October 16, 2022
Gunter Fork Trail has alluded me for years. I’ve never tried to hike it; it’s just sort of in the middle of nowhere. The trail itself is not insurmountable, at only 4.1 miles and 2,328 ft. of ascent. The problem with Gunter is getting there and getting back. One terminus starts after a 5.1-mile hike in from Big Creek and the other is a 4.3-mile hike along the Balsam Mountain Trail after a long drive to park at Pin Oak Gap off Balsam Mountain Road.
We chose a big loop instead, where we would start at the crack of dawn at Big Creek, hike to Gunter, climb it, then take Balsam Mountain Trail to Mount Sterling Ridge and descend Baxter Creek Trail.
The first hour and a half were quite pleasant; the fall leaves were tremendous, a slight chill hung in the air. It was the Smoky’s in all its grandeur. We encountered hikers exited from campsites 36 & 37 and made some small talk. After Big Creek, Gunter starts right at Camel Gap Trail. I read prior to this that there was a dangerous creek crossing. Since we are in a mini drought, the main crossing of Gunter was not an issue; I didn’t even get my feet wet from rock hopping. With that said, I would not hike this trail if there was substantial rainfall. The sign warning of the crossing is correct, this creek could easily sweep one away. It would be a long and deep crossing in adverse conditions. I was somewhat surprised at the number of creek crossings along the trail, 7 in total, before the ascent up the ridge.
The Cascades were slightly more than a trickle, but again, in other circumstances would be quite pretty. The climb up the ridge suddenly appeared after the cascades, revealing a wondrous tapestry of orange, yellow, and red on mountains near and far.
My legs started to tire as we hiked along Mount Sterling, and the 1.8-mile ascent. Soon we were descending along Baxter Creek Trail, almost skipping at the easier pace. Close to the car, lovely yellow leaves appeared again. Such a beautiful time of year.
Total mileage is 22.9 miles.