Mount Sterling Lookout - 5,842'

Mount Sterling Lookout


Mount Sterling is a high forested peak located near the far eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At nearly 6,000-feet in elevation, its upper reaches are thickly covered in the spruce-fir forest type which the high summits of the Smokies are famous for. Unlike many of these forested high summits, however, Mount Sterling offers up stunning views…by way of an old fire tower built on its summit in the 1930’s. The 60-foot high steel tower is still used for communication purposes and thus enjoys a certain amount of upkeep against the harsh conditions at the summit. Happily, it is also kept open for hikers. As long as heights don’t bother you too much you can climb the winding staircase, above the treetops, to the enclosed cab. I’ll let the pictures that follow speak to the beauty you’ll enjoy from the top. It is absolutely one of the most stunning vantage points I’ve yet visited in all the Smoky Mountains. Despite its rather remote location, Mount Sterling isn’t all that difficult to access. The frequently rough and rutted Mount Sterling Road, which connects the Big Creek and Cataloochee areas of the park, runs just to the east of the peak. At Mount Sterling Gap there’s parking and the Mount Sterling Trail departs uphill for the 2.7-mile trek to the summit. This is a fairly popular hike, so don’t expect much solitude, but it’s a beautiful one…and one I had long looked forward to making.

Mount Sterling Gap is located approximately 6.7-miles south of Big Creek via Mount Sterling Road or, alternately, 7.9-miles north of Cataloochee Campground. Though the road is generally passable for most vehicles I wouldn’t take anything too low-slung up it and I’d definitely check conditions via the park website as it is closed on occasion after severe weather. The trail from the gap is obvious, as it heads up the steep slope to the west beyond a locked metal gate. Take a good look at the grade the trail is climbing beyond the gate. It’s 2.3-miles to the summit ridge and, no joke, the climb rarely eases from what you see here along that distance. This trail is a grind, plain and simple. Make sure you have your mountain legs before setting out on this one. Starting the climb the forest covers the steep hillsides surrounding you, immediately plunging you into a tunnel of green. The first half-mile offers a good, albeit aggressive, warm-up to the hike. At this point, after the one and only very short descent along the climb, you’ll pass the Long Bunk Trail coming in from the south. Beyond the junction the grade steepens once again…and this time it’s not going to let up until the top of the ridge. Up, up, up…thick forests to all sides…no views…like I said before, it’s a grind. As you near the 5,000-foot mark, however, you’ll start to notice some changes in your surroundings. More frequently now conifers are mixing into the woodland, becoming all the more dominant the higher you climb. A half-mile from the ridge the trail passes through an old power line cut, which used to service the tower above. The views from the cut are the first of the hike and a tantalizing taste of what you’ll enjoy from the lookout.

The Mount Sterling Trail reaches the crest of the ridge at a large signed junction with the Mount Sterling Ridge Trail. To reach the lookout, you’ll need to now make a right (north) for the final 4/10-mile climb to the top. You’ll still be climbing at this point, but not nearly to the degree you have prior. The forest up here has transitioned to a nearly pure high elevation spruce-fir variety, with mosses and ferns common as well. It’s a beautiful stretch of trail to finish your climb with. Just before reaching the summit the trail passes through a small clearing with a hitching post at its upper end, then a couple campsites, followed a few steps later by the lookout tower itself. Save the narrow view down the old power line cut there’s no view to be had from the summit. A small grassy clearing surrounds the lookout but you’ll have to climb a few flights of stairs to get the eye candy you deserve for your efforts on this hike. Being moderately acrophobic, I can attest that the climb up the airy steps to the cab (especially in a stiff breeze) can be exhilarating to say the least. It’s the view from the top, though, that’s sure to take your breath away. To the south is the Cataloochee Divide and the numerous ridges surrounding the Cataloochee Valley itself. To the southwest the Mount Sterling Ridge extends to the broad forested dome of 6,155’ Big Cataloochee. Then there’s the west and north…where the towering and remote peaks of the eastern Great Smoky Mountain Range rise like a serrated castle wall. Mount Guyot, second highest in the Smokies at 6,641’, dominates the ridge while to each side a half-dozen other 6,000-footers line the horizon. It’s a stunning vantage point to say the least…one that easily distracts from any vertigo you might have, at least briefly. The return simply retraces the steps you took up here…and is wonderfully now all downhill.

Mount Sterling is a classic Great Smoky Mountain hike. It’s a tough one though. If you’re of a suitable fitness level, the climb will probably not bother you any more than a good workout would. For the uninitiated in mountain hiking, however, the climb will likely be nothing short of torture. If for any other reason I can’t recommend this hike to just anyone. Make sure you have the ability before heading out. The reward from the top is nothing short of incredible. It’s incredibly fortunate that the lookout itself has been maintained and, even more incredible perhaps, that the park sees fit to allow hikers access to it. This was a fun one for me so, without further ado, it’s my great pleasure to invite you along with me for a hike up to the Mount Sterling Lookout Tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.700233, -83.097418

Route Type: Out-and-back      Difficulty: HARD (Petzoltd Rating: 9.40 )    Hike Length: 5.4 miles      Hike Duration: 3:00      Trailhead Temp: 65'F                             Trail Traffic: 10-25 people      Min. Elevation: 3,888'      Max. Elevation: 5,842'      Total Vertical Gain: 2,000'      Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 741' (ascent only)

Trails Used (blaze color): Mount Sterling (unblazed), Mount Sterling Ridge (unblazed)


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9-6-2020