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Rock/Creek staff report from a Great Smoky Mountains backpacking trip

Now that it would appear the heat of Summer has come and gone, it’s prime backpacking season again. Spring and Fall in the southeast are still warm enough to be pleasant, but not so hot that we’ll find you crumpled in a heap along the trail! Here is a trip report from a Great Smoky Mountains National Park backpacking trip some of our staff took earlier this year, before the real heat set in… thanks to R/C general manager Jim Sapere for writing about the trip, and manager Will Cornett for providing photos!

We started our backpacking trip at Big Creek campground, camping next to the river before starting our hike the next morning. It was a really peaceful place to sleep for me, and the campsites were nice. Immediately upon waking, we donned our backpacks and started the 6-mile uphill battle to the top of Mount Sterling. It was well-shaded almost the entire way up, which gave us a break from the heat.

It took about 4 hours to get to the top, and once we arrived the bugs were relentless! Fortunately we had some DEET, which successfully made them disappear… that stuff really works!

We originally set up camp directly below the fire tower; seeking additional shade, we moved to the horse camps around the corner and found that the bugs were minimized anyway. Good Move! We set up camp and then went up to the tower, which features stair steps that looked like they had been there since the beginning of time. We hiked back down the trail for 5 minutes or so, to the clearly-marked water source, and filled up. After watching the sun go down, we ate dinner and headed off to bed.

The next day, we hiked the Swallow Fork Trail, a distance of about 10.4 miles back on slowly angled trail. I was delighted to have my new Suunto M5 — this watch was awesome! Not only did it provide basic info like speed, distance and heart rate, it also coached me on whether to speed up or slow down.

If you want an easier way to the top of Mt Sterling (elevation: 5,842 feet), start up via the Swallow Fork trail, eventually returning to your car via the steeper Baxter Trail. We passed some gorgeous waterfalls, which gave us the opportunity to jump in the river and cool off. Right before we got back to the car, one of the guys was stung in the foot by a bumble bee. Luckily, I had some Sting-Eze, which took care of the pain aspect. Great stuff that I don’t leave home without.

We covered around 17 miles in two days and enjoyed every second of it! This is one of the best 2-night backpacking the Smokies has to offer so if you’re thinking about a place to go it’s a great choice.


My Gear:

  • Black Diamond Distance Trekking Poles — The best poles I have ever used, hands down, and I wouldn’t do steep trails like these without them. They really make a difference! At first, I was concerned about the lack of a height adjustment, but they work perfectly and I’ve just adjusted my grip on the poles as necessary. These are so light, it’s like not having any weight in my hands at all! One guy in our group forgot his trekking poles, and he was definitely working harder than everyone else…
  • Black Diamond Infinity 60 pack — Has a swivel in the hips that moves with you, unlike any other pack. Very comfortable and I really appreciate how easy it is to grab my water bottles!
  • Therm-a-Rest Trail Lite sleeping pad — Throw out the pad and it self-inflates… close the valve and sleep in comfort. Love it!
  • Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sacks — I used 3 different sizes (small, large and extra large), all in different colors so I could know where everything was. Kept my food in one bag, my clothes in another and my toiletries in the last bag.
  • Keen Targhee II hiking shoes — LOVE THEM! They have just enough support to protect my feet while backpacking, and at the end of the day I had no issues.
  • Superfeet — The best investment you can buy for yourself. Keeps your feet from being sore at the end of the day as it minimizes movement. Will never leave home without them.
  • SmartWool Hiking Medium Crew socks — Great weight for backpacking in the summer and my feet stayed comfortable the whole time. You can use the Hiking Lightweight Crew but I like the extra cushioning.
  • Nuun Tablets — My energy stayed up the whole time because of these, and they’re easy to use. I use them anytime I’m climbing, running, hiking or backpacking. LOVE THEM!!!
  • Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem — This helps you not get sore after a hard hike and gives you energy.
  • Backpacker’s Pantry — I’ll rate the Pad Thai at about a 7 out of 10. The Black Bean Tamale Pie is my favorite.
  • Chaco Flip Sandals — My favorite camp shoe.
  • Aquamira water treatment drops — My choice for water purification, as it neutralizes Cryptosporidium. Easy to use and effective. Does have a slight taste, but you can add electrolytes to the water and you’re good to go.
  • Arc’teryx Motus crew — I own many, many synthetic shirts, but these are without a doubt the best lightweight shirts I own. In the humidity and heat I stayed comfortable.