Great Smoky Mountains Cabins, Gatlinburg Tennessee, Wedding Chapels

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Big Creek Trail
Narrative and photos contributed by Gary Acquaviva
(click on smaller images to view larger ones)

Big Creek has something for everyone who wants to hike, picnic, camp, and horseback ride or backpack. I consider Big Creek an easy hike and one I recommend for new hikers. It is easily accessible from interstate I-40, or from the scenic two-lane 32 from Cosby, Tennessee. Coming from Gatlinburg on highway 321, highway 32 will offer a peaceful escape from the traffic around Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. There is, however, a short stretch of gravel road a few miles long from the Tennessee/North Carolina border, just as you enter North Carolina, 1/4 mile before the entrance to Big Creek entrance of the GSMNP. If you forget something, you can turn left and drive down the gravel road .5 mile to Mountain Mama's country store where you can buy mountain honey, sodas, snacks, coffee, hot food and more. The road continues beyond Mountain Mama's, past the Waterville Dam to I-40. If you turn right, soon after you will feel asphalt beneath your wheels. At the corner you can rent a horse with a guide and ride back to Walnut Bottoms backcountry campground. Turn left and you will drive on the narrow road into the GSMNP.

big creek trail hiking map with directions

You will find a parking area on the right in front of the ranger station. There is a pay phone and a check in station for backcountry backpacking permits. Not far from the parking area is the Trail to Mt. Cammerer, but it is the steepest one of four to the lookout that I have experienced. Drive slowly on into the park and you will pass a parking area on the left for horses. Eventually, you will come to the parking area for day hikers, backpackers, and picnickers. There are restroom facilities to the east of the parking area and picnic tables next to the creek. If you walk west past the gate you will come upon the camping area. If you plan to camp, you can drive beyond the gate and park. Parking is reserved for those camping. Walk past the campsites until you see a restroom facility on the right. This is the last one before the trail. Behind and to the left of the restrooms there is a small trail that leads to Big Creek Trail.

block house rock Big Creek Trail has a surprise in store as it begins on flat ground and then goes up steeply for about one hundred yards to join the Big Creek Trail. So, take a deep breath and hold on as you climb. Once to the top you will find an old road and you can walk two or three abreast. Here the tail is pleasant and a gentle uphill grade. Big Creek remains to the left for over two miles and the pleasant sound of the mountain stream is always heard. Horseback riders will often appear suddenly behind you, particularly on a weekend. You can tell if they are ahead of you by the horse scats on the trail.

If you want to hike to Block House Rock (click on image at left for larger view) you must keep a vigil eye to your right as the barely visible trail is found at about the 1-mile point. The terrain will become steep on the right with rocks that are not visible in the summer. But, if you keep looking to the right you will see a small foot trail up a steep embankment. It is not an easy climb uphill, so be careful. The Sierra Club Hiker's Guide reports that "During logging days people lived in this natural opening [ Block House Rock] until they found other shelter."

Continuing up Big Creek Trail you will see several large pools of water that look big enough to swim in--but wait.Another .4 mile on your left, you will come upon Midnight Hole (click on image at right for larger view), which is distinguished by the size of the pool of water and the rock from which to dive. On a hot summer day you will find the water cool and refreshing. This is one of many pleasant spots to stop for brunch or lunch.

Returning to the trail, within .6 mile on the left you will first hear and then see Mouse Creek Falls (click on image below for larger view), which is 2.0 from the parking area and is another of my favorite spots to eat lunch. The sound of these mountain streams is enchanting. I once sat in meditation listening to several different sounds of the falling waters in Big Creek, as they competed with Mouse Creek Falls. If you listen carefully, well…see my Noisy Creek story .

mouse creek falls Continuing on up the trail a short distance of about .2 mile--or 2.2 from the parking area--is a wide bridge over the creek. Once again, this is a beautiful spot to stop and appreciate the sounds and sites of the mountain stream. If you look carefully from the bridge - and if you have been quiet - you will see trout swimming in the water. Once a friend of mine stood chin high in the water without moving until a trout came within a few feet of him. Look downstream from the bridge and you will see a sandy spot on the right. This is a better place than the bridge to sit and eat lunch.

Back on the trail, the creek is now on your right, where it remains until just before Walnut Bottoms backcountry campground at a distance of 5 miles from the parking area. If you keep watching the creek's edge, you'll spot a place where the trail comes very close to the creek and a large, wide, flat stone slabs down into the creek. Here is another place to sit and meditate or eat lunch. It's an easier climb down to the flat rock than the hike up to Block House Rock. It offers views of the creek and a few large pools of water where trout may be seen. If you plan to fish, know the regulations and how to identify the fish--it is illegal to possess the brook trout. The "brookie" was almost eliminated in Park streams and is now protected--catch and release only.

Once past the bridge, keep your eyes on the creek and you may see a black bear, of which there are approximately 500 in the Park. More than once we have seen bears near and in the creek. These days I carry pepper spray. Once, three of us sat at the bridge before the Walnut Bottom campsite, eating lunch. A bear came up on the other side of the creek. Quietly we watched it. The bear kept his eyes on us as it moved to the left and then to the right. Perhaps, for about ten minutes and then it acted as if it was going to come across the creek. I stood up slowly. It continued into the creek a few feet. I raised my arms high above my head with the sleeves of my jacket in each hand - trying to appear bigger than I am. The bear stopped, turned around and wandered slowly into the woods. In years past, the only bear siting would be the tail-end as it disappeared over the ridge. Unfortunately, despite Ranger pleas to not feed the bears, humans have been feeding them. Some bears have been desensitized to humans and they come seeking food. There had never been a death from a bear mauling until 1999, when a woman was killed. The bear was eliminated, but you should still always be cautious about the Smokies black bear--do not feed them.

The Big Creek area is one of the more primitive sections of the Smokies. Though settlers inhabited the area from the early years of the 19th century, Big Creek was only sparsely populated until the arrival of the lumber companies, which clearcut the entire area. The Big Creek area was abandoned after the timber was depleted.

Big Creek Trail forms the backbone for several other trails fanning out from the ridge (order a Park Trail Map). Backcountry camping in Big Creek is limited to two sites in Walnut Bottom on Big Creek and another on Mount Sterling at the end of the Baxter Creek Trail. The Big Creek campground, on the site of the old Crestmont logging camp, has space for 12 tent sites, but no recreation vehicles. There is also a drive-in horse camp at Big Creek. Sites are $35. A maximum of four horses and six people are allowed per site. The camp is open from March 17 to November 1. For reservations, call 1-800-365-2267 (park code GRE) or visit the web site at Reservations can be made up to five months in advance.


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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

The hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The

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temperature on this hike can be 10 degrees cooler than when you left the lower elevation. Combine this with the fact that the Smokies are also the wettest place in the South, and you have the possibility for great discomfort in the event of a sudden storm. The higher elevations in the park can receive upwards of 90 inches of precipitation a year.

Don't judge the complete day by the morning sky. In summer the days usually start out clear, but as the day heats up, clouds can build up, resulting in a heavy shower. Winter is a great time to be in the Smokies, but also represents the most challenging time as well. Frontal systems sweep through the region, with alternately cloudy and sunny days, though cloudy days are most frequent in winter.

When traveling in the Smokies, it's a good idea to carry clothes for all weather conditions.

Footwear should be chosen with care. Though tennis shoes may be generally appropriate for some day hikes, boots should be worn on the uneven trails in the Park. They support the ankles from sprains and the foot from cuts and abrasions.

Stay on the designated trail, because most hikers who get lost do so when they leave the path. If you get temporarily lost, try to retrace your steps until you cross the trail again. Then its just a matter of guessing which way you were headed when you left the trail. You will either continue the way you were headed or go back to your starting point--either way, no harm is done.

Always bring rain gear and a wool sweater. They don't weigh much and might make the difference between being miserable or not in the event it rains. As mentioned earlier, the Smokies get approximately 90 inches of rain a year. This is good. Its what makes the Smokies such a wonderful place to be. Don't start a hike if thunderstorms threaten--some of the most devastating damage ever to the Park has been from great storms which can be upon you with little warning.

Cross streams carefully. Getting wet, even in summer, could lead to hypothermia, which leads ultimately to disorientation, poor decision making and, in extreme circumstances, death. Having said that, don't let a fear of hypothermia, getting lost, or bears prevent you from the enjoyment to be had by trekking the trails of the Park.

When we questioned a Park Ranger about how to react to meeting a bear on the trail, he smilingly told us the most likely sighting of a bear will be its tail disappearing over a ridge. Most "incidents" occur when an ignorant visitor feeds or otherwise harasses a bear. Our own experiences with bears have proven this to be true.

To avoid crowds, hike during the week; avoid holidays; go during the "off" season. Also, go in the morning before most folks are through eating breakfast; this is a good time to see wildlife and morning light is great for photography! You can also avoid crowds by using the outlying trailheads such as those found at the Cosby and Wears Valley entrances. I'm embarrassed to say we didn't know these existed for our first 18 visits to the Smokies. But to our delight, we found new vistas, trails, and landscapes to "discover for the first time".

ith a little care and planning, your trip to the Smokies can be much more rewarding and repay you with more great memories. You can enjoy not only the visual splendor of the Park, you can view it without counting out-of-state license plates, and you can get more fit in the bargain.

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