Big Creek Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of many 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 its name implies, is one of the larger creeks in park and also one of the most beautiful. Big Creek is wide, has many 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 national park has horseback riding, camping, bathrooms, parking lot, picnic area, ranger station, and is also the starting point for several great hiking trails, including Big Creek Trail itself.

Big Creek is on the Northern end of the park, just south of I-40 as it passes between Tennessee and North Carolina.

Updated: 3/29/2024

Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Handicap Accessible: Parking area, and possibly creekside with assistance

Dog Friendly: Dogs are allowed in parking area, not on trails.


Creekside picnic area, camping, hiking, waterfalls, historic sights, old railroad items, trout fishing


From I-40, take exit 451, Waterville. Turn left at the bottom of the ramp, follow a short road, then turn left onto the bridge. From TN, turn right at the bottom onto the bridge.  

Follow the narrow winding road up to the Waterville power plant. 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 see a small park entrance sign showing Big Creek. Follow this road to the main parking lot.  

Big Creek Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fall at Midnight Hole in Big Creek

Big Creek is one of the most popular destinations in the park, because of the picnic area, campground,  many 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. Before the park was created, people lived in this area and also worked at several large lumber mills that were built here. The parking lot itself contains the foundation of one of the original mills. You can read more on the history of Big Creek below.

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Creek Parking

Big Creek Parking Area

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. If the main lot is full, and there isn't a ranger directing traffic, head back along the entrance road you came in on, and you'll see the horse camp area on the right. Park here, but be sure to not block any horse trailers.  

The trail down to the main parking area is located to the right of the bathrooms at the front of the horse camp parking area.

Big Creek Picnic Area

Just off the main parking area is the Big Creek Picnic Area that is creek side 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.

Big Creek 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 because of its easy access, and many shallow areas that are perfect for young children.

Big Creek Hiking

The Big Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the starting point for several hiking trails, including the famous Big Creek Trail itself.

Family hiking at Big Creek

Big Creek Trail

Big Creek Trail begins access the road to Big Creek, just prior to reaching the parking lot. Big Creek trailhead is on the 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 along Big Creek Trail, you'll pass Midnight Hole, a very popular summer swimming hole, and a gorgeous waterfall. You'll also pass Mouse Creek Falls, and two Carriage Bridge's.

Big Creek Trail

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.

Chestnut Branch 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 its fire tower.

Mt. Cammerer and its 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.

Baxter Creek Trail (Benton MacKaye Trail)

Bridge at Baxter Creek Trail

The Baxter Creek Trail takes you up Mt. Sterling and is 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.

Big Creek Waterfalls

Water is the theme at Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Big Creek Trail follows alongside Big Creek with many access points to the creek itself, and the picnic and camping areas are creek-side as well.

Additionally, Big Creek has two main large waterfalls, both big creek falls are very popular and beautiful.

One is at the most popular swimming hole in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Midnight Hole.

Midnight Hole

Midnight hole is a beautiful waterfall, popular hangout spot, but also an amazing swimming hole. It has wading areas for young children, and deep water surrounded by large boulders for kids and adults to "plunge" into.

Here's a video we did:

Be sure to visit our YouTube Channel for lots of great videos on things to see and do here in the Blue Ridge Mountains! Also, be sure to head over to our Midnight Hole guide for all the details and lots of photos.

Mouse Creek Falls

Mouse Creek Falls, Big Creek

Just another 0.5 miles up from Midnight hole is the beautiful Mouse Creek Falls. This is a taller and more cascading waterfall that flows directly into Big Creek. The falls are exceptionally beautiful in the spring, surrounding by blooming rhododendrons.

You can see the falls from a small overlook off to the left of Big Creek Trail (where this photo was taken). You'll know where to find it when you see the rails to tie up horses. There is a scramble trail down to Big Creek for a better view, but it's steep, so be careful.  

When water in Big Creek is lower, you can cross Big Creek to the falls, and there is a small pool at the bottom. We do not recommend doing this when water is higher and Big Creek is running heavy. It can be dangerous.

Here's a video with Mouse Creek Falls in it. Mouse Creek Falls is near the end, after Midnight Hole:

For more information on Mouse Creek Falls, see our guide!

Big Creek Camping

Big Creek Campground

Photo by Warren Bielenberg, courtesy of the National Park Service

The Big Creek area has three primary campgrounds: Big Creek Horse Camp, Big Creek Campground and Back country campsite #37.

Big Creek Horse Camp

Big Creek Horse Camp is located to the left as you come on the entrance road. You'll see the signs for it. This campground caters to people who bring horses into the area to ride along the many miles of horse trails.

You cannot bring horses to the campsites themselves, but there are plenty of horse stalls and hitching rails available nearby. The campground is pretty primitive. There are no hookups, and water is only available from a campground spigot. There are flush toilets, though.

Big Creek Group Campground

Just down from the Horse camp is a group campground. All 13 campsites are creek-side, and nestled into a lush forest, with plenty of shade. There is a comfort station with flush toilets, but no showers.

Big Creek 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 check-in.

Big Creek Campground is also seasonal, so call the Park service to confirm whether the campground is open as winter approaches, and as spring approaches.

Back Country Campsite #37

At the end of Big Creek Trail, about 5.2 miles from the trailhead, is Back Country Campsite #37, 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.

Be aware that this campsite is well known for bear activity. In fact, when we were in the Big Creek area last, the campground was closed because of bear activity. The black bears are generally harmless and will leave you alone, as long as you follow these simple rules:

  1. Keep your distance, and respect them
  2. DO NOT keep food in your tent.
  3. DO NOT cook food near your tent or supplies
  4. Use the Hangers available here to hang your food up.

For more information on Black Bears in the park, read our Bear Necessities Guide.

Big Creek Tips

Big Creek Great Smoky Mountains

We've been to Big Creek many times over the years. In fact, it's one of our most favorite areas of the park. As mountain locals, we're only about 30 minutes away. 

Here are a few tips to make your stay more enjoyable and safe:

  • Parking during the summer months can be a challenge, as the lot is small. Rangers will redirect traffic into the horse camping area once the main lot gets full. If you decide to park on the road, make sure people can get by you. This has been a big problem recently. We recommend getting there early in the morning, or late in the evening.
  • The road in is narrow, and only wide enough for one car. If you see a car coming, use one of the pull overs to stop and let them by. Basic courtesy here goes a long way. Go slow too, it really helps.
  • The waters along Big Creek Trail flow hard and fast, especially after periods of hard rain. Be very careful here.  We don't recommend swimming, except for Midnight Hole and a few other very calm pools further up. People have died swimming here, so use caution.
  • Midnight Hole is incredibly popular, and people pack it during midday on a summer weekend. Expect it, and your visit will go much better.
  • There are no restrooms up on the trail, yet there are lots of people which can make things interesting. We always hit the restrooms just before hiking the trail up. If you do absolutely need to "use the woods" bring some ziplock bags and don't leave toilet paper on the ground. Leave no trace! Parents, help your children and stay close to them too. We've seen many kids by themselves in this. We don't recommend it.
  • Make sure you hike up past Midnight Hole the extra .5 miles to Mouse Creek Falls. Well worth it.
  • Be aware that Big Creek Trail is a horse trail first. Give right of way to horses and watch your step as you're hiking!
  • Visit the Picnic area near the parking lot. Big Creek here is beautiful, and there are lots of safe wading areas for children and adults.

Big Creek History

The Big Creek area was initially a settlement area, with several 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 as 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 ruin the history for others.

Wrapping Up

Big Creek Trail NC - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

About the author

Larry Deane is co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. He has spent more than 20 years exploring the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and has a deep passion for nature, history, storytelling, and adventure. Along with his wife Jenn, they combined these passions to create Blue Ridge Mountain Life, a travel guide to these stunning mountains they are fortunate to call home.

Larry has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and journalist, and has established himself as a leading voice and expert for Blue Ridge Mountains. He is also an avid hiker, photographer, and videographer. He loves sharing his mountain adventures and knowledge with more than 500,000 people per month on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.


You may also like

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}