“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).
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.
Permit Required; free at any park visitor center. Secure campsite reservations a month ahead. (615) 436-1231; nps.gov/grsm.
Map Trails Illustrated Great Smoky Mountains ($12; natgeomaps.com)
Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/10742