I love fire towers! And I’m excited to welcome Michelle to the blog today with a post all about fire towers in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re a local or planning a trip to that area put these places on your “must see” list.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has three fire towers still standing, still accessible to hikers. These towers offer breathtaking views, amazing vistas and incredible hikes to get to them. I love to hike to the fire towers, climb to the top and hang out as long as I can. Without hogging the space from other hikers, of course. Sometimes the fire towers are a popular destination and one might meet all kinds of new hiker friends from all over the country. With the right timing, you might even meet an AT thru-hiker or two.
These are the places I go to soak in beauty, find peace and cleanse my soul. There’s absolutely nothing comparable to standing high above it all, with open mind and grateful heart. Reminding me how insignificant and important I am. All at the same time.
I hope that if you’re ever around these parts, you’ll give one of these hikes a try. My Instagram and twitter handles are @dignthegarden Shoot me a tweet or a message if you’d like more information about any of the hikes listed here. Enjoy and Just Hike It!!
Shuckstack Fire Tower
Shuckstack Fire Tower
Located in the North Carolina side of the GSMNP, right off the AT, Shuckstack provides 360 views. The Great Smokies to the East & North, Nantahala & Snowbird Mtns to the South, Blue Ridge Mtns to the Southeast & the Unicoi Mountains to the West. Built in 1934 by the Public Works Administration, the tower climbs over 70 steps to the top. It sways a bit with the wind. It was built to do so, so you’re okay. This is the scariest of the towers to climb. It is a daunting climb to the top with the open frame around the stairwells. I am always most afraid on the first and second landings. Once I get a little higher, I feel more protected and am not as scared. I encourage you to climb up for the views. They’re amazing.
There are a couple of different routes one can take up to Shuckstack. I prefer to go via Twenty-Mile Trail. No worries, the Twenty-Mile Trail is not twenty miles long. Out and back, this is approximately 10.6 miles. The trail begins past the gate at the parking area at the Twenty-Mile Ranger Station. This is one of my favorites trails in the park. It follows an old railroad grade, so it’s nice and wide. Hikers can walk side by side and chat. The trail follows and crosses over Twenty-Mile Creek for the first 3 miles or so. All the crossings are bridged. The creek is a real treat. One is afforded glimpses of beautiful cascades and pools and accompanied by the sound of the rolling and rushing waters.
The grade is an easy incline the first few miles adding to the enjoyment of the trail. At about .7 miles, a spur trail heads down to Twenty-Mile Cascades. A real beauty. Don’t miss it. The trail begins to narrow and steepen around 3-3.5 miles and climbs till reaching Sassafrass Gap and the AT at about 4.7 miles. Hang a right onto the AT until you see the spur trail to the Tower.
Tower view towards Fontana Lake
The other option to hike to Shuckstack is to access the AT from just past Fontana Dam. This is an equally lovely hike, about 7 miles round trip, also with a tough climb.
Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower
Mt Cammerer Fire tower
This western style firetower in the Cosby area of the GSMNP is home to some of the best views in the park. Mt. Cammerer looks out over the Pigeon River Gorge, over to Snowbird Mountain, Mt. Sterling, Big Creek and of course, the Smokies. The tower was built in the 1930’s by the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps and local laborers using hand cut stone from a quarry about 100 yards downhill. The tower functioned as a working lookout tower until the 1960’s and was fully restored in 1995.
Hiking to Mt Cammerer tower by any route is difficult. The most popular route is Low Gap Trail to the AT to Mt Cammerer Trail, out and back. A hike of a little more than 11 miles. Low Gap is steep and rocky, gaining over 2000 feet elevation in 3 miles to the AT. Switchback after switchback after switchback. At the junction with the AT is a little meadow, covered with Snakeroot and Goldenrod in late summer and early fall and with White-Fringed Phacelia in the Spring. It’s a lovely spot for a break.
Just watch out for the bees! The hardest part of the hike is over! Hang a left onto the AT and gradually climb, with a few short, steep sections for a couple more miles. Eventually, you are hiking a nice, level section along the ridge of the mountain until you reach the .6 mile Mt Cammerer Trail. This short, but rugged trail requires climbing up some rocks, but nothing difficult.
Summertime view from Mt Cammerer
Be sure to look out for Timber Rattlesnakes. They live here and sun themselves on the warm rocks. Climb on over to the tower. Walk around the deck and enjoy the beautiful views. You can hike back out using the same trails you came in or you can continue on the AT until you reach the Lower Mt Cammerer Trail and take it out. It will connect to the Low Gap trail near the trailhead. This exit adds a few miles, but eliminates the steep, rocky hike back out Low Gap.
Mt. Sterling Fire Tower
Mt Sterling Fire Tower
Built by the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, this 60-foot tower served as a lookout until the 1960’s. Today it serves as a radio repeater tower. One can climb all the way to the top of the tower and even ON TOP of the tower. I elected not to climb on top as I was alone and would have needed a boost to get through the open roof space. It’s always windy on Mt Sterling and especially so the higher one climbs the tower. I think this is my favorite tower with my favorite views. In spite of being pushed for time to finish my hike before dark, I stayed up in the tower for quite some time on my visit. It was so peaceful and the views breathtaking. I didn’t wanna leave.
On a clear day one can see Max Patch to the East, Cataloochee Valley to the South, Mount Guyot to the Northwest and Balsam Mountain to the West.
One can hike to Mt Sterling Fire Tower by two routes. Either Mt Sterling Trail, 2.8 miles and almost 2000 feet elevation gain or via Baxter Creek Trail, 4200 feet elevation gain in 6.2 miles. I chose Baxter Creek for my trip. It’s a beast. Relentless climb on a beautiful trail. I enjoyed every inch of this trail. However, the last two miles of this trail is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been.
Upper section of Baxter Creek Trail
Moss covered boulder fields up and down the steep ridges line both sides of the trail. It feels like one has traveled back in time a billion years or so. It’s absolutely magical. It was so worth the tough climb to see and exist in the midst of such beauty.
Baxter Creek trail finally comes to the Tower and there are lovely campsites there as well. I hiked out making a loop of Mt Sterling Ridge to Swallow Fork to Big Creek. Approximately 16 mile loop, give or take. Big Creek and Baxter Creek trailheads are accessed from the same parking area in the Big Creek section of the GSMNP.
View from the Mt. Sterling Fire Tower
I hope you enjoyed this little trip to the fire towers and that one day you’ll be able to see these for yourself. Or maybe you already have? If so, leave me a comment below. Which is your favorite tower? Your favorite hike to a tower? If you’ve made it this far; thanks for reading my trip report and thanks for visiting the Hike Like A Woman website. If, there’s a spot in Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina or the GSMNP you’d like to learn about – follow me on Instagram or Twitter @dignthegarden and shoot me a message! I’ll be thrilled to talk with you about the hikes around here! I love my little neck o’ the woods and sharing it with folks.
Just hike it, y’all!