Thursday, May 31, 2012

One Night Backpack

We haven’t been backpacking in a very long time.  I actually can’t remember the last time.  It may have been in 2009 when D-Tour and I did a section on the Appalachian Trail.  Gene didn’t go with me that year so who knows when he last backpacked.

We’ve been hauling these packs and gear around all this time and occasionally have that discussion of whether or not to get rid of all this extra weight.  I was always the one who was reluctant knowing I wanted to do these trails in the Smokies.  So here we are.  Just back from the first backpack in years and have the aches and pains to prove it, but it was a great trip.

The trail I needed was Swallow Fork.  Our plan was to do a loop hike beginning at Big Creek Campground on the northeastern side of the park.  We would hike up Big Creek Trail for about 5 miles to backcountry campsite 37 just past Swallow Fork trailhead.  The next morning we would hike up Swallow Fork Trail to Mount Sterling Ridge Trail which connects to Baxter Creek Trail.  We’d take Baxter Creek Trail down to Big Creek Campground for a total of 16.7 miles.

It took most of Tuesday to get our packs ready.  We had to find everything, since it has been stuck in any nook and cranny available in the motorhome.  We were pretty pleased with our pack weight after we were finished.  Gene ended up with 28 lbs and mine was 24 lbs.  There is a whole discussion about pack weight that I won’t go into now, but I will say that we are pretty old fashioned and still carry external frame packs.

Lunch the first day by Mouse Creek Falls
We only had 5 miles to hike the first day so we didn’t rush out at the crack of dawn.  We had our breakfast and rechecked and double checked our lists again.  It would have been easy to forget something since we’re so out of practice, but fortunately we got there with everything we needed.

Big Creek Trail is a dream.  As the name implies, it follows Big Creek upstream all the way to our campsite gaining about 1250 feet over the five miles.  The trail crossed the creek several times, but fortunately always on footbridges.  It’s a horse trail which gets a lot of use, so you have to watch your step.

The kitchen
Campsite 37 is right on the creek. This is apparently a popular place and there is room for many tents.  I think the limit is twelve people, but there were eleven there Wednesday night and plenty of room for several more.  We got there before anyone else and had the pick of site to pitch our tent.  We chose one next to the creek.
Hanging the packs for the night

Ready for day 2

This morning we broke camp and headed up Swallow Fork Trail.  This was our big climb for this trip, gaining over 2000 feet in four miles, most of which was in the last half.  The trail follows Swallow Fork upstream almost the entire length of the trail.  This was a beautiful little creek and it made the trail so enjoyable.  We did have to ford it a couple times, but both were easy rock hops.  Swallow Fork Trail ends high in the spruce-fir forest at that beautiful gap where it junctions with Pretty Hollow trail.  We were here just a few weeks ago and like then we took a nice long break.

Lunch at Mt Sterling Fire Tower

Mount Sterling Ridge Trail was next from Pretty Hollow Gap.  This was another tough climb.  It was only about 700 feet, but after climbing most of that the trail went over a bump in the mountain and dropped down several hundred feet.  I hate it when I have to gain elevation twice.  This little two mile stretch of Mount Sterling Ridge Trail really got to us.  I think we were getting pretty tired by then.

Mount Sterling fire tower (elevation 5800 ft) is still open for anyone wanting a good workout.  Gene went up about a third of the way, but I sat that one out.  The last time I was at the fire tower the trees and shrubs were short.  Now they’ve all grown up and blocked the view.  We did get a glimpse off the mountain at the trail junction with Baxter Creek Trail.

Everything on Baxter Creek Trail was covered in moss
Baxter Creek Trail was all downhill.  Finally, we needed a break. This trail drops down from Mt Sterling to Big Creek Campground--5000 feet over 6 miles.  It’s steep and it’s rocky. The first mile down Baxter Creek Trail from Mt Sterling is through that high elevation forest I love so much.   As we continued downhill, that constant pounding of our feet began to take its toll.  We were sure glad to see the car after this long day.

I’m gonna stop there.  I may think of more to add tomorrow, but I too tired now.

So, that’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.


  1. I love hiking, but have never tried backpacking. The thing that stops me is the lack of bathroom facilities.

    1. Daytime bathroom is not so bad; it's the going out at night that I don't like.

  2. Looks like a great trip! Nice scenery. I've gotten back into backpacking and am planning a couple of trips this summer. Maybe this will be the beginning of more trips for you!

    1. We used to do a lot of backpacking and have spent as much as 2 months out on the AT. I loved it then; not so much now. I think I'm getting soft in my old age. Like those creature comforts too much.

  3. Looks like a great trip, perfect mileage for 2 days, might have to check this one out.

    1. It was a nice trip. I wish there had been a campsite closer to the middle of the loop. That 12-mile second day seemed really hard.

  4. My wife and I have recently began discussing the desire to purchase an RV and do the same thing when we a few years left, though. Over the past few years we have grown to love getting out on trails in our Georgia State Parks and we hope to visit some in the Great Smokey Mountains soon.