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Mt. Sterling Loop



LENGTH: 18.4 mile loop   SKILL:   Intermediate       - Advanced

PROS: Views, Firetower, Old Growth Trees, Wildlife

CONS: None       WATER: Plentiful

NOTES: Bears at campsite 39




Mt Sterling is in the northwestern section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This is a heavily traveled part of the park but it is still possible to enjoy the many features this area has to offer. This is a loop hike that requires a minimum of a two night stay in the backcountry. The Laurel Gap Shelter and Mt. Sterling campsites are rationed meaning that reservations are necessary to camp in these locations. The backcountry reservation center is open 7 days a week from 8AM to 6PM and can be reached at (423) 436-1231. Campsite 39, in the Cataloochee area is not rationed but you still must fill out a backcountry permit. The Backcountry Camping Link has complete details about permit procedures. This process is essential to the survival of the Park because of the heavy traffic it receives. The hike begins and ends at Pin Oak Gap on Balsam Mountain Road. The road is a dirt road that takes you deep into the backcountry of the Balsam Mountain Area. Unfortunately it is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I highly recommend picking up a trail map from the Park Service before heading into the backcountry. It sells for the paltry sum of one dollar and is a wealth of information. It can also prevent getting lost in the backcountry.       

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The hike begins at Pin Oak Gap at a small parking area on the right side of the road. Don't miss it! This is a one way road. Look closely at the sign placed by the Park Service, it has claw marks from a Bear on it. This is how a male Bear marks his territory. Notice also that the sign is surrounded by berry bushes, one of the staples in a Bears diet. The trail follows an old road and climbs 4.5 miles to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail. It is a moderate climb because the Balsam Mountain Road begins at a 4500' elevation, the road did most of the climbing for you! The tread way is relatively smooth so the climb is not a burden.

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Pin Oak Gap

At 2.3 miles the trail reaches Beech Gap, thick green grass grows here. To the left and to the right of the Balsam Mountain trail two railroad grades peel off. Both descend down the mountainside to lower elevations. More evidence of the extensive logging that this area sustained during the early 1900's. After another mile and a half of steady climbing you reach Balsam High Top, the high point of this section of the trail. At 5184' the Cataloochee residents would only graze their cattle here in the Summer. From there it is a short downhill walk to the Laurel Gap Shelter.

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Laurel Spring at Laurel Gap Shelter

The shelter is in a large grassy clearing and has the characteristic Smokies chain link bear proofing. The spring is on a trail that is directly in front of the shelter. This spring is a must see because of its unique beauty, it is actuality several small streams flowing downhill through a mossy ferny northern hardwood forest.  After spending the night in the shelter head up the trail a short distance to the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail.



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                      Laurel Gap Shelter    


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The Wild Hogs wallow in mud spots on the trail. Notice the large indentation.    

After turning left on this nearly level trail is immediately obvious that wild hogs have been at work. Throughout the 4 mile walk to Pretty Hollow Gap the remnants of hog rooting, or hunting for food, is all around the trail. There are no natural predators for this creature and its presence in the park is by accident.



The hogs are not indigenous to the park and foul streams and springs and damage rare foliage. Several hogs escaped from a private hunting preserve during the early part of the century and have multiplied to great numbers. Although they are an extreme danger to the environment, they don't threaten hikers. Backcountry Rangers hunt them from horseback, however, this has done little to reduce the population of the elusive creature. 

This pleasant walk is through a Northern Hardwood forest consisting of Beeches and Maples. This is an indicator of the elevation. There are numerous spring streams and seeps that cross this short stretch of hikers heaven. Every time I come here I must remind myself to walk slowly. The views are worth spending some time on this short stretch of trail. The grass that lines the trail is a shade of green that makes this environment seem surreal. Occasional springs and seeps cross the trail but not enough to make it inconvenient. There are paths around the muddy spots. After an awe inspiring walk the trail descends into Pretty Hollow Gap. This trail junction is an excellent place to drop the packs and hang them between two trees. Because of the panoramic views, the steep hike up to Mt. Sterling is a very worthwhile side trip. Why carry your pack?  Grab a water bottle and head up to the fire tower on top of a 5,842 foot mountain. After you have your fill of the the great views you must back track to Pretty Hollow Gap.      

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