The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of numerous creeks, both big and small. Frankly, it’s difficult to find a hiking trail in the smokies that doesn’t run near a beautiful creek. Big Creek is one of those many creeks, and as it’s name implies, is one of the larger creeks in park and also one of the most beautiful. Big Creek is wide, full of many different waterfalls, and always has a strong water flow, even during the summer.
The Big Creek Area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park centers on the creek itself, and is the most easily accessible creek in the park, as it is literally just a short drive off of I-40. The Big Creek Area of the park has a horseback riding, camping, bathrooms, parking lot, picnic area, rangers station, and is also the starting point for a number of great hiking trails, including Big Creek Trail itself.
Big Creek is located on the Northern end of the park, just south of I-40 as it passes between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Big Creek is one of the most popular destinations in the park, due to the picnic area, campground, numerous hiking trails, access to Mouse Creek Falls, and Midnight Hole – a very popular summer swimming hole and waterfall.
Big Creek is also full of history. People lived in this area before the park was created, and worked at a number of large lumber mills that were built here as well. The parking lot itself contains the foundation for one of the mills. You can read more on the history of Big Creek below.
As mentioned above, Big Creek is easily accessed via I-40, which passes through North Carolina into Tennessee. From I-40, take exit 451. If you’re coming from North Carolina, it will be the very first exit once you cross into Tennessee. From North Carolina, at the bottom of the ramp, go left. From Tennessee, go right. From North Carolina, you’ll follow a short road, then reach the off ramp coming from Tennessee. Turn left to cross the bridge over the Pigeon River. From Tennessee, turn right to cross the bridge.
Follow the narrow winding road up to the Waterville power plant. Go slow as you approach the power plant, as this is a very popular white water rafting area, and it is very congested during the summer.
Continue past the power plant, you’ll cross a one lane bridge and a small park on the left. Continue on this road until you reach an intersection. Cross over the intersection onto the gravel road. You’ll a small park entrance sign. Follow this road all the way up to the parking lot. Go slow, as this road is very narrow.
The Parking lot is fairly small, and often not large enough to accommodate the number of visitors during the summer. Park officials will often route you into the horse camping area to park. You can follow a short trail from there up to the normal parking lot.
Just off the main parking area, is the Big Creek Picnic Area that is creekside to Big Creek. The area contains about 10 picnic tables, with grills that are immediately next to Big Creek. This is a very popular area for families during the summer to picnic and play in the water. Picnic tables are available on a first come first serve basis.
The Picnic area is also the trailhead for the Baxter Creek Trailhead and Benton MacKaye Trail. The trailhead begins at a really gorgeous metal bridge that crosses over Big Creek from the picnic area.
Full restrooms (including real flushable toilets) are located right next to the parking lot. The water in the picnic area is very popular for families due to it’s easy access, and numerous shallow areas that are perfect for young children.
The Big Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the starting point for a number of hiking trails, including the famous Big Creek Trail itself.
Big Creek Trail begins access the road to Big Creek, just prior to reaching the parking lot. The trailhead is on right. Big Creek Trail follows an old logging railroad grade up through the park. It’s a gorgeous hike that offers some incredible views of Big Creek, both from high up, and up close. While hiking Big Creek Trail, you’ll pass Midnight Hole, a very popular summer swimming hole, and gorgeous waterfall. You’ll also pass Mouse Creek Falls, and two Carriage Bridge’s.
The trail ends at Walnut Bottoms where it intersects with Swallow Fork Trail, and a little further up, ends just past Campsite #37, well known for bear activity. Just past the campsite, Big Creek Trail runs into Low Gap Trail which will take you to the Appalachian Trail.
The trailhead for Chestnut Branch Trail begins just past the ranger station. This 2.1 mile trail that follows alongside Chestnut Branch connects the Big Creek area to the Appalachian Trail, which provides access to Mt. Cammerer and it’s fire tower.
Mt. Cammerer and it’s famous and historic fire tower provide some absolutely incredible views of the park. But, be aware, this is a long and strenuous hike, with some pretty steep inclines as you go up.
The Baxter Creek Trail takes you up Mt. Sterling, and is considered one of the toughest day hike trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail climbs 4,200 feet in about 6 miles.
Mt. Sterling offers some gorgeous views, and also a historic fire tower, that is accessible and provides some amazing views of the park.
If you’re not into doing the full hike, you can hike a short distance out. At about 1/3 a mile from the trailhead, you’ll see a small trail that heads right. Follow this trail out, and you’ll find what remains of an old lodge built and owned by the Crestmont Lumber Company. All that remains is the fireplace and chimney, along with some rocks that formed the walls.
The Big Creek area has three primary campgrounds: Big Creek Horse Camp, Big Creek Group campground and Back country campsite #37.
Big Creek Horse Camp is located to the left as you come in the entrance road. You’ll see the signs for it. This campground is intended for those bringing horses into the area for riding along the many miles of horse trails.
Horses are not allowed at the campsites themselves, but there is ample horse stalls and hitching rails nearby. The campground is pretty primitive. There are no hookups, and water is only available from a campground spigot. There are flush toilets though.
Just down fro the Horse camp is a group campground. All 13 campsites are creekside, and nestled into a lush and dense forest, with plenty of shade. There is comfort station with flush toilets, but no showers. The campground is first come first serve, and reservations are not available.
The best way to get a site is to wait around the self reservation in the morning, as checkout time is noon. Just wait for campers checking out, and then checkin.
The campground is also seasonal, so call the Park service to confirm whether the campground is open as winter approaches, and as spring approaches.
At the end of Big Creek Trail, about 5.2 miles from the trailhead is Back Country Campsite #37, located in Walnut Bottom. This campsite is a wide and open area that is really pretty, and next to a bend in the creek. There are multiple sites here.
Something to be aware of for this campsite, it’s pretty well known for having bear activity. In fact, when we were in the Big Creek area last, the campground was closed due to bear activity. Generally the bears are harmless and will leave you alone, as long as you follow these simple rules:
For more information on Black Bears in the park, read our Bear Necessities Guide.
We’ve been to Big Creek many times over the past few years. In fact, it’s one of our most favorite areas of the park. Here are a few tips to make your stay more enjoyable and safe:
The Big Creek area was initially a settlement area, with a number of families living in and around Big Creek for many years. In fact, if you look closely as you’re hiking up the trail, you’ll see signs of old homesteads in the form of rock walls.
Later, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the lumber companies came in and bought up much of the property and employed many of the locals. The current parking lot was the site for a large lumber mill. You can see the remaining foundation next to the lot, near the road that loops around. You can also see remains of the mill close to the picnic area.
Big Creek Trail itself is what remains of the Logging Company railroad line. The trail follows the grade all the way up past Mouse Creek Falls to the first bridge. The grade goes left, where the main trail goes right. Kind of neat to think as you hike up Big Creek Trail, that over 100 years ago a steam locomotive was pulling logs out of the park, down to the lumber mill located at the parking trail. As a train fan, this always fascinates me! If you look to the right of the restrooms near the parking lot, you’ll see a couple of old rails from the narrow gauge rail line that went through here.
While we don’t recommend this unless you are very experienced, if you “bushwhack” off trail, you’ll find tons of old logging equipment and tools. It’s all protected though, so don’t move it or take it, the fines are heavy and ruins the history for others.
Read more about Big Creek History on Mike Maple’s (aka the Mountain Jedi) blog.
Big Creek is a simply gorgeous area, with lots to do, places to camp, and things to see. If you are a photographer or enjoy taking the photos, there are so many photo opportunities! A great place to take photos. For families, Big Creek is a great place to visit, relax, and let the kids play.
We highly recommend this area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Here is a collection of all of our best Big Creek Area Photos.