Pets allowed
Not Allowed
Elevation Gain
4,100.00 ft (1,249.68 m)
Trail type
There-and-back
Distance
13.00 mi (20.92 km)
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Mount Sterling is one of the tallest mountains in the western Smokies, at 5,842 feet. It's not as popular as one might think, probably because it's not along the Appalachian Trail. A handful of other trails can be found on its slopes, however, so there are multiple ways to reach the summit. Those who do reach the top will find a 60-foot historic fire tower, which is open but minimally maintained, and feels pretty rickety. Climbing the tower is the only way to really earn the views, though, as the mountaintop is mostly forested.

The shortest way to the summit is the Mount Sterling Trail, which comes from Mount Sterling Gap. That trailhead is along a steep and winding gravel road which can be treacherous in winter. Therefore, the longer approach on Baxter Creek Trail makes the typical winter alternative, but it's a big hike. Starting at about 1,700 feet elevation, it climbs more than 4,000 feet to the top! The trailhead is at Big Creek Campground, the road to which is generally passable all winter even though the campground is closed.

Baxter Creek Trail ascends the mountain at a mostly consistent grade, twisting steadily upward through mature hardwood forest, crossing several small streams along the way. These are usually easy to step across but can swell with rain or snow. In the final mile or so, the trail gains the ridgetop and weaves among dark spruce groves, where thick moss carpets the tree trunks and boulders. Near the summit is a signed spur to a spring, and from there the fire tower is right around the corner. A clearing not far from the tower makes a good camp spot for those who wish to lug gear up here. Permits are required for backcountry camping.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

None

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Varied forest. Fire tower. Winter access.

Cons

Limited views.

Trailhead Elevation

1,700.00 ft (518.16 m)

Highest point

5,843.00 ft (1,780.95 m)

Features

Big vistas
Backcountry camping
Historically significant
Old-growth forest
Wildlife
Wildflowers
Vault toilet

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

No

Location

Nearby Adventures

Nearby Lodging + Camping

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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