Mount Sterling (5,842 feet) is as grand as many of the 6,000 footers. The peak has an unmistakable silhouette and is recognizable from many miles away. Its location and height make it a perfect place for a fire observatory. All the fire towers I have climbed have had an open metal framework with wooden or metal stair treads. They are broad at the base but narrow at the top for stability, generally 60- to 100-feet high. Their height alone ensures a good view, but the fact that they are strategically located on mountains with natural panoramas gives them perspectives of huge proportion.
North Carolina has approximately 60 fire towers still standing, and of those, 25 are still being used for fire detection. This is less than half of the original count of 134 N.C. towers. There are only four fire towers left inside the Smokies; several others were dismantled during the 1980s. My wife had dropped me off at the trailhead at Mt. Sterling Gap, so I would not have to backtrack. She drove to Cataloochee Valley to pick me up there at trail’s end.
The trail climbs nearly 2,000 feet in less than three miles. In early springtime, the appropriately named spring beauty carpets the mountainside along the trail. Pink-striped white blossoms dot the green groundcover of this edible wildflower.
The route passes through some magnificent red spruce groves though many individuals have lost their grip on the steep slope. A number of large trees had fallen across the trail, but the Park Service had cleared all of them, and it was no problem getting around them. Some were nearly three feet in diameter. Luthiers (stringed instrument makers) and musicians covet this old growth red spruce. It is highly valued as a tone wood for guitar and mandolin tops, but all the trees in the National Park are protected from harvesting.
Mt Sterling is somewhat of a crossroads. That was the impression I got as I savored the view from the tower. I had encountered no other hikers until I got near the top of the mountain where I passed a pair of overnighters coming from camping on the peak. From the tower I watched as another couple came into view from the Cataloochee side of the ridge. Then, another fellow came up from the Baxter Creek Trail that climbs six steep miles from Big Creek. I went down to have a bit of lunch and found that the first two hikers were old friends of mine who had come up the Pretty Hollow Gap trail. They had the longest hike of the day at 14 miles.
I lingered a bit after the other parties had left, climbed the tower once more and watched a young fellow emerge from the woods below me, pumping his hiking poles fast as he could. He checked his watch, and continued down the trail without even looking up at the tower. Who am I to judge, but I couldn’t help but wonder why he even bothered to come and where he was going in such a hurry since the real views can only be had by climbing the tower.
Another young couple was just arriving at the tower as I was leaving. They were traveling light and even though they climbed the tower, they passed me again shortly after I started down the trail. I saw no one else the rest of my hike.
I headed west on the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail, which is open to horses. Anyone who hikes bridle paths will tell you that they are a bit different from trails restricted to foot-travel. Loose rocks are everywhere — not just gravel but stones in the 5- to 15-pound range. Dodging them was hard on my feet and knees. I had to keep turning my legs in various angles trying to avoid the stones, or to regain my balance if a rock rolled under a misplaced boot. The worst part of having to dodge these trail floaters is that the attention paid to them is attention you cannot spend on the scenery.
From the tower for a mile and a half, the trail gently descends through open woods with large old trees to Pretty Hollow Gap, another major crossroads where four trails come together. The ridgetop trail continues westward to Cataloochee Balsam and the Appalachian Trail. Swallow Fork Trail descends northwesterly to Walnut Bottoms at Big Creek. I turned south onto Pretty Hollow Gap Trail toward Cataloochee.
The remainder of my hike involved no climbing at all, only a gently descending grade. I appreciate the trail construction the Civilian Conservation Corps did in the Park in the late 1930s. Most of it was difficult physical labor involving hand tools, but what impresses me most is how the trails are laid out to flow with the lay of the land and take advantage of natural overlooks and other beauty spots — features that are not obvious on maps. This required some advance reconnoitering and excellent surveying skills and was hard work in itself.
I’ve never talked to a CCC’er who complained about the difficulty of the work or the lifestyle. It is ironic that many voices were raised against the presence of the CCC in the Park. There were those who thought they did too much damage by building too many trails, cutting them too wide, destroying vegetation, not to mention the numerous camps in the Park. Most remnants of the CCC have since vanished, grown over by creeping vine, moss, and the rich diversity of life in the Smokies.
Pretty Hollow Gap Trail winds its way through many areas of virgin forest. In one damp grove, a trio of huge eastern hemlocks formed a natural cathedral. I paused there to reflect a bit on the hundreds of years that have passed since these trees were seedlings. It was a bittersweet moment because I knew these hemlocks were near the end of their lives, not from old age, but because of a tiny, non-native insect, the hemlock wooly adelgid. As I moved on down the trail, there were many more large hemlocks. I tried my best to commit the beauty of them to memory — from the texture of their bark to their twisted limbs and feathery-needled branches providing shade and protection to the forest below. I could not help but mourn the future loss of these sovereign giants.
I passed through a huge boulder field, remnants of an ancient rockslide. Gnarled tree roots wrapped themselves around timeworn stones covered with lichens and stonecrop. In wetter areas, large rocks were almost hidden beneath a blanket of ferns and Dutchman’s Breeches. An amphibian had lined up perfect rows of bubble-like eggs in the cold water of a small tributary. Nature had taken hold of every available space.
Pretty Hollow Creek widened and became noisier and eventually joined up with Palmer Creek. The sun sank lower, backlighting the tree trunks and ferns along the trail. My knees were aching from the seven downhill miles, and the soles of my feet were tender. I passed Turkey George’s old place, then the horse camp. With a two-way radio, I called my wife. When she arrived to pick me up, she found me standing barefooted in the numbing creek water. I didn’t have to say a word about the hike.
My huge grin already told her.