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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.

KEY SKILL: Massage away knee pain

It’s all downhill from Mt. Sterling—4,100 feet of joint-jarring descent over 6.2 miles. The plunge will test even the strongest knees. Massage away your pain by targeting the muscles that support the knee. Do this sequence when you arrive in camp, after the descent. 
1. Use your nondominant hand to support the knee.

Press down on the knee cap with your other palm and slowly knead upward on the quad.

Gently squeeze the quad between thumb and fingers, working up the thigh.
4. Massage the outer-knee muscles in a circular motion using your thumb.
5. Slowly work your way toward the shin to circle the knee and work the muscles on the knee’s interior. Repeat for other knee.
6. Take two ibuprofen, fill a hydration reservoir with creek water, and “ice” your knees for 15 minutes each.

SEE THIS: Yellow Trillium
With 1,660 different species of flowering plants, and staggered blooming seasons, the Smokies are like an enormous open-air flower shop. In early March, follow your nose around the Lower Walnut Bottoms’ calcium-rich soils for the lemon-scented yellow trillium, a spring ephemeral that opens above a platform of large, green-and-white speckled leaves. Then step back to absorb the entire multicolored tableau.

Unknown waterfalls in a park with 9 million annual visitors? Definitely—for those willing to earn it. At mile five on the Big Creek Trail, turn left on the Camel Fork Trail, then hike a mile to begin the Gunter Fork Trail. You’ll push through dense underbrush, test your routefinding skills traversing blowdowns, and ford Gunter Fork three times before you access the gem: a seldom-seen, 150-foot waterfall spilling over 6,234-foot Luftee Knob. “You come around a forested bend, and the high falls dominate your view,” says Stuart Peck (below). If you lose the trail, follow the river. “If you’re ascending or can’t hear the stream,” Peck says, “you’re going the wrong way.” 

Art Fightmaster, 46, of Gardnersville, Kentucky, loves the Smokies’ fall colors in October. Find Stuart Peck, 26, of Owensburg, Kentucky, climbing Jurassic Raccoon (5.7) in Kings Bluff, near Clarksville, Tennessee.

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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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