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Mouse Creek to Mt. Sterling September 23, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Notice how the cascade starts way up on a distinct upper level.

Today Mark Shipley, Ed Fleming, and I scouted a route that will be on the program of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club next May. It has so much to recommend it. More than anything else, the magical cascade on Mouse Creek at 3560′ elevation makes the trip worthwhile. But if that isn’t enough for you, consider also these factors: (1) It is a great hike for people who like the challenge of a significant climb—in this case 4,000 vertical feet; (2) The going was relatively easy, making use of old logging grades up to nearly 5000′ elevation; (3) You can see interesting old artifacts from the logging days; (4) Most of the time the vegetation was not bad, by Smokies off-trail standards, more dog hobble than rhodo; (5) You get the view from the fire tower!

We met up at 7:00 this morning at the Big Creek trailhead, right before dawn, because Mark (who will lead the hike) rightly considered that the journey along Mouse Creek could turn out to be incredibly time-consuming. As it turned out, we reached the fire tower by 1:15 and were back at our cars by 4:30. That is only because we were lucky with the vegetation.

Mark provided us the only writeup he could find of a hike along Mouse Creek, a backpack in 1968 led by Bruce Ketelle of the famous Ketelle hiking family in which they descended Mouse Creek through what was described as “open woods.” Well, things can grow up a little in 44 years.

We followed the Big Creek trail for 2.0 or 2.5 miles, depending on which information source you use, passing the notorious Midnight Hole on the stream and reaching the lower Mouse Creek falls where the smaller stream joins the bigger one. We’d already decided that we’d probably continue on the trail a bit further so that we could cross Big Creek on a bridge. The distance to the bridge was further than we expected (or, again, further than information sources indicated), but it did allow us to avoid a wet crossing. At this time of year with fairly low water levels, it would have been possible to wade in a couple of places. In May, with higher water levels, probably the safest thing will be to use the bridge. Big Creek is really more of a river than a stream.

Mouse Creek falls (the lower one) as seen from the trail.

We went over the bridge and took advantage of a logging grade to get us back to the falls.

Ed and Mark follow the grade.

Despite the relatively easy conditions, it still took us a while to work our way back to the falls on the other side of the stream. Mouse Creek just above the falls was a pretty little stream, full of moss-upholstered boulders.

Easy rockhopping along this lovely stream.

After a half hour or so of making our way up the stream, we had our only negative experience of the day. We discovered remains of camping equipment, plus trash and a digging tool that we decided must have been left by a ginseng poacher. There is no other reason anyone would camp in that spot.

Not much later, we found far more interesting artifacts, but we had trouble identifying their exact purpose. If anyone reading this blog can shed light on this, we would appreciate it. First of all, we found a rounded item of very thick cast iron, nearly an inch in thickness, that did not seem like a household item but rather part of a locomotive or other segment of a train.

Ed displays the item that we can’t identify. There were others we couldn’t identify, either.

We next found a very large, heavy bucket.

Still doesn’t seem like something for household use. Something used in connection with a locomotive boiler?

Finally, we found something that looked more like a kiln or something used for charcoaling operations than a regular stove.

Another mystery item.

We continued up the stream.

Not much water in the stream here—in this picture you identify it by the contrast between moss and dog hobble.

We were about to encounter the highlight of the day—the incredible cascade pictured at top.

Our first view of the cascade.

What I liked best was the way the top of the cascade seemed to flow out of the sunshine itself. The top glowed with light.

The water came straight out of sunlight.

Above this marvellous place where the water flows constantly with practically no one ever seeing it, we found continuing logging grades that aided our climb.

These vines were twined together in a tight spiral.

Eventually, on the upper slopes, we climbed through a region of beautiful dense moss.

The moss was an extra-luxurious variety.

We reached the summit and lunched before climbing the lookout tower, where we had crystalline views in all directions.

View to the northwest, as seen through one of the panes of the tower’s cab.

View to the southwest.

We then descended 6.2 miles on the Baxter Creek trail. Total mileage for the hike was around 12. A great day, and two great people to do it with.

Huge swath of jewelweed near the bottom of the Baxter Creek trail.