and continue upstream to 45-foot, hourglass-shaped Mouse Creek Falls (3) at mile two. Cross rushing Big Creek on a wooden carriage bridge (4), where “trout glide by in the crystal-clear waters,” Fightmaster says. Catch trout fishermen sneaking off to angle for brown and rainbow trout. At mile 2.3, arrive at Brakeshoe Spring (5), so named when a train engineer jammed a railcar brakeshoe into a narrow fissure in the rocks, turning a seep into a gusher. At the Swallow Fork Junction (6) at mile 5.1, continue straight .1 mile to Lower Walnut Bottoms campsite. One of the park’s best and most varied wildflower displays occurs here from March to early April (next page). Continue up the Swallow Fork Trail, grazing from trailside apple trees, which black bears also pillage. Hit an intersection with Pretty Hollow Gap Trail (7) at mile 8.9, and go straight for a 1.6-mile, 700-foot ascent on the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. Tank up at a spring 1.1 miles into the climb, then forge upward past stands of second-growth red spruce. Ascend the Mt. Sterling fire tower (8), 60 feet above the 5,842-foot grassy bald at mile 10.5. Set up your tent at Campsite #38 for sunset views over the mist-hung hills. (Note: Bear activity occasionally closes the campsite; check with rangers.) Next morning, head left onto the Baxter Creek Trail (9) and fill your belly with blackberries (in mid-July). Thus fueled, tackle the trail’s toughest miles: a 4,100-foot descent in less than six miles. Cross Big Creek (10) at mile 16.3 and close the loop at the campground (11).

ice age trail
Trip Planner
Get there From Newport, take I-40 east 15 miles to exit 451. Go south on Waterville Rd. for two miles and go left onto Big Creek Park Rd.

Gear up Mountain Outfitters, 152 Bridge St., Hot Springs. (828) 622-7162;

Permit Required; free at any park visitor center. Secure campsite reservations a month ahead. (615) 436-1231;

Map Trails Illustrated Great Smoky Mountains ($12;

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Reader Rating: -


Oct 07, 2011

Did this loop as a day hike yesterday with a couple of friends. Big Creek is beautiful and we stopped multiple times to take photos and enjoy the scenery. Lots of fresh bear scat and prints on the trails, but no actual bear sighting. Had debated on which direction to do the loop but was glad we chose counter-clockwise and followed Big Creek first; it was more scenic than the Baxter Creek Trail imo.

Aug 29, 2011

Great hike! However there is no water source where the article mentions. As M. Morgan says, the closest water is a small trickle .5 miles past campsite 38 (if you follow the path of this article).

M. Morgan
Apr 27, 2011

Did Big Creek Loop with a few friends over the weekend. AWESOME. Start the first day early--it will take longer than you think, particularly the last few vertical miles. Be mindful of water sources on the ascent and take advantage of every one. The last few miles of the ascent offer no water and the nearest water source to campsite #38 is a mile round-trip. The 6-mile descent is physically a breeze but hard on the feet. Watch for snakes (almost stepped on a garter snake), and take advantage of the on-site bearproof hangers to hang packs/food.

Mar 18, 2011

just finished this last wary of rain WILL be snow at higer elevations!!

Mar 18, 2011

just finished this last wary of rain WILL be snow at higer elevations!!

Mar 17, 2011

Be advised: The 2 campsites metioned are RESERVATION ONLY. Also, FYI; the "Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail" and the "Baxter Creek Trail" are AKA, and part of, the Benton McKaye Trail.

Jan 27, 2011

Hiked this area in the different directions you can take from Big Creek campground. It's my favorite place to hike or go for an easy overnight or two.


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