Ascent of Mount Sterling on 2009-10-18

Climber: Brian Stansberry

Date:Sunday, October 18, 2009
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Sterling
    Location:USA-North Carolina
    Elevation:5842 ft / 1780 m

Ascent Trip Report

I parked at the ranger station and walked for 1.2 miles along Big Creek Rd. to the Big Creek Campground, which added 2.4 miles to the round trip.

The Baxter Creek Trail starts at a bridge over Big Creek, at the Big Creek picnic area (adjacent to the campground). The trail ascends gradually to the Baxter Creek crossing (about 1.5mi). The ascent then gets steeper, and the trail switches back over a second and third creek crossing before entering a "heath tunnel" as it winds its way up the north face of Sterling Ridge. While the treeline along this leg of the trail is thin enough to see mountains and valleys in the distance, there are no clear views. Snow from the previous day began to appear in patches along this leg of the trail.

Beyond the heath tunnels, the trail emerges in a dense, old growth hardwood forest. I'm not sure how much wind hits this mountain slope regularly, but there were dozens of blowdowns in the woods just up the slope. Briers were attempting to overgrow the trail, but the trail was fairly clear of obstructions. At the 4,600-ft contour, the trail intersects the old Big Branch Trail, which is no longer maintained. A signpost points out the direction of the Baxter Creek Trail. As I approached this signpost, the snow continued to get thicker and thicker, until it completely covered the ground.

Beyond the Big Branch junction, the Baxter Creek Trail swings to a west-facing slope, and gradually ascends through a series of switchbacks to the ridgecrest. The trail crosses a false summit (and dips briefly) before veering south up to the true summit. A sign pointing the way to a water source for Campsite 38 finally comes into view. The summit is 0.4mi beyond this sign.

There is a firetower at the summit, which was open to the public, but I didn't bother going up, as the dense fog would have blocked any view, and the canopy looked like someone had left it in the back of a freezer for three months. There might be an exceptional view at the Baxter Creek Trail signpost, a few feet north of the tower, but again I could see nothing but white fog. A USGS triangulation benchmark is embedded into a conspicuous-looking rock at the tower's northern base.

As I descended, I noticed that the trail passes through an interesting variety of forest types. There is a young cove hardwood stand in the lower elevations, heath stands ("hells") on the ridgecrests, a northern hardwood stand above the 4,000-ft contour, and a spruce-fir stand around the summit. Some of the trees were truly massive, reminding me of Albright's Grove near Cosby to the west. The spruce-fir stand had some very large red spruces, and the understory didn't appear as dense as the spruce-fir stand on Old Black and Guyot.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:4242 ft / 1293 m
    Distance:14.8 mi / 23.8 km
    Route:Baxter Creek Trail
    Trailhead:Big Creek ranger station  1600 ft / 487 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Weather:Cold, Breezy, Overcast

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