Sporting one of the only 4,000-foot climbs on the eastern seaboard, Mount Sterling and the fire tower that sits atop the 5,842-foot summit makes up one of the most popular day-hiking and overnight trips in the eastern half of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mount Sterling was named after a 2-foot-wide streak of lead in the Pigeon River at the northern base; locals mistook the lead for silver, and the name stuck.
During the Civil War, the remote valleys around Mount Sterling accounted for some of the more popular areas for deserters from Confederate and Union armies to hide. This remoteness can still be felt today, and the trails feel just as remote as anywhere else in the park despite the proximity to the interstate.
While the summit can be accessed via the 2.7-mile Mount Sterling Trail, a grander loop following the Big Creek Trail and the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail is a much more scenic and varied trip given two days to complete the trip. Starting at Baxter Creek Campground, follow the gentle slope along Big Creek and pass two other views that motivate many day hikers on their own: Midnight Hole, popular for swimming, and Mouse Tail Falls are both right off of the main trail, and they help you forget that the main climb is still required to get to the backcountry campsites on the summit. Soon after passing the falls, turn left to start climbing up to the ridge, which flattens out somewhat as you make the final push. The fire tower comes as a welcome sight, marking the end of your 4,200-foot climb. And don’t forget you have to drop all that elevation the next morning!