Ask around Knoxville for a Smoky Mountains highlight reel, and you'll likely hear mention of Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Chimney Tops, Elkmont, and other destinations most easily accessed by the the Townsend and Gatlinburg entrances to the park. Because these entrances are geographically closer, they tend to be the most closely associated with Knoxvillian Smoky Mountain travel.
But often forgotten is the east side of the park, which, in terms of travel time, is just as close. One of the best spots in this neck of the woods is the Big Creek area, where you can take a dip in a chilly mountain watering hole, climb to big air fire towers, and camp next to beautiful roaring waters. You can get there in the same amount of time as it would take to reach Cades Cove—and you'll have a fraction of the crowds to deal with.
Ready to give the East Smokies a try? Come along as we explore Big Creek.
The Big Creek Trail
One highly recommended highlight of the Big Creek area is, unsurprisingly, the Big Creek Trail . After a steep initial ascent, the trail gently climbs from its starting point near the Big Creek parking lot along an old lumber rail bed for two miles to Mouse Creek Falls. The trail follows its namesake for the entirety of this section and reaches the popular swimming spot, Midnight Hole, at around 1.5 miles.
Midnight Hole isn't marked on the trail, and it may take a few tries hiking several of the small spurs that lead down to the water before finding the right one, but that's part of the fun. The full length of Big Creek that passes between the trailhead and Mouse Creek Falls is brimming with pools, rapids, boulders, and shady spots well worth exploring. If you are trying to specifically find Midnight Hole, though, look for its distinct two-flow waterfall, with a large, flat-faced boulder to the left, used in the warmer months for jumping into the cool waters of the creek.
About a half mile beyond Midnight Hole is Mouse Creek Falls. You'll pass a hitching post on your left, just beyond which is a side trail that will lead out to the falls. From here, you could continue on for three more miles to Walnut Bottom, or venture even farther to form a loop up to Mount Sterling via Swallow Fork Trail.
But to get back to the parking lot, simply return the way you came. On your way back, try to spot an unmarked side trail on your left, about a mile from the trailhead. This leads up to Block House Rock, a high-roofed natural opening in the mountainside used for shelter during the area's logging days.
Fire Towers via Baxter Creek and Chestnut Branch
The nearby climbs up to the Mount Cammerer and Mount Sterling fire towers nicely complement the low elevation creek-skirting of the Big Creek Trail. Neither, however, are for the faint of heart. But those willing to tackle one (or both!) of the fire tower trails are in for some of the best views in the park.
The Baxter Creek Trail will take you up to Mount Sterling via one of the most challenging passages in the Smokies. The steeply graded trail seems to continue on indefinitely on its way up the mountain. When you stop to catch your breath, be sure to take in the dense, beautiful biomes surrounding you, transitioning from low-elevation laurel and rhododendron to balsam and spruce as you gain 4,000 feet over the 6-mile stretch.
The access to Mount Cammerer isn't quite so intense. You'll start at the Chestnut Branch Trail and make your way up to the Appalachian Trail, which will take you west the rest of the way to the summit. If you're feeling especially ambitious, you can make this a loop trail, continuing down the AT to its junction with the Low Gap Branch and following Low Gap back to the Big Creek Trail.
Camping, Rafting, and More
If you want to make the most of your Big Creek experience, why not pitch a tent and settle in for a long weekend? There's usually plenty of room at the Big Creek campsite, and you can trade out your hiking poles for paddles on the Pigeon River with highly rated Big Creek Expeditions .