Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower and Baxter Creek Trail

I am a junkie.  I admit it; I take personal responsibility for it; I acknowledge it to all who ask or will listen; I'm not ashamed of it!  I am an elevation junkie, pure and simple!  And I love winter hiking because it feeds that addiction with every step of a trail that leads to peaks or balds.  This is a wonderful time of year to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in all its grandeur because not only do you have spectacular views at the destination, you get them in snippets all along the way.

The view from Mt. Sterling Trail early in the morning
On days like yesterday when the temperatures are moderate and there is minimal snow on the ground to make hiking treacherous, one of my favorite things to do is get high! I mean that in every sense of the word.  Making my way into the upper elevations fills me with an excitement and joy that I know comes from the Lord.  How can one hike in this place and not sense His majesty and power?  Others may be able to, but I cannot.

Mt. Sterling Trail is a 2.7 mile hike with an elevation gain of about 2000 feet.  Temps were in the upper 20s when we began the hike, but within the first half mile or so, we were shedding layers.  By then I was hiking in only my cuddleduds long underwear shirt and a short-sleeved active wear top.  My fleece lightweight hoodie and my favorite Mountain Hardwear soft-shelled jacket were tucked inside my pack and strapped on the outside, respectively.  We were sweating with the elevation change, that's for sure!

One good thing about taking pictures as you hike is that is gives you a good excuse to stop on these intense climbs and catch your breath without having to own up to needing to stop to give you heart time to get out of your ears and back down into your chest.  That was the case on this hike, but there were always great views to stop and try to capture in the camera.

It took us almost 2 hours to hike that 2.7 miles, but stopping along the way to enjoy these kinds of views was a part of the fun.  One thing I enjoy about my hiking buddies is that we are in the woods to enjoy what it has to offer, not race through them to see how fast we can finish.  There's just too much beauty to fly past it.

Mt. Sterling Fire Tower
At the end of the Mt. Sterling Trail is the fire tower.  It rises 60 feet above the ridgeline which was whipped this day by some fairly brisk winds.  This is one of only a handful of fire towers built by the CCC during the Great Depression that remain standing.  Climbing the tower is not for the faint of heart, especially on a day like this with winds that seemed to be trying to keep you from making it to the top.  The open staircase dares you to look down, but at least this tower has handrails on both sides, unlike the similar structure on the top of Shuckstack Mountain which has lost one side of its handrail on at least one section of the stairs.

I had been told, and yes it is true, that the tower shakes a bit in the winds up there.  But let me assure you, the views from the top are worth swallowing your fears and pressing on.  My iPhone 5 camera is pretty good especially with the HDR setting engaged, but no camera can truly capture what you see from the top when you get the courage to look out.

Climbing back down the tower was worse than going up, but you can't stay up there forever, even though you're tempted to do just that. 

Our descent of Mt. Sterling took us along the Baxter Creek Trail which meanders steeply down a 6.1 mile path of switchbacks and follows the contours of this great mountain through ever-changing forests to take you down about 4000 ft. Sometimes you're surrounded by massive boulders and outcroppings of stone that must have been heaved up out of the ground by powerful forces of colliding continental plates eons ago.  Sometimes you step around a curve to see masses of soft, thick moss literally covering everything much like a landscape which has been overtaken by kudzu, but much more enchantingly beautiful.  Then, oddly enough, it was in the middle elevations of this north face of the mountain that we encountered a dusting of snow--just enough to make it lovely.  

I had heard horror stories of this trail.  Twitter friends who had hiked it told me how steep it was and that they had love-hate relationships with this trail, but they must have been going UP it.  Going down, it provided several hours of enjoyment with the exception of one moment when I apparently was looking off trail.  My left foot tangled on a root and instantaneously, I felt myself falling and landing with a thud on my side on the trail.  I didn't even have time to try to break my fall.  I think my hiking pole must have also been tangled which caused me to fall on my side instead of directly forward.  I fell straight on my ribcage under my left arm and caught a root that took the full force of my fall.  I instantly thought, "that's a great way to break a rib." But, I got up slowly, and everything still worked, thankfully.  The rest of the way down, I worried about the pain in my side and arm, but didn't mention it to anyone.  I think I'm ok, but I'm still not sure I haven't cracked a rib.  Guess time will tell.  This is my first major fall in probably more than 700 miles of hiking.  I knew it would happen one day, and I'm thankful it wasn't worse.  

Within the last half mile, we began to feel a light sprinkle of rain making it's way through the canopy above us, but we stayed dry.  It was only after we had crossed Big Creek and made our way back to the waiting vehicle that it really started to rain.  We had been lucky in more ways than one on this day.  

1 comment:

  1. So glad to see you're back! I love the Smokies too but don't make it down there often enough.