A daunting yet beautiful climb up Gunter Fork turns hairy when I stumble across a trio of fresh landslides, causing me to change my plans on the fly. Instead of an up and back hike, I circled around to Mount Sterling and back down to Big Creek.
The deep green waters of Midnight Hole were very appealing to jump in. I would look to take a dip on the return trip when it would get super hot.
Here's a look at the location of Midnight Hole in relation to the waters of Big Creek.
Gunter Fork is the only trail in the park that possesses such a sign, and for good reason.
The deepest crossing was the first at Big Creek, with water rising above my knees. And that was with streams at low water. This picture is one of many crossings of Gunter Fork, one of the easier ones at that. Some were over boulder fields, others through log jams, and a few required tip-toeing the edges of small waterfalls.
For much of the way the trail follows its namesake stream. There was a great deal of evidence of recent flash floods with Gunter Fork overriding its banks to flood the trail and low lying areas.
About 100 feet below the trail sits a magnificent pool along Gunter Fork fed by a peaceful cascade. The pool is deeper, more serene, and obviously more isolated than the very popular Midnight Hole.
This is Gunter Fork at low levels, but you can see much more ground it covers after heavy rains and snow melts. To say it's a beast of a stream would be an understatement.
Standing at the base of Gunter Fork Cascade which sits before the last of the stream crossings. At this point it was starting to sprinkle, and with all the signs of recent and potential flooding, I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to come back this way.
Here's a look up at the tall expanse of Gunter Fork Cascade.
Everything changed about a half mile before the junction with Balsam Mountain. I stumbled upon a massive landslide that wiped out the trail and the rest of the major drainage. From what I could gather, it was a recent slide that probably happened within the last week due to the great deal of rain we've been getting. There were no signs along the way giving hikers warning, so it was safe to assume the park service knew nothing about it, and the I was the first to discover it. To try and go directly across the slide to reach the trail was impossible because the dirt pack was as slick as ice.
This is the view from trail's edge looking directly down the slide. The drainage wraps around the corner so I couldn't tell exactly where the massive pile up of dirt, rock, and trees would be. I had to weigh my options. Since I had to come ten miles just to get here, and only had a half mile to go, I began to look for a way up and around the slide. Where the earth gave way was but a hundred feet above the trail, but it didn't go all the way to the top of the ridge. So I deliberated one last time about turning around, then decided to bushwack my way up to the ridge, across, then back down through some of the thickest rhododendron you ever did see. I took me about forty five minutes to complete. It wasn't the most pleasant bushwack I've ever done, and it cost me the screen of my phone. Oops. I dusted off, gathered my thoughts, then pressed on. Amazingly, I came across a second slide, this one about fifteen yards across. It was as steep and fresh as the first, but there were more rocks sticking out of the earth to offer good footholds. I made it halfway out before I had to turn up the slide then bushwack down through the woods. Guess what? The fun didn't stop there, because I came to find yet another slide. This one being the smallest of the three at all but ten yards across. It was much broader and was an easy walk straight across. I finally arrived at the junction with Balsam Mountain in a daze of frustration and exhaustion. I ate some food and sat down for a bit thinking the situation over. There was no way I was going back that way to Big Creek, so I chose to add a few more miles and circle around Mount Sterling Ridge and down Baxter Creek. It lengthened my day but I knew it would be safer, especially if rain was in the forecast. Apart from the slides, Gunter Fork was overgrown with nettles and other thorny tangles that clawed me up. The trail was eroding in places, and there were numerous blowdowns. My suggestion to the park service as soon as I could reach them would be to close the trail for sure.
It took a while, and was not where I was expecting to end up today, but I made a trip to Mount Sterling none the less. Not much in the way of views, but it felt nice to sit up top and feel the cool breeze and relax. I needed it after a day like that.
Well, after yet another road closure debacle, I was going to make sure my hike started in an area not under construction. I also wanted to get in at least one hike this week that afforded views because the weather this month continued to be stellar. I had just the hike picked out. The park's east side was still very foreign to me, so it was time to change that by going to one of the more famous locations in Mount Sterling. The lookout tower there was still intact and offered a 360 degree panorama of the Smokies' eastern half and into the Pisgah National Forest. I had been putting this hike off for a long time and the moment had finally come. I was incredibly anxious to hit the trail and get the day rolling.
I had never driven past Cosby before either, so I was excited about getting to check out the views from the Foothills Parkway along the way too. I just missed seeing sunrise when I drove up to the first vista. The valley floor was a thick green and the main ridge in the distance possessed shades of blue. For the most part, the skies were completely clear and the visibility was astounding. My anticipation for what was to come that day now shot through the roof.
The way I had selected to ascend Mount Sterling was not going to be the easiest. The shortest and quickest way would be to drive along the narrow, windy, unpaved road that spans the eastern side of the park to the Mount Sterling Trail. I was going to save that way for a fall hike that would include the entire Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. So the next sensible option was to create a loop hike out of the Baxter Creek, Mount Sterling Ridge, Swallow Fork, and Big Creek trails. I liked this idea because I was about to rake in a ton of new miles. The big question remained...which way was I going to take up to the summit? Either way, this was going to be a long day, covering more than seventeen miles over 4,000 feet of elevation change. If I went counterclockwise via Big Creek the climb would be much more gradual and drawn out. If I went clockwise and immediately up via Baxter Creek, I would cover the entire climb in about six miles then be able to coast downhill the rest of the way. That particular climb is known to many as one of the more difficult and unrelenting climbs in the park. Well, I'm not one to shy away from a challenge, so I would take this bull by the horns and dominate the Baxter Creek Trail.
The trailhead crosses Baxter Creek on an elaborate footbridge similar to that along the Gatlinburg Trail. The scenery here at the creek and around the Big Creek campground is very pretty this time of year. Soon after crossing the creek, the trail swings right and parallels it for a bit then wastes no time in beginning the long and arduous climb to the top. It also passes an old chimney littered with rusty parts not far from the start. Early on the trail makes its way around several rocky cliffs rising out of the the broad mountainside. The landscape the majority of the time is that of open woods with a history tied to the logging days. Much of the forest floor is covered in ferns, pale jewelweed, and black cohosh.
Every so often I would pass a tree with a massive trunk standing next to the path only to look up and see a gaping hole in the canopy. One by one, I would count dead hemlock after hemlock, a very grave reality facing the entire population of that species in the park. So many grand giants now left behind as ghostly matchsticks covering mountainsides everywhere.
The trail sees a number of switchbacks as it ascends the long arm of Mount Sterling before finally getting high enough to follow the ridgeline. As it does, the scenery changes from open woods to a spruce and fir forest littered with boulders and mosses. I was enthralled by the entire atmosphere during this part of the hike. The early morning light was just coming up over the ridge line, golden rays shimmering through the trees. The moss that adorned the forest floor was such a rich green and it sort of reminded me of Fangorn Forest in "Lord of the Rings." Of course if I ran into Gandalf coming down the trail then I might actually believe I had crossed into Middle Earth at some point. Continuing on...the countless number of exposed boulders that weren't covered by the mosses gave off a shiny white appearance as opposed to a typical, dull gray. The trail's surroundings were like this much of the way in the last mile and a half before reaching the tower. It was more prominent on the mountain's northern side.
Eventually the trail finds its way directly onto the ridge and remains there until the top. A few tenths before the summit one passes the side trail to the spring. Shortly after, I came out of the woods and found myself standing below a transformer box, power lines, and the lookout tower. There was a group of men in hardhats in and around the tower. At the base was a gator with supplies, several large cables, and a member of the park service most likely there to supervise. I walked up to the tower, looked up, and started taking pictures, but then one of the men up in the tower started getting antsy about what I was doing. He asked why I was there and what I was taking pictures of, like I was some spy or safety inspector or who knows what. I quickly assurred him I was just a harmless hiker there to enjoy the sights like any other normal person would on a mountain in a national park. He then backed off and continued on with his work. They were in the midst of repairing the antenna that had been critically damaged by weather. It was sticking out from the side of the tower and one man was dangling beside it with newer cables to be fed up to the dish.
I wandered around a little bit, trying to stay out of there way. I went over to the campsite that sits in the tower's shadow and found an unoccupied tent. The campsite itself was closed and I came to find out that the tent was being used as a decoy. Attached to a tree right beside the tent was a motion sensored camera that snaps pictures of animals or people as they move by. We've had to use them on a few occasions on Mt. LeConte in regards to bears, so I knew right away what it was. Of course I didn't leave without making a few funny faces.
I went back over to the tower and politely asked if I could climb to the top for some pictures. After all, I just hiked over six miles and gained about 4,200 feet with hopes of seeing grand views of the park. I was NOT about to get robbed of that. Sure enough, they were about to take a lunch break and were nice enough to let me have the tower as long as I desired. So I started to make my way up.
As I made my way up the long series of stairs, the wind started to pick up. I wasn't able to see the mountain tops in the distance until I got above the firs and spruces that dominate the summit. I could progressively see more around me as I got higher, kind of like a curtain being drawn for someone on stage. The last of the workers came down from the observation deck and I was able to step inside and get out of the driving wind. What I was able to see at that point was truly amazing.
I was overlooking the entire eastern half of the park. What's unique about Mount Sterling is that it sits higher than the now accepted main ridge of the park in which the AT follows north. West of Inadu Knob all the way to Mount Cammerer, the main ridge is lower than the summit of Mount Sterling as well as Big Cataloochee Mountain and the Balsam Mountain range that forks from the AT. To the south one can see a wall that is the Cataloochee Divide meeting up with the lower end of Balsam Mountain. Nothing obscures these major peaks and ranges because the are only separated by valleys; Big Creek to the north and Cataloochee to the south. Looking toward the east beyond I-40 affords one views of the expansive Pisgah National Forest and its famous bald dome, Max Patch. All impressive to say the least since there aren't that many opportunities to see such views around the park. Obviously the views were better below the boxed in deck, without having to look through the framed-in glass. A few individual window panes were missing or cracked so the wind was still finding a way to funnel through.
Mount Sterilng also shares similarities with the tower at Cove Mountain in that a column has been stripped of trees down the mountainside for utility lines. There's also a good number of antennas and a large dish attached to the observation deck that faces west. It was very difficult to leave, especially since the views were so grand, accompanied by blue and sunny skies. Nevertheless, I wanted to respect the crew there that was kidn enough to let me have the tower to myself for a while. I took my time heading down, soaking up every last ounce of views I could before slipping below the tree line. The major highlight of the day was now behind me, but I had a good chunk of miles left to cover on the way down.
Not long after I descended into the cover of the woods, I was passed by another gator that came up the Mount Sterling Trail, wide enough for vehicles that size to come up and perform timely maintenance on the tower. When I came to a fork in the trail, I went right across the Mount Sterling Ridge for a time. The trail conditions here are quite rocky, so careful steps are required as not to roll an ankle. I soon came out at Pretty Hollow Gap and the four way junction there. I plan on returning here in the fall in which I will continue straight along the Mount Sterling Ridge. To go left down Pretty Hollow Gap would bring me out at Cataloochee. But today, my journey was taking me downhill and to the right via Swallow Fork. At the junction was an unoccupied encampent belong to the crew repairing the lookout tower. All of their camping gear, food, and fuel were under a tarp and surrounded by an electric fence. I knew that because there was a large danger sign nailed to a nearby tree. I figured they were staying here and not the campsite atop Mount Sterling because of the aggressive bear activity there.
The trip down Swallow Fork was somewhat monotonous and uneventful. As soon as you leave the ridgetop you're in the woods for good, weaving in and out of ravines and crossing small creeks. The only real excitement came when I approached Big Creek. The slopes began to flatten out and the roar of the creek grew louder. Eventually I reached the intersection at Walnut Bottoms. I was in this area back in May when I did the Low Gap - Camel Gap - AT loop, but all these trails don't meet at a junction. Instead, the trails are separated by the creek and a campsite, yet joined by bridge and short couple of tenths of trail. So I did a brief out and back just to connect the dots.
The remainder of my hike was going to be fairly level back to the campground, but it was still five miles of walking. Sure, flat ground is nice, but when you've gone a great distance already, it tends to drag on and on. Walking beside Big Creek was pleasnt and the trail zigzags over it on a few bridges wide enough for small motorized vehicles and horses. This stretch had started to wear on my mind and I began to wonder if I had completely missed Mouse Creek Falls. It felt like I had already covered a lot of terrain and even thought about turning back. That would have been crazy, so I just kept going with fingers crossed. Finally, I arrived at a clearing on my right and there it was across the creek. Weather had been dry the last several days, so there wasn't much water coming down the falls, but still nice to see for the first time. At least the falls was obvious.
Just a half mile further down the trail I would come upon Midnight Hole, but there was no sign defining its location, nor was there a path. Luckily, I had seen pictures of it before and knew what to expect, although it took some looking. I came to a point where trail skirts close to the creek and several large boulders. I decided to stop and investigate, coming to the conclusion that I had indeed found it. Again, the water levels were low, so it wasn't necessarily standing out from the normal flow or pools of the average creek. To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed, so I took a few pictures then headed out. Maybe I'll think differently when I return in the future. It also didn't help that I was quite ready to be done for the day.
The final leg of the hike dragged on. It was such a relief to finally round the corner and see the campground. I had thus completed a seventeen mile loop that saw me cover aroudn 4,500 feet of elevation gain and loss. I guess I had a reason to be tired at that point. Before I reached my vehicle, I stumbled across a large cluster of black swallowtail butterflies sunning themselves. I got a chuckle out of it. I had seen so many of them, along with their yellow cousins, on so many of my summer hikes, sometimes totalling in the hundreds. I never bothered to get a pictures, though, since I always enjoyed walking real close in order to stir them into a fluttering frenzy.
The return trip over the Foothills Parkway was better than the first. The clarity was even more outstanding and the greens and blues were more vivd than what I saw that morning. It is certainly one of the park's better overlooks in my opinion. A great view to cap off an amazing and unforgettable day chalked full of great views.