Essay: A Pre-Dawn Hike to the Mount Sterling Fire Tower

First posted in March, 1998

I teach a class in field archaeology that meets in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I recently took a group of students for a Saturday to Sunday overnight within the Park. There was going to be a beautiful full moon and a crystal clear sky that Saturday evening, just perfect for night hiking, and I thought it might be nice to get some extra exercise after our work. So, when we arrived that morning I announced that I would take anyone interested in doing some extra hiking to a nearby fire tower to view the sunset. There were many interested students, but things didn't work out as planned that day and we worked way too late to allow enough time for hiking to the fire tower.

Well, needless to say, the students were on me in an instant: "You said we could go... you promised!" implored one student. After numerous attempts to appease them, I finally thought I had come up with a great plan. You see, without fail, these students are impossible to roust out of bed in the morning, so I proposed that we simply forgo the sunset and instead rise at about 3:30 in the morning to get a start on the trail so we could watch the sunrise. I couldn't believe it - four of them took me up on the offer!

So, the next morning (after watching them sleep through the alarm), I woke them all up, gave them each a cup of coffee and an English muffin and put them in the Cherokee for the drive to the trailhead. I worried about the fact that most of the trail consists of a series of switch-backs up the north face of the mountain and that we might encounter snow. Sure enough, there was plenty of snow, and this made for some less than pleasant hiking for some of the people involved. We paused at an overlook (because of the snow and various other factors, we hadn't made good enough time to reach the fire tower by dawn) and watched the sunrise, which was absolutely spectacular... the sort of thing that makes you happy to be alive. We then carried on to our destination.

The tower itself is not made for those who fear heights. It is a metal structure, no more than a small metal (box) room perched at the top of a winding eighty-foot staircase. It is perched on a peak at a little over 5,000 feet. At that elevation on an exposed peak, the wind is racing almost any time of the year, making it often necessary to hold onto the tower for balance. The tower is built with the wind in mind, and gives just enough with each gale, swaying just a bit in the heavy breeze. The benefit of dealing with the intense wind and the narrow staircase is that, at the top, high above the pines, the tower commands a magnificent 360-degree view of the landscape.

One young woman that made the hike, a foreign exchange student from Malta, later told me that in retrospect, it wasn't the horribly steep and snowy hike that stuck out in her mind, nor was it the way her new hiking boots were giving her trouble, nor was it the frightening wind and tiny staircase at the top. She said what came to mind was the tower and it's fantastic view. She went on to ask me: "When we were hiking, what were those tracks we kept seeing in the snow? Were they from some sort of dog?" she asked. "Yes, though what kind I'm not sure. Possibly a domestic dog, a fox, or a coyote." I replied. She then, much to my amusement, made the following admission: "When we stopped at that clearing to watch the sunrise, I was miserable. I thought to myself that I might let the rest of you go on to the tower and meet me there on the way back. Then I remembered those tracks and thought that whatever it was that was in the woods with us might come and get me, so I decided I would finish the trip..."

At any rate, although the snow and ice, some fatigue from the hard work we'd done the day before, and the early hour made the trek somewhat trying, they all discovered that the view from the tower more than made up for everything. Our adventure over, we went back to the cabin, where I made omelets and bacon. We ate, then went on to work for the day, and finally made the long trip back home.

So when's the last time you completed a seven-mile hike before breakfast?