Great Smoky Mountains Cabins, Gatlinburg Tennessee, Wedding Chapels

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 Rainbow Falls Hikers

Hiking the Smokies:
Mt. Sterling Fire Tower Day Hike

Length: 6 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Strenuous
Highlights: 360 degree view of the east end of the park
Caution: North face hiking – cold and snowy in winter
Note: Best hiked on a clear day to enjoy the view

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower

Constructed in the early thirties by workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Big Creek, the Mt. Sterling fire tower is a sixty-foot tall monument to a time now gone. In the park’s early days, a fire warden spent many hours in the tower, keeping a close eye on the heavily forested terrain of the surrounding mountains. Some of his hours away from this important post were spent in the cabin that once stood at the site, north of the where the tower still stands. On occasion, he probably also traveled to the nearby town of Waynesville, North Carolina to gather supplies. On his way back to the tower, he more than likely took the same path that we will take in order to reach the summit of Mt. Sterling.

The shortest route to the fire tower is to take the Mt. Sterling Trail. Reaching the trailhead is a bit of an adventure in and of itself, and will more than likely take you down a few roads you’ve never seen before. From Knoxville or Asheville, take exit 451 (Waterville) off of Interstate 40. Proceed to the extremely small township of Mt. Sterling (a little over two miles), where you will encounter a four-way intersection. Take a left and proceed 6.7 miles to Mt. Sterling Gap and the trailhead.

Mt. Sterling Gap is one of the more historic gaps in the Smoky Mountains. The most famous story associated with the spot occurred near the end of the Civil War. Captain Albert Teague was a confederate scout who spent most of his time keeping an eye on Union sympathizers in east Tennessee and western North Carolina. He also spent time watching for outliers (war deserters) of draft age. One fateful day, Teague captured three such outliers: George Grooms, his brother Henry Grooms, and a simpleton named Mitchell Caldwell. The three were forced to march on foot from Big Creek to somewhere in the vicinity of Mt. Sterling Gap (the actual location varies from one account to the next). Henry Grooms, a talented fiddle player, had been forced to carry his fiddle during the long march. His captors commanded him to play one last tune on his fiddle before they executed him, and Grooms fittingly chose the tune "Bonaparte’s Retreat;" the haunting melody is called "The Grooms Tune" in many parts of the mountains to this day. Upon completing his performance, Henry Grooms asked his captors if he could pray for a moment before they killed him. George Grooms is said to have died cursing the scouts. Mitchell Caldwell, who was described as a slow-witted man, simply grinned at his captors, so unnerving them that they were forced to cover his face with a hat before they could bring themselves to execute him. Teague’s scouts left the three bodies at the side of the road. Eventually, Henry Grooms’ wife, Eliza, and a Sutton boy took the bodies back to Big Creek by ox-sled, where they were buried in the Sutton Cemetery.

Park your car at Mt. Sterling Gap and proceed up the Mt. Sterling Trail. The ascent is steady and a little challenging, but the trail is in fairly good shape. After climbing for about a half a mile, you’ll pass the Long Bunk Trail and the trail will level out for a moment before resuming its ascent. You’ll travel through a series of long switchbacks, with occasional views of Little Cataloochee and the surrounding country. When you see the junction of the Mt. Sterling and Mt. Sterling Ridge Trails, you’re within a half-mile of the mountain’s peak. Eventually, you’ll reach backcountry campsite #38 and just beyond that you’ll see the fire tower. There isn’t much of a view from the ground, so you’ll need to scale the wood and metal staircase of the tower in order to get the best view. On a clear day, you’ll be able to make out Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob to the west, Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max patch to the east, and Cataloochee Valley to the south. If you have a very good eye, you can even make out the Mt. Cammerer fire tower, which lies north by northwest from Mt. Sterling.

When you’re done taking in the view, descend the tower and return to your car via the same route.

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General Tips for Enjoying Hikes in the Smokies

he hiker should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The temperature on some hikes can be 10 degrees cooler than when you leave lower elevations. 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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