18.4 mile loop SKILL: Intermediate
Views, Firetower, Old Growth Trees, Wildlife
None WATER: Plentiful
Bears at campsite 39
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
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.
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.
at Laurel Gap Shelter
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.
Laurel Gap Shelter
Wild Hogs wallow in mud spots on the trail. Notice the large indentation.
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
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.