Smoky Mountain Exploration at Mt. Cammerer and Beyond

360 degree views from the fire tower at Mt. Cammerer
360 degree views from the fire tower at Mt. Cammerer Rob Glover
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As any good real estate agent will tell you, where you sleep is all about location, location, location. And tucked away in a quiet, northeastern corner of Smoky Mountain National Park, the Big Creek Campground has this feature nailed. The small campground allows for a real escape. At just 3 hours from Charlotte, and just a few minutes off of Interstate 40, Big Creek is one of the most accessible campgrounds in the park from The Queen City.

Even more important though is the proximity to its namesake Big Creek. Cold mountain waters rush past large boulders and tumble over small ledges, creating the backbeat of a glorious night’s sleep. Every one of the 12 sites in the small campground are within a smooth river stone’s throw from the creek. And some, like sites 11 and 12, are perched right on the edge of the bank, just a few feet above the eddies and falls of Big Creek.

The Campground

The huge canopy of trees protect campers at Big Creek
The huge canopy of trees protect campers at Big Creek Rob Glover

Like every great piece of real estate, timing is key if you want to grab a spot. All 12 individual sites are first come first serve. On the greatest fall weekends, the best sites will go by 8 am on Friday with the final camper setting up before noon. But once you’ve stretched out your hammock under the towering forest canopy, the early morning start will seem well worth it.

There is a pay board to deposit your $19 per night at the campsite. Like most national park campgrounds, there are no showers but Big Creek does have flush toilets and running water for washing and potable water pumps. Each site has a fire ring with grill. The group site, which has six total pads even though the reservation site states 4, is at the other end of the short campground road along with the camp host’s site.

The Hikes

The Smokies offers lots of opportunities to stop and soak tired feet in chilly mountain streams - Rob Glover
The Smokies offers lots of opportunities to stop and soak tired feet in chilly mountain streams - Rob Glover

Of course, good real estate should also be close to plenty of diversions and activities. Your site at Big Creek is adjacent to some of the most serene waterfalls and dramatic vistas in the eastern part of the park.

At just under 5,000 feet, Mt. Cammerer isn’t the highest peak in Smoky Mountain National Park. But the western style fire tower, restored in 1996, which stands guard at its precipice provides one of the most commanding views of the mountains and valleys that surround it. Unlike other freestanding fire lookouts, the round structure on the top of Cammerer is built on a solid foundation of rock, making it a little less precarious for those visitors that suffer from bouts of vertigo.

Rolling hills burst into color each fall around Cammerer
Rolling hills burst into color each fall around Cammerer Rob Glover

The trails leading from Big Creek to Mt. Cammerer are easy to follow but tough on quads and knees. Stroll down the gravel camp road to the Chestnut Branch Trailhead. After a two mile climb up Chestnut Branch, turn left on the Appalachian Trail for another 3.3 miles, finishing on the .6 mile trail to the top of Cammerer. The total elevation change from creek to peak is around 3000 feet and covers a little over 6 miles.

From here you can either head back the way you came or complete a 16 mile loop by heading south on the AT for 2.1 miles to the Low Gap Trail. The descent on Low Gap is steep, but in fall the trail is bathed in golden sunlight filtered through a brilliant yellow canopy, giving the whole trek an ethereal glow that somehow feels both cozy and expansive.

A yellow canopy filters sunlight on the trail
A yellow canopy filters sunlight on the trail Rob Glover

The final five miles of the hike calmly follows Big Creek on the Big Creek Trail, ending up back at the campground. There are several waterfalls, both big and small, along the way ideal for relaxing by the creek and soaking tired feet. Since its trailhead is at the campground, the Big Creek Trail is also a good option for a gentler out and back hike if climbing up to Cammerer isn’t in the plans.

There’s one more trailhead of note that leaves from the Big Creek Campground. Climbing even more sharply than Mt. Cammerer over its 6.1 miles, the Baxter Creek Trail that leads to the top of Mt. Steriling is a tough go for sure. Large swaths of moss carpet sections of the trail offering a completely different look, and the views from on top of the 5,800’ mountain rival anything else in the park. The fire tower is of the rickety, metal variety so climb with caution.

The Details

The infamous stairs at Crowders Mountain.
The infamous stairs at Crowders Mountain. Rob Glover

To get to the Campground, take exit 451 off of I-40 West (the first one after the TN state line) and head to the Big Creek entrance to the park. Big Creek Campground Road shows up on most mapping apps.

For fear of further infestation of tree destroying bugs, you can’t bring outside firewood into the park. You can scrounge for downed wood though. Try driving a little ways up the Campground Road as the area near the sites are picked over. Alternatively, there is a small store near the entrance to the park. They have a drop box for firewood payment so even when it’s closed you can grab a bundle.

360 degree views from the fire tower at Mt. Cammerer
360 degree views from the fire tower at Mt. Cammerer Rob Glover

In between the individual and group campground is a fantastic picnic area with charcoal grills, picnic tables, and easy access to Big Creek for post hike soaks—if you can stand the chilly water.

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