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Mt Sterling , continued

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  Mt. Sterling Fire tower

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Looking towards Mt. Cammerer

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View from the firetower

The 60 foot fire tower was built by the CCC in 1933. The trap door is open and if you don't mind a shaky 66 year old structure,  the views are breathtaking. The ridge to the west has another interesting fire tower on Mt. Cammerer. While camping here recently, a trip up the fire tower at night revealed one of the wilderness qualities that the Park has. No lights within the boundaries of the park. You could see the lights of Waynesville but couldn't see any (visible) within the 550,000 acres that park has. At sunrise it seemed like the mountains rolled on forever.
  If you look down in the valley to the  southeast you can make out I-40 over 4000 feet below. It's that white ribbon that winds between mountain ranges. Huge views and an interesting summit make this a great spot to take a break. After drinking in the views head back to Pretty Hollow Gap.    

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       Resting at Pretty Hollow Gap

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      The trail down to Cataloochee and campsite 39

After lowering the packs out of the trees head down Pretty Hollow Gap Trail. At this point the forest is mixture of spruce fir and hardwoods. The next 4 miles to campsite 39 is an easy downhill walk into the Cataloochee Valley. To the left of the trail, down a precipitous slope is Pretty Hollow Creek. As you descend to Cataloochee the forest changes from beeches and maples to hickory, oaks and pines. Welcome back to the South! After approximately 2 miles the trail crosses the creek and its a short stroll to Campsite 39 and the Cataloochee Valley.
The Cataloochee Valley has cool rushing creeks and some old growth timber. Campsite 39 is within sight of Pretty Hollow Creek. It is in a nice group of pines, and offers a reasonable amount of privacy. There are moss covered stone walls and several nice swimming holes. On a recent trip, Bear warning signs were posted around the campsite. Hang the food and grab the camera!   We had one watch us as we were eating. He or she was just waiting for us to look away or leave our food.
It is a short (1.2 mile) walk to Cataloochee, an interesting restoration of buildings that depict early mountain life. A Schoolhouse, Church and several houses are maintained for Park visitors. Cataloochee is one of the lesser traveled campgrounds (car) in the Park and has a couple of nice day hike trails.  Another worthwhile side trip.     

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Palmer Creek

After a restful nights sleep next to Pretty Hollow creek continue a few hundred feet on the trail to the junction with Palmer Creek Trail. Cross the creek on the foot bridge and begin a moderate climb up Palmer Creek Trail. The trail climbs up to Balsam Mountain Road and gains 1500' in elevation in 3 1/4 miles. The climb begins in a lush, cove hardwood forest. The creek is visible through the trees and the sound of rushing water fills the ears. After the trail crosses another footbridge the climb becomes steeper. Not a problem though, there are some cold drinks in the car. The forest becomes much drier and you will see more rhododendron as you approach Balsam Mountain Road. After reaching the road turn right and walk a 1/2 of a mile or so to the car. The ride out on the dirt road is like eating dessert after a great dining experience!

Gettin' There:
The Balsam Mountain area is just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Maggie Valley. Take I-40 to the Waynesville exit and take Rt. 19-74. Rt. 19 forks right and travels through Maggie Valley. After you pass through Maggie get on the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn towards Cherokee. In 5 or 6 miles a sign direct you to turn right to Balsam Mountain. Follow the road into the park and enter the Balsam Mountain Road at the end of the pavement. The dirt road is a high elevation ride that ends in Cherokee.

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