Nantahala National Forest: Snowbird Creek Trail, Sassafras Creek Trail, and Burntrock Ridge Trail Loop, Robbinsville, North Carolina
Deep in the Cheoah Ranger District of Nantahala National Forest flows a pristine wilderness waterway, Snowbird Creek. Snowbird Creek, encompassed by the large Snowbird Backcountry Area, is one of the more remote regions in western North Carolina, where trails can be overgrown streamside paths and where the junctions often go unsigned. Snowbird Creek and its tributaries sport numerous waterfalls, even some large ones - on this hike you'll get to see as many as four sizable waterfalls. It's no walk in the park to get as far as Upper Falls though - be prepared to traverse faint, steep paths on Burntrock Ridge and along Snowbird Creek. This hike occurred on Saturday, August 15th, 2015. My plan was to hike the Snowbird Creek Trail to the Sassafras Creek Trail, and then take Sassafras Creek Trail upstream along Sassafras Creek past Sassafras Creek Trail. Next, I would take the Burntrock Ridge Trail over Burntrock Ridge, ending up again on the Snowbird Creek Trail. I would take the Snowbird Creek Trail upstream to Upper Falls and then downstream to Middle Falls, Big Falls, and back to the trailhead.
R/T Length of Trail: 13.2 Miles
Duration of Hike: 7:45
Type of Hike: Lasso
Difficulty Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Some flagging tape helps to hike through the most confusing sections of trail
Cons: Burntrock Ridge Trail can be very overgrown and steep; upper parts of Snowbird Creek Trail are rugged and often hard-to-locate; confusing trail throughout the "8 fords of Snowbird Creek" section; a couple of poorly-marked intersections
Points of Interest: Sassafras Creek Falls - 7 stars; Upper Falls - 4 stars; Middle Falls - 8 stars; Big Falls - N/A
Trail Blaze Color(s): None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Spring
Beginning Point: Junction Trailhead
Directions: From Robbinsville, NC: Follow US Route 129 North for 0.8 miles. Then, turn left onto NC State Route 143, also known as Cherohala Skyway. Follow NC State Route 413 for 5.6 miles, and then, turn left onto Snowbird Road. Follow Snowbird Road for 2.1 miles, and then, turn left onto Big Snowbird Road. Follow the road for 6 miles to its end. The road will turn to gravel. The end of the road is a small parking area and a cul-de-sac where Snowbird Creek Trail and King Meadows Trail start. The road turns to gravel for the last 4 miles, but it is in great condition and can be traveled by most passenger vehicles.
Please note: this map is incomplete as my GPS failed to record a section of this hike roughly from Middle Falls to Big Falls. Please consult National Geographic Maps to verify the route of this hike.
This is a beautiful hike for people who are looking for plenty of water features. However, you'll have to be ready for lots of navigation problems - I wouldn't suggest for hikers lacking good navigation skills to do this hike.
The hike starts at the "Junction" trailhead, the local name for the end of Snowbird Road where King Meadows Trail and Snowbird Creek Trail, two of the main trails in the area, start. This hike goes on the Snowbird Creek Trail, the trail that is on the left side and heads uphill - the King Meadows Trail starts on the right side and heads downhill to ford Snowbird Creek. The Snowbird Creek Trail starts out uphill but quickly becomes mostly flat, with a gentle uphill trend. This portion of the Snowbird Creek Trail is easy - it follows an old roadbed that makes for easy walking. This first part of the hike generally parallels Snowbird Creek, although most of the time, Snowbird Creek is out of view. There are spur trails that steeply drop down to pretty cascades on the creek. At 0.2 miles, the Snowbird Mountain Trail, marked by a sign, leaves the Snowbird Creek Trail to the left. The Snowbird Mountain Trail is a long trail that follows the ridge of Snowbird Mountain to the Cherohala Skyway. At 2.6 miles from the start, you will cross Sassafras Creek, the first major creek crossing of the hike. This may or may not be a wet crossing, depending on the amount of recent rainfall. When I did this hike, the creek was possible to cross without getting wet but just barely. In any case, wet ford(s) (depending on your choice of trail later) lie ahead. Also, the water level at this crossing indicates if Sassafras Creek Falls upstream will have good flow. If there is no way to cross without getting wet, Sassafras Creek Falls will likely be spectacular. There are also some campsites around the crossing - Snowbird Creek is nearby. At 2.9 miles, reach a junction with Sassafras Creek Trail. This is the start of the loop. Make a hard left onto Sassafras Creek Trail. The trail begins a slightly more noticeable uphill, but it's still easy. Soon, the trail nears Sassafras Creek, although it stays well above creek level. At 3.6 miles, reach the spur trail to Sassafras Creek Trail which leaves the trail and heads downhill left to the creek. When I did this hike, this spur trail was marked by a sign. The spur trail isn't long and is moderately steep. Shortly reach Sassafras Creek and Sassafras Creek Falls.
This waterfall is very photogenic in the right conditions and especially after rainfall. The waterfall is approximately 80 feet high and slightly resembles Ramsey Cascades in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, although that one is more beautiful in my opinion. If you hike in this area, this waterfall is a must-see. Retrace your steps back to the main trail and continue upstream along Sassafras Creek. At 3.7 miles, another spur trail, marked by a sign, leads left to a view of the top and upper part of Sassafras Creek Falls. The view is somewhat obscured. After this, the trail reaches the level of Sassafras Creek and stays close to it until the junction with Burntrock Ridge Trail at 4 miles. There is a small creekside campsite here. This hike turns right onto Burntrock Ridge Trail. The Sassafras Creek Trail used to continue upstream along Sassafras Creek to its terminus at Snowbird Mountain Trail. This trail is no longer maintained, but I have read that it can still be followed. A side trail, crossing Sassafras Creek just past the junction with Burntrock Ridge Trail, also leads to Snowbird Mountain Trail, reaching it at Bee Gap. It is no longer maintained as well.
The right turn onto Burntrock Ridge Trail expresses a sudden change in the types of trails on this hike. Until now, the hike was on easy, well-maintained trails. This suddenly changes. The Burntrock Ridge Trail quickly becomes steep and strenuous as it climbs without any switchbacks up the steep slope of Burntrock Ridge. As you approach the ridge, you will notice that there has been significant work done in improving the condition of this trail. A lot of dead branches and other deadfall had been brushed aside. All of the brush surrounding the trail had been trimmed. This wasn't quite the case later on, though. After the trail reaches a gap in Burntrock Ridge, the trail turns left and continues to climb steeply along the ridge. Luckily, this is the only hard part of this hike, because if there were several miles of this steep climbing, the hike would be much harder! After you reach a sort of high point, the trail levels out and follows the ridge. The at-first-glance obvious pathway was gradually and steadily becoming more obscure. At 5 miles, the trail leaves the ridge on an obscure, overgrown path to the right. It starts out steeply and then continues to descend more gradually. Some sections are easy to hike, but most of this descent is overgrown, sometimes badly. There is one particular section where the trail is nearly non-existent in a tangle of rhododendron. Watch out for surveying tape that marks the way in the tricky spots. At 5.6 miles, reach Little Flat Creek. Turn right and follow Little Flat Creek downstream along a confusing pathway. Then, cross Little Flat Creek (a normally dry crossing) and continue downstream on the other side. The trail is wider here. At 5.8 miles, things get confusing. There's no signs in this part of the hike, and it's hard to tell apart the real trail and the goat paths. When I got to the confluence of Little Flat Creek and Snowbird Creek at 5.8 miles, I didn't realize that this is the junction with the Snowbird Creek Trail - I understood that later. There's a campsite here, and to the right, a path seems to lead to Snowbird Creek. This is actually the Snowbird Creek Trail heading downstream - there is a wide but easy ford here. I
For now, turn left onto Snowbird Creek Trail, unless you want to skip Upper Falls and head straight to Middle Falls. The Snowbird Creek Trail fords Snowbird Creek at 6 miles. This is your first wet ford. It is easy, however. On the other side of the creek, the Snowbird Creek Trail turns left. When I got here, I thought this was the actual junction with the Snowbird Creek Trail. It wasn't. Even though there wasn't any sign, I'm pretty sure that this was the junction with the Middle Falls Trail, which headed right. This is a bypass trail for the fords of Snowbird Creek below Middle Falls. At the time, I didn't want to take it, but later, I found out I had to. Beyond this junction, the Snowbird Creek Trail heads upstream along Snowbird Creek. Generally, the trail is more obvious here, but it is rugged with a lot of scrambling along the creek's edge. There are a lot of pretty cascades in Snowbird Creek along this section. By the time you may cursing the trailbuilders for all of the scrambling and slow hiking the past 0.8 miles, you reach Upper Falls at 6.8 miles. You will have to scramble to the creekside for any view of Upper Falls - there is no view from the trail. However, there is no good view from the creekside either - you cannot see the full falls. You will have to wade out into the middle of Snowbird Creek to see the best view of Upper Falls. The water is waist deep or deeper here. Upper Falls is a 20-foot high slide waterfall. There is a pool below the falls. This waterfall is not particularly scenic, but I suggest that you should still see it if you're hiking in the area, unless the additional 2 miles will make your hike too long.
From Upper Falls, retrace your steps along Snowbird Creek Trail to the junction with Burntrock Ridge Trail. Here, ford Snowbird Creek at a particularly wide crossing, although not harder than the first one. After the ford, the trail continues downstream towards Middle Falls. At 8 miles, watch out for an obscure pathway that heads to the left - it is marked by surveyor's tape. This is a connector trail that leads to the Middle Falls Trail, the bypass trail for the rest of the fords on Snowbird Creek Trail. You might find this connector handy if you'll end up losing the trail below Middle Falls - something that happened to me. At 8.1 miles, an unmarked side trail to the right leads to Middle Falls. You can hear Middle Falls to the right and you can possibly see it through the trees. Middle Falls is a beautiful "block type" waterfall about 20 feet high. Its width is more than twice larger than its height. In my opinion, this is the most photogenic waterfall on this hike. Middle Falls can be crowded as in summer it is a popular destination. From Middle Falls, the Snowbird Creek Trail continues along Snowbird Creek, crisscrossing the creek many times. My plan was to continue to follow the Snowbird Creek Trail, but this became close to impossible, and I knew if I wanted to not be hiking all night, I had to use the bypass trail. I did follow the trail for about a quarter mile below Middle Falls. I forded the creek one more time where there was some surveyor's tape, but on the other side of the creek, the trail gradually disappeared with several potential fording points. At each fording point, I didn't see any signs of a trail on the other side of the creek. On a future hike, I may try this again, but on this day, I returned to Middle Falls and took the connector to the bypass trail.
The connector ends at Middle Falls Trail at 8.3 miles. There is a sign here, the first in a while. Turn right onto the Middle Falls Trail. A moderate uphill begins. The Middle Falls Trail stays far from Snowbird Creek. You will descend to a tributary of Snowbird Creek and then ascend again at a moderate grade. After the second uphill, a long descent back to Snowbird Creek begins. At 9.3 miles, following a long downhill, reach a very confusing area of campsites at the end of the bypass trail. There is a confusing sign here that shows the Snowbird Creek Trail continuing in only one direction, back upstream along Snowbird Creek. I knew this wasn't right. At the sign, turn right, reach a campsite, then turn left and pass through more camping areas until you see a footbridge over Snowbird Creek on the right. This is the Snowbird Creek Trail - the direction you need to take, downstream. I really have no idea where the Snowbird Creek Trail came in from upstream - it must have been somewhere in the middle of the camping areas. Anyways, after you cross Snowbird Creek on the footbridge, the hard part is over. Everything else is on a wide mostly downhill trail. At 9.6 miles, a spur trail on the left leads to Big Falls. Unfortunately, it was dark by the time I got here, so I didn't get to see Big Falls. It could be clearly audible from the main trail, however. At 10.5 miles, reach the junction with the Sassafras Creek Trail and finish the loop. Continue down the Snowbird Creek Trail and reach the trailhead at 13.2 miles.
Skip Upper Falls - 11.2 Miles
Just to Sassafras Creek Falls - 7.2 Miles
Just Big Falls and Middle Falls - 10.2 Miles
Snowbird Loop Nature Trail off the Cherohala Skyway
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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