Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Big Creek Loop

Climb Mt. Sterling and hike through history on this 16.4-mile loop through the eastern Smokies.
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Climb Mt. Sterling and hike through history on this 16.4-mile loop through the eastern Smokies.

In a park know for abundant and beautiful creeks, they don't get any better than the one called Big. And the first part of the route follows an old railroad grade—used to transport trees during the logging boom at the start of the 20th century—making for a gentle entry into the deceptively steep Smokies. Allow plenty of time for frequent stops at swimming holes and a waterfall in the first few miles of the hike: Midnight Hole is a deep blue gem just 1.4 miles in; Mouse Creek Falls is a 45-foot cascade just a bit farther. (Tip: Camp along the Big Creek Trail just beyond the old logging camp at Walnut Bottom.) Spend the second night atop 5,760-foot Mt. Sterling, where there's a small glade with prime tent sites and a lookout tower with magical views.

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 26.4

Waypoints

GSM001

Location: 35.751824, -83.10962

From the trailhead, head southwest

GSM002

Location: 35.743294, -83.120911

Midnight Hole; deep blue gem replenished by a 15-ft. waterfall; watch for colorful trout below

GSM003

Location: 35.735644, -83.133738

Mouse Creek Falls, a rumbling feeder for Big Creek

GSM004

Location: 35.735679, -83.145947

Brakeshoe Spring, named for the train part once wedged here to create a fountainlike effect; refill bottles

GSM005

Location: 35.718869, -83.162749

Veer L onto Swallow Fork Trail; pass through Walnut Bottom (old logging camp, now tree-filled). Option: Stay straight on Big Creek Trail for great campsite

GSM006

Location: 35.691531, -83.139596

Continue steep ascent; go straight @ old RR grade intersection

GSM007

Location: 35.686494, -83.141806

Pretty Hollow Gap; great break spot. L onto Mt. Sterling Ridge path

GSM008

Location: 35.697369, -83.125927

Stay straight @ Y to ascend Mt. Sterling; see flora change from hardwoods to conifers on this breezy ridgeline

GSM009

Location: 35.702196, -83.122301

Mt. Sterling summit (5,760 ft.), small glade with prime tent sites, lookout tower, magical views; L to Baxter Creek Trail

GSM010

Location: 35.717633, -83.108718

Straight @ Y

GSM011

Location: 35.746617, -83.113954

Hike through flat, tree-covered area, once home to a logging camp

GSM012

Location: 35.750727, -83.108954

Turn L; cross Big Creek; return to parking lot

Great Smoky Mountains

Location: 35.699895, -83.124361

Overlook of mountains at sunset. ©Jason Sangster