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Mount Sterling: History & Hiking to the Fire Tower

Mount Sterling is located on the east side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and features a fire tower with the highest elevation of any fire tower in the eastern United States. The abandoned metal spire reaches 60 feet over the 5,842 foot mountain on which it sits. It is a popular hiking destination with multiple different ways to reach it.

Mount Sterling History

The mountain itself gets its name from a 2 foot streak of lead in the Pigeon River discovered by early settlers in the Big Creek area. These settlers mistakenly thought the lead was silver. The valleys surrounding Mount Sterling's 7 mile ridge were popular hideouts for both Union and Confederate deserters during the Civil War. The CCC built the 60 foot fire tower at the summit in 1933 for traditional fire detection methods.

Interestingly enough, the national park first noticed the infestation of balsam wooly adelgid atop Mount Sterling in 1963. This parasite has killed off most of the fraser firs in the Great Smoky Mountains. The park continues to fight the infestation today.

Mt. LeConte and Mt. Guyot seen from Mount Sterling
Mt. LeConte and Mt. Guyot seen from Mount Sterling

Views From Mount Sterling

Why hike to Mount Sterling? If you're brave enough to climb to the top of the rickety old fire tower, you can see just about every mountain peak on this half of the national park and beyond. Some of these viewpoints include Mt. LeConte, Mt. Guyot, Luftee Knob, Mt. Cammerer, Clingmans Dome and Max Patch. However, the 60 foot tower doesn't exactly have guard rails on the way up, and even if you think you're not afraid of heights, the 5 steep flights of 14 steps each are quite nerve racking.

Mt. Cammerer seen from Mount Sterling
Mt. Cammerer seen from Mount Sterling
Mount Sterling seen from Mt. Cammerer
Mount Sterling seen from Mt. Cammerer

Hiking To Mount Sterling

The most popular and probably most difficult route to reach the fire tower is the 6.6 mile Baxter Creek Trail beginning at the Big Creek Campground. There is also the 2.3 mile Mt. Sterling trail which is a good bit further of a drive to the trailhead. If you're not up to hiking the short but brutal 4100+ foot climb of Baxter Creek, try a roundabout 17 mile loop hike from Big Creek Trail.

Baxter Creek Trail

Big Creek Trail (5.1 m)

What was probably my most difficult hike to date started off with a leisurely 5 mile stroll along the gorgeous Big Creek Trail. Not only does this trail feature a beautiful swimming hole (Midnight Hole) and waterfall (Mouse Creek Falls) in the first two miles, but there are plenty of spots where you can find easy access to the Big Creek itself, making it an excellent summer hike.

Big Creek Trail

Swallow Fork Trail (4 m)

The difficult part of this loop hike starts at the relatively unforgiving 4 mile Swallow Fork Trail. While the trail itself if a beautiful forest stroll - featuring tons of wildflowers in the spring - the 2200+ foot relentless elevation gain is quite the wake up call. Power through until you reach Mount Sterling Ridge on the Benton MacKaye Trail.

Swallow Fork Trail

Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail

From this intersection you will travel about 2 more miles before reaching the fire tower. This section of the trail offers a nice flat portion in the middle, and you will be grateful for it, but you will still climb around 500 more feet before reaching the summit. Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail is a horse trail that offers 3 miles of the flattest hiking in the high country portions of the park.

Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail
Mount Sterling

Mount Sterling Fire Tower

If you're anything like me, you'll take one look at this rusty old skyscraper and think, I certainly didn't come all this way not to climb that thing. I think it was the lack of railings that prevented me from going past the second story. You can still see quite a lot from here (see adjacent photo), but you'll probably regret not going further! Photos from the top of Mount Sterling are some of the most incredible sights you could find in the Great Smokies.

Northwest view of Mounts LeConte & Guyot
Northwest view of Mounts LeConte & Guyot
Eastern view behind the Baxter Creek trail sign
Eastern view behind the Baxter Creek trail sign
Northwest view and Campsite #38
Northwest view and Campsite #38
The 60 foot Mount Sterling fire tower
The 60 foot Mount Sterling fire tower

Caroline's GSM Hike Log

Hikes completed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GSM Hike


Total amount of miles hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains

RT Miles


Total amount of trails covered in the Great Smoky Mountains

Trail Miles


Total miles hiked on the GSMNP segment of the Appalachian Trail

AT Miles


Click here to read about more of Caroline's hikes