Mt. Cammerer and Big Creek – Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC

 

Mt. Cammerer lookout tower perched on the ridge

Mt. Cammerer lookout tower perched on the ridge

You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve never had an overwhelming desire to hike in the Smokies. Our treasured national park attracts the most visitors per year of any national park in the country. Hovering just under 11 million per year, that is a lot of people. That means a lot of car traffic, a lot of confused tourists, overcrowded parking areas, and a lot of crowded trails. In fact I see the national park as a perfect magnetic field pulling tourists away from my favorite hiking areas in Pisgah National Forest. However, I’ve been banging out hikes in a 4-hour radius for years and new spots are drying up. It was time to revisit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time since I was 9 years old. I wanted something with waterfalls and views, and preferably a loop hike. I settled on the Big Creek region because it was close to I-40 and offered two big loops to Mt. Cammerer and Mt. Sterling, and would include at least one waterfall. Both mountains have lookout towers and thus are prized peaks by peakbaggers.

 

For some ridiculous reason I chose to do this the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, which meant the parking lots and trails were packed. I ended up choosing the Mt. Cammerer loop because I thought it would be easier and more scenic. My plan was to hike the Chestnut Branch Trail west to connect with the Appalachian Trail where I would head south to the Mount Cammerer Trail. After visiting the historic lookout tower I would continue south on the Appalachian Trail connecting with the Low Gap Trail. This trail descends towards Walnut Bottoms where it meets Big Creek where I could take the flat Big Creek Trail back to the parking lot passing by Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole. It was a long but fantastic hike and I am itching to get back to the park as soon as possible.

 

The drive to Big Creek is adventurous even though it is right beside the interstate. I-40 cuts through the mountains following Pigeon River at the base of the gorge. This is a winding, fun 55 mph drive, just keep your wits about you. Immediately after you cross into Tennessee take exit 451 and turn left under the interstate crossing the Pigeon River. Turn left onto Waterville Rd which parallels the river. You’ll notice this a popular section for fishing and water sports. The road turns right at a whitewater dropoff area then follows Big Creek into the national park. It was crowded in the park as I drove towards the end of the road. A ranger was waiting at the Big Creek campground parking directing traffic away from the lot. It was full. The lot beside the ranger station at the entrance was also full. The third lot is the horse trailer lot that had an upper parking area open for hikers. I was told to park far away from any trailers. Big Creek is not noted as one of the most crowded areas of the national park, but I chose the wrong weekend. Fortunately this loop hike will pass all 3 of these parking areas, so it actually doesn’t matter which lot you decide to park at.

Total distance: 18.46 mi
Max elevation: 5033 ft
Min elevation: 935 ft
Total Time: 07:49:11
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The Hike

The beginning of the hike was short road walk back on Big Creek Rd. The Chestnut Branch Trail is located on the other side of the bridge over the namesake creek, just before the parking area beside the ranger station. Initially the trail closely followed Chestnut Branch but did not offer many glimpses of the creek through the foliage. At mile 1.6 the trail switchbacks right sharply away from the creek and begins a punishing ascent up the ridge. It was a hot muggy day and this immediately made me break out in perspiration. Another switchback left and I was again heading west, still with a tough ascent. The trail was now well above Chestnut Branch and began following a small tributary that interweaved with the trail. This section is 2.1 miles into the hike, and is your last chance for water for a long, long time. You better think hard about filling up a bottle if you didn’t bring 2+ liters with you.

 

The Chestnut Branch Trail ends at mile 2.6 at a T-junction with the Appalachian Trail. Turn left heading south on the Appalachian Trail (white blaze) for a very pleasant 3.8-mile climb towards Mt. Cammerer. Although the ascent on the AT is steady, you can breathe here because it is much more gradual than the Chestnut Branch Trail. Plus the trail is beautiful! The trail construction and the surrounding forest really are spectacular throughout this section. Sometimes people lament the AT being a “green tunnel” for much of its length, but this type of green tunnel is enchanting. It seemed every half mile the forest would change ever so slightly but it seemed completely new at every turn. I really enjoyed this part of the hike even though I was continually gaining elevation.

Beautiful stretch of the Appalachian Trail

Beautiful stretch of the Appalachian Trail

You’ll pass by the Lower Mount Cammerer Trail at mile 3.6, an option if you are considering a longer backpacking trip. The next mile and a half is more of the same, but still beautiful. The trail rounds a cliff on one side and an unusual stone wall on the other side at mile 5.1. There is an open view from a rock outcrop east, Mt. Sterling dominates everything in view. It was hazy so it was difficult to pick out any of the mountain ranges beyond Maggie Valley. I kept hiking knowing I was getting close to the high point of the ridge. Mile 5.8 marks a Y-junction with the Mount Cammerer Trail, a half-mile spur trail to the lookout tower. Although the USGS topographic map shows the true summit of Mt. Cammerer to the left, you definitely want to turn right even if you’re dead tired.

View of Mt. Sterling from Appalachian Trail

View of Mt. Sterling from Appalachian Trail

Initially the Mount Cammerer Trail continues through the forest but slowly the trees fall away as the ridge narrows considerably. Even though you are just below 5,000 ft the tip of this ridge is covered in the flora of a heath bald, a surprising development in this area of the mountains since it’s more common above 6,000 ft. It could be due to the exposure from the west, or maybe it was cleared many years ago and weather prevented tall trees from regrowth. You’ll see the beautiful lookout tower poking above the trees as you get to the end of the trail.

Mount Cammerer Trail approaching the lookout tower

Mount Cammerer Trail approaching the lookout tower

There are many historical fire towers in North Carolina, but Mt. Cammerer might have the most scenic. This is easily one of the shortest and smallest fire towers in the state, but the lack in height arguably makes this one of the few towers that adds to the overall setting. The tower was originally built in 1939, the present version was restored in 1995. The stone octagonal tower sits at the tip of a northern rock promontory of Mt. Cammerer and isn’t actually located on the true summit of the mountain. That’s actually a good thing since the true summit it covered in trees.

Mt. Cammerer lookout tower

Mt. Cammerer lookout tower

One of the trickiest parts of the hike may be scrambling up that 10 feet of rock to the tower, especially if it’s wet. The incredibly small cab could probably sleep 6 people max, but there’s nothing on the interior of note. The views however, are outstanding. You are treated to a full panorama of this region of North Carolina and Tennessee, although you cannot actually view everything at once because the tower blocks the way so you have to walk around the narrow plank. Due north and east the Great Smoky Mountains abruptly fall away towards the Pigeon River Gorge. Farther northeast are the Bald Mountains that straddle the state border. If it wasn’t so hazy I think I would’ve been able to spot the FAA station on Snowbird Mountain and the massive bare Max Patch Mountain. The Newfound Mountains lie between you and Asheville to the east, if it was clear I think I would’ve spotted Crabtree Bald, the tallest mountain in the range. What probably is most striking to the average hiker is Mt. Sterling looming high to the southeast. I definitely was able to spot the 60-foot fire tower on the summit even with this haze. Farther south the ridges and mountains easily exceed 6,000 feet, including the 6,621-foot Mt. Guyot, the second tallest mountain in the Great Smokies.

Clouds shroud Mt. Guyot in the distance

Clouds shroud Mt. Guyot in the distance

This was by far the most people I had seen on the hike. Mt. Cammerer is a popular destination. Fortunately the minimum round trip is 12 miles, so I had respect for everyone there. It’s harder to enjoy a similar setting when a road brings hoards of casual tourists to beautiful area. I always get that feeling that I earner this, and they didn’t. I plopped down on some of the rocks after taking pictures and ate my lunch. Soon a group of hikers were cautiously eyeing a snake trying to hide in a chasm. They were all foreign tourists and believed it was a rattlesnake. But there was no rattle, it was a young copperhead, which still merits the utmost caution. Everyone admired it from a safe distance which is counter to what you’ll hear coming out of Yellowstone and similar national parks.

Young copperhead nestled in the rocks

Young copperhead nestled in the rocks

Heading back down the Mount Cammerer Trail I continually admired the views south of the clouds cloaking the summit of Mt. Guyot. It was unfortunate I had such a hazy, cloudy day because if clear I might have considered this one of the best viewpoints in the region. When you reach the Appalachian Trail, continue south as it gradually climbs to the true summit of Mt. Cammerer. At 5,042 feet it is not noteworthy for this park, and since the summit was shrouded in a thicket of rhododendron bushes beside the trail I decided against tagging it. The trail itself remained beautiful; sometimes line with tall grasses and sometimes with moss-covered rocks. I encountered my first of two groups of horseback rides between Mt. Cammerer and Low Gap. It is surprising that the national park allows horses on the AT. The trail is narrow and I had to scramble off the trail each time to avoid the horses.

Horses can also use the Appalachian Trail here

Horses can also use the Appalachian Trail here

You’ll reach the Low Gap Trail at Low Gap 9.2 miles into the hike. If you are camping at the Cosby Knob Shelter continue straight, otherwise turn left onto the Low Gap Trail as I did. This trail is also horse-use and had easily the highest number of annoying rocks of the hike. It descends moderately for 2.6 miles and will probably give you some foot pains. You’ll cross Low Gap Branch at mile 9.9, which is small here but seemingly gets much larger as you descend. You won’t see much of this stream, but there is an audible roar as the trail plows downhill. Shortly after this crossing the trail is lined with some exceptionally tall hardwood trees.

Beautiful stretch of Low Gap Trail

Beautiful stretch of Low Gap Trail

The Low Gap Trail ends at the Big Creek Trail at mile 11.8. If you turn right you’ll reach backcountry campsite #36 in ~0.4 miles. Turn left to return to the parking area. Backcountry campsite #37 will be on your right, but when I was here the site was closed due to aggressive bears. This region has seen rampant bear activity and many of these sites are intermittently closed. Please pack out all of your trash! The Big Creek Trail crosses a wide road bridge over Big Creek. This was my first glimpse of Big Creek and boy is it massive!. This is no ordinary creek, to me it is bigger than most rivers I’ve encountered in the mountains. And I was miles upstream from the popular swimming holes near the parking area.

First crossing over Big Creek

First crossing over Big Creek

From this road bridge you still have a long way to go, nearly 6 miles to the original starting point. Luckily this is a wide, flat road grade the entire trek. Although easy, the trail doesn’t intimately hug the creek as closely as you may like. You’ll have to pause and make quick detours to fully immerse yourself in the scenery. Almost immediately I stumbled upon some horse poop, covered in butterflies. Apparently butterflies love horse poop. When I walked by them they fluttered up all around me, kind of like a movie scene.

Butterflies on horse manure

Butterflies on horse manure

You’ll cross the second road bridge over Big Creek at mile 15.0 and shortly after around mile 15.4 you should spot Mouse Creek Falls across the waterway. Although there is no trail to the base of Mouse Creek Falls, it is easy to ford and scramble across Big Creek at this point (unless the water is really high). There is no need for it though because you have an excellent open view of the waterfall from the trail. Mouse Creek flows over a picturesque 35-foot double drop into Big Creek. I think I would have admired this waterfall a little more if there weren’t people constantly moving under it, and crowds beside me looking at me oddly as if taking a picture was weird. I snapped a few and moved on, maybe next time I’ll have it by myself with better lighting. Only half a mile later you’ll come to the next “waterfall” named Midnight Hole. I put waterfall in quotations because this really is a common 5-6 foot cascade. The drop is insignificant, but what makes it special is the creek funnels between large boulders above an incredible plunge pool for which it got its name. If you were perplexed at the amount of cars at the trail head, well this is where 90% of the people end up. It was past 6:00 PM and there had to be ~50 people milling about this area. I quickly moved on.

Very crowded Midnight Hole

Very crowded Midnight Hole

A few hundred feet after Midnight Hole there was a creek-wide cascade above 5 feet high that was beautiful. It also had zero people which was surprising. I was very tired at this point and almost at the finish line so I pressed on. When I passed through the campsites and first parking lot I noticed a group of horseback riders all stopped in front of me. They pointed out a female elk wandering through the campsites with little fear. This was the first time I’ve ever seen an elk in person, and they are certainly more impressive than a deer. I rarely see wildlife on my hikes, and my first elk was only a few hundred yards from my car. I finished the 17.8-mile in a tad under 8 hours exhausted but it invigorated my mind about hiking in the Smokies. This was a great introduction to this region of NC, and I think it would make an excellent backpacking weekend. I wouldn’t try this hike in a day unless you have the physical ability to handle the mileage and elevation gain, it is a whopper of a hike.

 

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