THE HIKE: This 5.6 mile roundtrip moderate hike sits at the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. Given its distance from the major tourists towns, you will rarely find this trail busy and get a chance to enjoy some peace and solitude in the mountains. Your goal for this hike is a 60 foot fire tower that sits at the summit at 2.8 miles in where amazing views can be had for endless miles.
In the early days of the park, fire towers were everywhere. Most of them have gone into disrepair. This is one of only four that remain. The hike itself will gain about 2,000 feet of elevation in just 2.8 miles. It will not be an easy hike. Indeed you will be climbing and climbing most of the way. Luckily, the trail is fairly even and well-graded, and this helps even out the burden of the uphills.
Your first arrival point occurs at .5 mile. You will arrive at a trail junction. Stay straight. As you continue further up the trail, you will begin to hear water rushing. When you reach the 2 mile point, that water source appears. This is a great place to rest and fill up your water bottles as you press on. As you march forward, keep your eyes open. The opportunities to see wildlife along this trail are abundant. Given the remote location, there is much that you might see that not get a chance to view on a busy trail like Laurel Falls.
You will also begin to notice several switchbacks. You know that the trail is really climbing at this point. However, you are getting close to your goal. At 2.3 miles, you will arrive at another trail junction with the Benton McKaye Trail. Benton McKaye is best known as the father of the Appalachian Trail. However, you will not be going this way today. Take a right onto the Mount Sterling Trail.
Only .5 mile separate you from the summit. The fire tower will now be coming into view as you get closer. When you reach the summit at 2.8 miles, your initial reaction might be disappointment. There are no views to be had through the thick foliage. However, the 60 foot tower will provide you with amazing views of Max Patch along the Appalachian Trail among other mountain vistas. Standing at an elevation of 5,842, the Mount Sterling fire tower is the tallest tower in the east. The tower itself feels a little rickety, but it is stable. It is a great place to enjoy the view and perhaps even lunch.
Campsite #38 is right next to the fire tower and a great place to overnight in the park. Reservations must be made in advance, so be aware of that. However, the ability to watch both sunrise and sunset from this location make this one of the very best places to camp in the entire Smoky Mountains. Be aware that temperatures at this elevation are much lower than in towns, so be sure to plan accordingly.