This will be a slow paced hike to enjoy the wild flowers springing up all over. Bring your camera and snap some pictures of the plentiful flora of the Smokies.
Skill: Novice to Intermediate
Pros: Pretty creek scenes and easy access from the interstate
Notes: Bring your camera and a picnic lunch
It's hard to hike in the Smokies or the Southern Appalachians without encountering a beautiful creek. The Gulf of Mexico pumps lots of moisture to these mountains making the annual rainfall plentiful. Steep slopes funnel this 70 to 90 inches of annual rainfall to deep valleys creating some of the most picturesque creeks nature can offer. Big Creek is one of those uniquely beautiful creeks. Big Creek is wide and has a great volume of water moving through it's labyrinth of rapids and falls at all times of the year. Of all of the more notable creeks in the Smokies, Eagle Creek, Hazel Creek, Deep Creek, Forney Creek, and Abrams Creek, Big Creek is the most easily accessible from a major interstate. Although the parking lot at the trailhead can become crowded, the Big Creek Trail never seems to be too overcrowded. There is plenty of room for all on this 5.2 mile hike to Walnut Bottoms. You may not find the "perfect spot" easily but you will find a place along this great display of rapids and waterfalls sit down and enjoy the seemingly endless beauty.
Elevation Gain: 1,375 feet.
5.8 miles one way
The Big Creek Trail is an old road built by the Crestmont logging company in the early 1900's. It was improved by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the early 1930's and converted for hiking use. Horse traffic is allowed but there is not a large amount of horse riders using the trail. Hikers easily out-number the equestrian crowd. For novice hikers this is a great hike because the trail is level and relatively smooth. The climb is gradual so even those of us that are not in the best of physical condition can accomplish this hike. The return trip is much easier because it is downhill and it is not a long walk to creek side "resting" or picnic spots.
The well marked trail begins at the picnic area parking lot . At first the trail climbs high above the Big Creek Campground and away from the creek but in approximately one half of a mile it re- joins the creek. For the rest of this hike you never leave the sight or sounds of the creek. Wildflowers line the trail and the fragrance that they produce fills the air. As you climb you will see a boulder field to the right of the trail. This is a remnant from the logging days. The erosion caused by stripping the mountainside of trees has exposed these underlying boulders. Logging has left many permanent scars like this throughout the Smokies.
Mouse Branch Falls
As the trail continues it's climb the casual hikers that are out for a short walk begin their return back. The rhododendron that lines the trail is dense and produces wonderful fragrances when in bloom. Before long the Mouse Branch falls appear on the left joining Big Creek. The falls tumble over moss covered rocks through tall hemlocks. This is great place to drop the packs and to break out the cameras.
The trail crosses Big Creek on a sturdy carriage bridge that is high above the waters. Fisherman can often be seen "working" the waters here. The trail crosses here and turns right. Fishing trails follow an old railroad grade to the left and lead to some bootleg campsites. Tempting but illegal. It is a 500 dollar fine for succumbing to this temptation and this trail is patrolled by the park service regularly. The trail from this point on is rocky and uneven. Erosion has taken it's toll and there are several muddy sections here.
As you get closer to Walnut Bottoms and the end of this hike, evidence of the logging operation that once operated here becomes more obvious. Cobble-stone bricks are imbedded in the trail in one area. Various metal bolts cables and other debris appear by the side of the trail. These artifacts are protected by law and are considered to be a very important part of the parks history. The trail approaches Walnut Bottoms at the intersection of the Swallow Fork Trail. This trail climbs up to the Mt. Sterling Ridge and is an access to the Mount Sterling fire-tower. Straight ahead and across the second carriage bridge is Walnut Bottoms.
If you want to see bears, this is the place to camp. Although they are not a threat it is a good idea to keep a respectful distance from any roving bears. As always it is important to remember to be careful with your food and to never approach a bear with cubs. Walnut Bottoms is also the home to "Jumper" the bear. Jumper has been known to jump on to hanging packs in order to steal food. Considering that the diet of bears consists of leaves and berries you can't blame them for wanting something a little different. The park service has installed cable devices here that are "bear proof". If you turn your back on your meal or your packs for just a moment it is possible for one of these cagey critters to carry your supper away! This has happened here on more than one occasion!
To return back to your car just simply back-track down the Big Creek trail. The views of the creek are a little different from this direction and it is so beautiful that you may not mind a second look at this incredibly beautiful smoky mountain creek.
Big Creek Directions
The Big Creek area is in the northern end of the park. There is a ranger station, campground, picnic area and rest rooms here. A self service backcountry permit station is at the entrance to the first parking lot next to the ranger station.
To get here, take Interstate 40 to the North Carolina - Tennessee border. Take exit 451 and drive past the Waterville hydro-electric plant. Drive with care when you return on this road because erosion is causing the roadbed to crumble into the river.
Follow the brown park service signs past the intersection at Mt. Sterling Gap and into the park. Be aware of pick up trucks that are towing horse trailers on this narrow dirt road. The distance from the exit on the interstate to the entrance of the Big Creek area is less than three miles.
Google map: http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=214591271351259063207.0004bba39bc8aad102946&msa=0&ll=35.758345,-83.104352&spn=0.007218,0.016512