I made my second trip up to the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower this year on another beautiful day. This time the trip would be a little longer, coming in at close to 20 miles. Since this was the last day of Daylight Savings Time, I was up and on the road at 5:30 in the morning so we could start in time to not be pushing dark.
The hike began at Pretty Hollow Gap Trail in Cataloochee. On the way in to the trailhead, there were tons of elk in the fields, including a very large male with an impressive set of antlers. The sun was just starting to shine in the valley with all the mist and fog, so it was truly an amazing site to see! We started off up Pretty Hollow Gap Trail at 8:20 a.m. and in the first 0.8 miles didn’t gain much elevation. We passed the horse camp at 0.2 miles and came to the Little Cataloochee Trail at mile 0.8. The trail is still very much a wide road and gravel. Horse poop is everywhere. The large road continued upward to mile 1.6 where Palmer Creek Trail connects and goes to Balsam Mtn. Road. Shortly ahead, campsite #39 had only one camper there for the night. Who can blame people for not camping? It was 28 degrees in Maggie Valley on Friday night! Just past the campsite is where our real uphill began and continued on for about 6 more miles. We crossed a few frozen foot logs, which were nice and slippery, and had a good creek crossing where my feet got a little wet. The trail had narrowed considerably at this point to the size of a normal foot path and remained muddy and deeply trenched almost the entire way to the top. Horse poop was everywhere as well. When I hiked on the other side of Cataloochee in the early fall, we had remarked how we thought there’d be more mud. I think we found it today!
At about 10:45, we reached the top of this trail at Pretty Hollow Gap. There was a lot of frost at the top of the hill and it was substantially cooler. We took a short break and began the 1.4 miles left until we reached the fire tower. Having hiked this portion of the trail previously, I knew what we were in for. The trail wasn’t as steep as I had remembered and the climb up to the top went by quickly. We were up to the tower in less than an hour and there was a huge group of people up there. The views were just as stunning as before on this clear morning and it was a great time to take photos and take it all in. We stayed at the top and had lunch before heading down the trail.
Coming down Mount Sterling Trail was a little steeper than the route we’d climbed up on Pretty Hollow Gap. The trail was rocky and covered with leaves, so you had to have careful footing, as well as keen eyes so not to step in horse poop. The views all the way down the hill were amazing and elevation was lost rather quickly. There were only two switchbacks on this trail as well, so it was definitely nice to have the views in your line of site. At 1:20, I reached the junction of Long Bunk Trail and waited on my friends. Elise and Mary ran out the 0.5 miles and then back to complete this portion of trail for Elise’s map while Lyn and Lorelei continued on down Long Bunk.
Elise, Mary, and I started down Long Bunk Trail and immediately we ran into deep leaves and horse ruts. This trail was definitely gorgeous, but technically a nightmare due to the fact that the ruts were deep and not visible underneath the leaves. It was nice to have a good set of trekking poles on this trail because I stumbled pretty much the whole way! The mud trenches going up and downhill on this trail were killer and much like quicksand. Your feet would get stuck, you’d stub your toes, and fall over. Don’t forget horse poop! You’re well acquainted by now! It was very obvious this trail was a road at one time, widening out close to the trailhead and home sites were definitively obvious near the creek crossings. With 0.2 miles until the Little Cataloochee Trail, the Hannah Cemetery was on our left with more than 50 graves and a few very elaborate headstones.
We all met up at the Little Cataloochee Trail and Elise and Mary went out to grab an extra 1 mile for Elise’s map, leaving Lyn, Lorelei, and myself to head on alone. This part of the trail was definitely the most rewarding. Less than 0.5 miles down the trail, the Hannah Cabin had been moved and restored off the right side of the trail. Continuing onward to mile 0.6 was the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, which sat at the top of a hill and was beautifully maintained with a large cemetery. Continuing onward and now downhill for a bit, you pass through the former community of Ola. There were lots of fence remnants and wash tubs out in the woods to see as you passed by. Finally, at mile 1.6, you come to the Cook Cabin. The old applehouse stone structure is standing on one side of the creek and on the other the cabin, restored in the 1990s after years of vandalism. From here, we had a big, but short uphill segment. There was a lot to look at on our way up the hill, including lots of stone walls leading up to Davidson Gap. After reaching the gap, it was all downhill until we hit the car.
I ended up breaking away from Lyn and Lorelei after taking a break at the top of Davidson Gap. The hiking went quickly from here, albeit muddy with the creek running in the trail at some points. The last bit of Little Cataloochee Trail was a blur. By the time I reached Pretty Hollow Gap Trail, I was flying downhill and reached the parking lot at 5:20 p.m. Lyn and Lorelei were close behind at 5:45. I had lots of time to wait on Mary and Elise, who came at 6:30.
The sun set soon after we got to the car and the hike was perfect in it’s own way. I wish the mud and the horse poop hadn’t been so bad, but it is a heavily used area and the weeks leading up to our hike had been so beautiful that so many people had been out using the trails. I truly enjoyed this hike and all the history that came with it.