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.
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. From NC, 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 a small park entrance sign indicating Big Creek. Follow this road all the way up to the parking lot.
Big Creek Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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.
Big Creek Parking
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 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 its easy access, and numerous 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 a number of hiking trails, including the famous Big Creek Trail itself.
Big Creek Trail
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.
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)
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.
Big Creek Waterfalls
Water is the theme at Big Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Big Creek Trail hikes along side Big Creek with numerous access points to the creek itself, and the picnic and camping areas are creekside as well. Additionally, Big has two main large waterfalls, both very popular, and beautiful. One is at the most popular swimming hole in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Midnight Hole.
Midnight hole is a beautiful waterfall, popular hang out 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
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 exceptional beautiful in the spring, surrounding by blooming Rhododendrun.
The Falls are visible 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
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
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.
Big Creek Group Campground
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.
Back Country Campsite #37
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:
- Keep your distance, and respect them
- DO NOT keep food in your tent.
- DO NOT cook food near your tent or supplies
- Use the Hangers available here to hang your food up at all times.
For more information on Black Bears in the park, read our Bear Necessities Guide.
Big Creek Tips:
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:
- Parking during the summer months can be a challenge, as the lot is small. Rangers will generally 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 generally 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 are generally flowing very hard and fast. Be very careful here, and we don't recommend swimming, with the exception of Midnight Hole and few other very calm pools further up. People have died swimming here, so use caution.
- Midnight Hole is incredibly popular, and around midday on a summer weekend is packed with people. Expect it, and you're 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 some "interesting characters" hanging around the rocks above the swimming area, where many people change and many children goto the bathroom. Creepy I know, but a reality in this crazy world today.
- 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 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.
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.
Big Creek Photo Gallery
Here is a collection of all of our best Big Creek Area Photos.