Mt. Sterling is located on the northwest side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the twelfth highest mountain in the park, and one of the highest not found on the Appalachian Trail outside Mt. Leconte.
Mt. Sterling is 5,842 feet high. The highlight of the mountain is an old fire tower situated on its peak. There is also a back country campsite for those who want to spend a night in the clouds.
The fire tower is great because there are not many good overviews on the trails approaching the peak as they are obstructed by trees and rhododendron. The fire tower takes climbers above the tree line and then some.
Climbing the fire tower is not for the faint of heart. The steps are step and the railings on the side do not meet at the next set of stairs, so you will have to remove your hands and reach for the next railings. Those that suffer from a fear of heights would feel much more comfortable having a continuous railing.
Being 5,842 feet above sea level, you can be sure it gets pretty windy on top of ole Mt. Sterling. This makes the fire tower climb even more precarious. You can feel the foundation shake with each gust.
Do not let fear grip you and stop you from this cool little adventure. The view of the surrounding Smoky Mountains from the top of the fire tower is well worth the sweating palms and palpitating heart. The top is protected by a little enclosure. The building at the top has some missing windows, which are perfect places to stick the camera through.
Once you are up the trick is now getting down. It is more frightening going down as you can see how far the fall would be. Just be careful and take it slow and soon enough the feet will be safe and secure on mother earth again.
There is no simple way to get to Mt. Sterling. From Cosby it is a tough 2.5 mile hike up to Low Gap then down 2.5 to Walnut Bottom. From there it is up the even more grueling Swallow Tail Fork Trail and then 1.8 miles to the summit. From Big Creek it is 6.1 miles to the peak straight up. The mountain can also be accessed from Cataloochee. It is four miles straight up Pretty Hollow Gap and then 1.8 miles to the summit.
If you want to stay the night this is possible as there is a tent camping spot right on the summit. If you head down the trail toward Big Creek there is a water source .4 miles down the trail. The water is well marked and it is a pipe with water dripping out. There is a sign to the water and then another sign when the water trail breaks off from the main trail.
If you are hiking up from Big Creek stop here before getting to the peak in order to save a .8 mile extra hike. They recommend boiling the water. I used a Steripen and survived.
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