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Big Creek to Baxter Creek Loop

Date: February 23, 2018

Miles: 17.2 miles       Elevation Gain: 4029 ft.         Elev./Mi: 363        Grade: 7%

Difficulty: Class 3    Hiking Time: 7:52      Pace: 2.8 mph       Avg. Temp.: 76

The forecast for Friday was 76 degrees, 10% chance of rain and 59% humidity.  It was for FEBRUARY 23!!!  I have no illusions that winter won’t try one more kick but this day was made for hiking and there were no meetings scheduled.  I got a really late start, which for me is unusual.  Normally I am on the road by 7:00 and on the trail no later than 9:00 but that day I slept in and hit Big Creek around 10:30.  I really love the east side of the park.  It is more remote and less visited.  The big attraction for Big Creek is Midnight Hole for its swimming but there would be none of that in February.  That said, the parking lot had about 15 cars despite the facilities being locked up tight.  There was not even a trash can to be found.

The route for the day was Big Creek Trail to Swallow Fork Trail to Mount Sterling Ridge, Mount Sterling Trail to the tower and back down Baxter Creek.  I chose that order because I figured the 4,00 ft climb would be easier spread over 11 mile than the 6.2 up Baxter Creek.  I was right!

Cascade on Big Creek

Mouse Hole

Mouse Creek Falls















The Big Creek Trail has to be one of my favorites.  It follows its namesake all the way to Walnut Bottom, which is one of my favorite camping areas.  The hiking is easy and the creek offers one who saunters its surprises and gifts.  the trail is a wide gravel path its entire length and the 4.7% grade is quite friendly as ascents go in the Smokies.  The views of the creek all along the path are spectacular.  There are many opportunities to take in a cascade.  Midnight Hole is at 1.4 miles.  This is a popular swimming hole in the summer attracting visitors sporting swim suits and flip flops in sharp contrast to those in hiker garb.  But Today, there were only a couple other hikers taking in the morning and I had Midnight Hole to my self for a few “peopleless” pictures.  The lovely Mouse Creek falls is a mere half mile ahead and is a great place to pause and enjoy a concert of water music.  The sun was high over the falls reflecting back a wash of white light but a couple suitable pictures were captured.  Big Creek continues on another lovely 3.2 miles to Walnut Bottom and Campsite #37.

I have a really fond memory of a night spent in CS#37 back in July of 2016.  As I drifted off to sleep, I awoke later in the night to this bright flashing of light coming through the tarp of my hammock fly.  Wondering why there might be a vehicle this far up the trail spurred me to exit my cocoon and to my utter surprise and amazement, it turned out to be the synchronous fireflies the Smokies are world famous for. There were no crowds, no shuttles to Elkmont, no noisy people, no traffic.  Just thousands of fireflies that somehow manage to blink in unison for several seconds before the rhythm breaks down.  And then someone gets it going again and they all chime in.  I wish the bands I have played in were this tight.

There is a wide bridge over the creek in Walnut Bottom.  I enjoyed my lunch near the bridge down at the side of the creek.

Swallow Fork Trail leaves Walnut Bottom and heads 4 miles up to Pretty Hollow Gap on the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail.  The climb is no longer easy at this point gaining 2,200 feet in 4 miles at a 10% grade.  There are 4 stream crossings starting with a footlog over Swallow Fork on the route, none of which involved a wet ford.  The climbing is mostly steady.  The trail is pretty brushy in places but clears up about a mile in becoming a nicely graded single track.  There is much winter greenery including moss along the fallen trees and rhododendron.  At around 2.7 miles, the climbing turns from steady to strenuous, which is a wake-up call for legs that have had a long winter off.  The trail leaves the company of the Fork at about 3 miles and turns up the ridge.  The stillness surrounds you with an occasional bridsong for entertainment as you continue the climb.  At 4 miles, you enter Pretty Hollow Gap where I enjoyed a brief nap in the warm February Sun.  The gap has some briar growth in the summer but there is still plenty of cool grass to stretch out upon for a welcome break after all the climbing.

The Mount Sterling Ridge Trail runs through Pretty Hollow Gap and my route turned left heading along the ridge to Sterling Mountain.  The ridge is blessed with conifers along the top. The first 0.4 miles is uphill, then levels off for a half mile and then heads steady up to the Mount Sterling Trail.  The route heads northeast a quarter mile to the tower and Campsite #38.

Mt. Cammerer gets all the press for a great lookout view but Mount Sterling tower is a well kept secret.  Surrounded by fairly dense Fraser fir trees, the site is also home to Campsite #38, which is another bucket list campsite I have yet to enjoy for a night.  But I do plan to return soon.  The view from the fire tower is spectacular, even better in my opinion than Mt. Cammerer and the reward is even greater knowing one has to earn the view.  After many pictures from the tower and a good break and a stretch of the legs, It was time to find Baxter Creek Trail and head back to Big Creek.



View from Mount Sterling Tower

Middle Earth on Baxter Creek

The descent down Baxter Creek Trail is stark and wastes no time.  The trail descends 4,000 feet over 6 miles for a 12% grade.  Not the steepest but it is a steady 640 ft. per mile drop.  After 11 miles of climbing, it is still a physical challenge heading downhill.  The only charm of Baxter Creek Trail is the Middle Earth quality of the dense fir trees and the heavy green moss that carpets the ground.  The water source for CS#37 is about a quarter mile down as the trail continues its descent.  Fortunately, the trail is not very rugged.  About a mile down, rhododendron show up but the conifers are still in firm control of the landscape.  Along this section there are the standing skeletons of huge hemlocks that the Creator has not yet given permission to fall.  Large conifers are the old men of the Smokies, keeping watch over the centuries and it is sad to see so many will fall in the next time but the cycle of life continues as the mos and new growth spring forth from the giants once they rest on the ground.

The conifers leave you by the time you are 2 1/2 miles down Baxter Creek Trail.  With 57 years old knees, I find that steep downhills are less efficient than ascents.  My rate is about 2.5 miles per hour and while the heart rate is less, the legs (knees) control the speed.  There are few landmarks along the remainder save a switchback and a bend here and there.  At 4.3 miles the sound of water music encourages you to pick up the pace toward the end.  The descent levels a bit and the walking becomes more pleasurable.  At this point, I noted that the most exciting aspect is watching the GPS count the mileage.  About a quarter mile from the end, one can make out the pathway from the campsite across Big Creek until finally, the bridge comes into view and you cross over to the parking area.

It’s always good to get back to the car before dark although it was a bit too dark for a picture of the Creek from the bridge.  But I’ll be back!  It’s an hour drive back to Knoxville and  burger at Aubry’s.

Strider Out!


Campsite #35 – Gilliland Fork

IMG_2780Campsite #35 – Gilliland Fork

Lower Mount Cammerer Trail – 3.3 miles from the Trailhead at Cosby Campground and , 4.1 miles from the trailhead on the Appalachian Trail.  Elevation 2,680

Capacity: 12

Rating: 5

Water: Gilliland Creek

Gilliland Fork Campsite is a bit unusual in that it is arranged in several sections labeled A, B, C, D and E.  The first 3 sites are near the creek.  A & B have nice grassy spots that appear to drain well for tents.  Site C is a little more impacted for some reason and may not drain as well.  Sites D & E are about 100 yd’s further up the trail.  They are much more secluded although level ground may be a challenge.  It seems that often among the flattest best places for a tent is directly under the bear cables and such is the case here.  But for hammocks, the upper sites offer much more privacy.

IMG_2779Rating Summary:

  • Well Drained Sites
  • Low Impact
  • Good Water
  • Bear Cables
  • Leave No Trace Layout




HikerHead 2  Shalom…

Campsite #18 – West Prong

CS #18

CS #18

Campsite #18 – West Prong

West Prong Trail – Campsite #18 is 2.1 miles from the trailhead at the parking area off Tremont Road.

Capacity: 12

Rating: 4

Water: Available from West Prong.

The hike in is relatively for overnighters and the site lays along the picturesque West Prong of the Little River.  The site is actually several sites but they are principally located in a front IMG_2640area on the West Prong and a more suitable area further behind.  The site’s capacity is listed as 12 but there is profound impact on the front area indicating a fair amount of overuse.  The area opens up immediately upon crossing the footlog over West Prong and the trial appears to pass through the middle of the site.  There is little ground cover and much exposed dirt which would drain poorly.  But there are plenty of level sites for tents.  There is no seclusion whatsoever in the front area.  The back area is a much better option.  In fact, the bear cables are located in the back section which may indicate that is IMG_2645the intended site.  But flat areas along the West Prong proved too attractive.

Rating Review

  • Bear cables – generally a given but some site may not have them
  • Good water source
  • Level tent sites
  • X Factor – West Prong is pretty nice.

HikerHead 2  Strider Out…

Getting the Word Out

IMG_2393 Blogging without sharing is a diary.  There’s nothing wrong with a diary and journals are often published.  One is never sure if what he has to share is worth sharing but there is only one way to find out.  So it is with  The site has been up a few months now and many of the kinks are straightened.  There is a flow and a bit of a routine and now there is enough content to prove to myself that this is more than a foggy idea.  Now it’s time to see if there’s anybody alive out there.

There is a growing community of those who desire to complete all the hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  I am 120 miles into my second tour and I created this website to capture the experience start-to-finish.  Hopefully it will serve as an online guidebook and offer insights on equipment, techniques and a bit of spiritual connection to creation and its Creator.

So with this social media debut, all the connections to Twitter and Facebook have been made and this is the maiden voyage.  (It’s really a test to see if it actually shows up anywhere).  If you manage to find it, give me a buzz and let me know what you think…

HikerHead 2  Shalom. Strider out…


Every journey has a beginning and an ending.  Given that humans are creatures bound by time and space, we tend to measure our journeys with various milestones and devices including clocks and maps and events.  All this effort serves to provide the stuff we use to tell the stories of our adventures.

The AT Thru-hiker starts somewhere, usually Springer Mtn., GA and ends, usually on Mt. Katahdin, ME.  Thru hikers will count the days and in some cases the hours.  They may track dates and locations and miles covered.  Rituals mark the start and finish such as signing in at the ranger stations in Amicalola State Park and at Baxter State Park.  Packs are weighed.  Pictures are taken.  Good-byes are said.  Tears are shed.  Memories are forged.

I suspect with 900 Milers, many don’t mark the beginning of their 900 miler journeys; at least the first time.  With me it was an awareness of having hiked several trails and then reaching the point where I decided to start tracking the mileage and the dates of which trails were hiked.  As a consequence, the actual “beginning” of the journey is not marked by any ritual or celebration.

But the second map is different.  A second 900 Miler is deliberate.  One begins with an awareness of what is to come and the challenges ahead.  Such an undertaking should be marked with a worthy kickoff.  Some sort of event that is befitting a four-year project such as starting on an iconic mountain.  Perhaps a unique challenge that is difficult and memorable.  Perhaps it is an activity for which the answer to the question “Why?” is difficult for the casual observer. Perhaps the answer to that question is simply, “because I wanted to see if I could…”

Mt. LeConte – Sunset from the Lodge

So why not hike all the trails up Mt. Leconte?  In 24 hours?  It’s a 45.7 mile challenge and it’s doable.  I know this because I did it 4 years ago.  That hike was documented in detail at  My original hiking partner for that hike was Brian Thomas and he is joining me again for this chapter. From what we learned the first time, Brian designed a route that minimizes altitude climbing and shuttling between trailheads.  With this new route, we hope to cut 2 hours off our original time of 22 hours and it will save about 900 feet of climbing.

Here is the new itinerary:

  1. Park at Rainbow Falls/ Bull Head Trail head
  2. Up Rainbow Falls (4,000 ft.) – Down Trillium Gap
  3. Up Bull Head (4,000 ft.) – Down Alum Cave
  4. Shuttle to Newfound Gap
  5. Up Boulevard (3,724 ft.) – Down Brushy Mtn.
  6. Car at Brushy Mtn. Trailhead in Greenbriar.

Date and time:  Saturday, September 19, 2015, 9:00 am EDT.

And so it begins…

A new map, a new journey

This blog began with the start of my second “900 Miler” quest.

For those who don’t know, there is an informal club of people who have hiked all the maintained trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  It is called the 900 Miler Club, which is a misnomer really because there are only officially 800.4 miles on the list.  On the other hand, if you complete this quest, you manage to hike over 1,000 miles to log the official list.


On the brushy summit of Brushy Mountain

On August 7, 2015, I summited Brushy Mountain in a rainy fog to complete the trek.  On my first “map” as it is called, I was fairly haphazard about documenting the experience.  The effort took many years and didn’t really take shape as a concerted effort until well into it.  On top of that, my main focus was to get it done.  I took a lot of pictures and tracked my mileage but there is no record of the experiences beyond the telling of tales around the water cooler.

I tend to hike alone mostly,  The reasons will be revealed as we go but for now let me say that one has a lot of conversations with himself and his Creator over a 900 mile odyssey.  One also meets interesting people, animals and as Mr. Muir would say, one also delights himself among the plant people.  So it seems appropriate this time that I should capture as much of the next experience as possible.

I intend to document the various hikes, of course, and we will end up with a fairly extensive photo account.  But I also want to share my encounters with Creator and Creation alike for this is the reason I saunter.  I’ll tell you about my gear and whether or not I like it or would buy it again.  We’ll talk about food and aches and pains.

If you’d care to reply, please do so.  I’d love to hear form you.

Enjoy the Smokies with me!

Mt Leconte from Clingmans Dome

Mt. LeConte – A Treasured Place Taken from Clingmans Dome