Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Mount Sterling

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Hiking the Smoky Mountains
Mount Sterling Fire Tower Day Hike

Length: 6-mile roundtrip hike
Difficulty: Strenuous
Highlights: A 360 degree view of the park's east end
Caution: North face hiking - cold and snowy in the winter
Note: In order to enjoy the view, it is best hiked on a clear day

Mount Sterling Fire Tower

One could say that the Mount Sterling fire tower is now but a 60-foot tall monument to a time now past. Constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Big Creek in the early 1930s, during the park’s early years, a fire warden would spend countless hours in the tower, keeping a watchful eye over the heavily forested terrain of the Smoky Mountains. Of the hours spent away from this important post, some were spent at a cabin that once stood just north of the where the tower still stands today. It's also safe to say that the warden probably traveled to the nearby town of Waynesville, North Carolina to gather supplies when time allowed. The same path was likely taken on his way back to the tower that we would take in order to reach Mount Sterling's summit.

The Mount Sterling Trail is the shortest route to the fire tower. For starters, getting to the trailhead is an adventure in and of itself, and you will more than likely see some parts of the park you've never seen before. Take exit 451 (Waterville) off of Interstate 40 coming from either Knoxville or Asheville. Continue on to the small township of Mount Sterling (a little over two miles), where you will encounter a four-way intersection. From there, you'll take a left and proceed 6.7 miles to Mount Sterling Gap and the trailhead.

Of all the gaps found in the Smoky Mountains, Mount Sterling Gap is one of the most historic. One of the most recalled events associated with the gap took place near the end of the Civil War. A confederate scout who spent most of his time keeping an eye on Union sympathizers in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, Captain Albert Teague also spent time keeping watch for outliers (war deserters) of draft age. Teague captured three such outliers one fateful day. These outliers included George Grooms, his brother Henry Grooms, and a simpleton named Mitchell Caldwell. These men were forced by Teague to march on foot from Big Creek to somewhere in the vicinity of Mount Sterling Gap (the actual location varies from one account to the next). A talented fiddle player, Henry Grooms had been forced during the march to carry his fiddle. Before he was to be executed his captors commanded him to play one last tune. Fittingly, Grooms chose the tune "Bonaparte’s Retreat;" the haunting melody is called "The Grooms Tune" in many parts of the mountains to this day. When his performance was completed, Henry Grooms asked his captors if he could pray before being executed. George Grooms was said to have died cursing the scouts. Described as a slow-witted man, Mitchell Caldwell simply grinned at his captors. Apparently, this act so unnerved them that they had to cover his face with a hat before they could bring themselves to execute him. The three bodies were then just left at the side of the road by Teague's scouts. At some point thereafter, Henry Grooms’ wife, Eliza, and a Sutton boy picked up the bodies and brought them back to Big Creek by ox-sled, where they were taken to the Sutton Cemetery and buried.

Once you arrive at Mount Sterling Gap, park your car and make your way up the Mount Sterling Trail. The trail is in fairly good shape, the ascent is steady, but a little challenging. You’ll pass the Long Bunk Trail after about a half-mile climb. From there, the trail will level out for a moment before resuming its ascent. Long switchbacks now become the hike of choice as you travel through a series of them, with Little Cataloochee and the surrounding country appearing at various points along the trail. At the Mount Sterling and Mount Sterling Ridge Trails junction, you've reached the half-mile point on your way to the mountain’s peak. You'll eventually reach backcountry campsite No. 38 and just beyond that the fire tower comes in to view. The view from the ground is a bit lacking, so in order to get the best view you will have to climb the tower's metal and wood staircase. On a clear day, you’ll be able to make out Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max patch to the east, Cataloochee Valley to the south, and Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob to the west. The Mount Cammerer fire tower can be spotted in the distance, if you've got a good eye. It lies north by northwest from Mount Sterling.

To get back to your car, descend the tower and return via the same route.

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