The Snake Mountain Trail easily makes the list for the top 5 best mountain hikes in North Carolina. Located in the Elk Knob Game Lands, the Snake Mountain ridge sports spectacular views in all directions from a trail that follows the very knife-edge crest of the ridge, passing over many rock outcrops and sometimes traveling mere inches from the edges of cliffs dozens of feet high. The hike to Snake Mountain is not for the average hiker due to the extremely steep ascent and the numerous technical scrambles along the ridge, but those who make it will be rewarded with some of the best views anywhere in the Southeast. The Sunalei Preserve and its homeowners must be commended for their willingness to allow public travel through the private property that the first part of the trail passes. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 5th, 2017. My plan was to hike out and back along the Snake Mountain Trail over the North Peak and South Peak of Snake Mountain from the north trailhead off Meat Camp Road. Unfortunately, rain and fog ruined some of the views, but it still turned out to be a spectacular hike. This hike was the third of ten hikes that I did during a seven-day trip to the mountains of northwest North Carolina.
Update #3 12/2/17: A viewer hiked Snake Mountain on Saturday December 2nd and is pleased to report that there are NO “No Trespassing” signs or anything of the sort on the trail! This is great news - let’s keep our fingers crossed that the trail stays open with our help! The viewer also saw seven other cars in the parking area which suggests that there is continued public interest in the Snake Mountain hike. For now, you are free to hike the trail but please respect the private land and leave no trace.
R/T Length of Trail: 4.0 Miles
Duration of Hike: 5:00 (it may take you less as I stopped several times to wait out a heavy thunderstorm and also got disoriented and lost the main trail at one point)
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 7 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: 1668 Feet
Pros: Continuous breathtaking views throughout the hike
Cons: Several confusing intersections along the Snake Mountain ridge
Points of Interest: Views from Snake Mountain Ridge - 10+ stars collectively
Trail Blaze Colors: Snake Mountain Trail - Yellow (Note: the blazes on this trail are unreliable as they are few and far in between)
Best Seasons to Hike: Fall
Beginning Point: Gravel Parking off Meat Camp Road
Directions from Boone, NC: From the intersection of NC 194 and US 421 in Boone, follow NC 194 North for 4.3 miles. Then, turn left onto Meat Camp Road and follow it for 6.1 miles to the gravel parking area on the right, opposite a gated road into a field on the left. If the roads begins switchbacking downhill, you have to missed the parking area.
Click here to download a track of this hike.
Note: I accidentally deleted the track of my Snake Mountain hike, so the map and profile above use the track of the hike that was provided to me by a friend. I followed the exact same route that is depicted by the track.
Despite its breathtaking views, Snake Mountain is a place I had never even heard about until I was in the final planning stages for my trip to Northwest North Carolina. Snake Mountain is virtually unknown to all but the most experienced hikers and some locals because part of the trail passes through private property and the trail itself is very primitive and technical. Begin the hike by crossing to the west side of Meat Camp Road from the gravel parking area. The beginning of the trail is marked by a locked gate, which you will have to move as best you can and scramble under the chain. The first part of the hike passes through private property that is part of the Sunalei Preserve housing development. Please respect the owners' decision to allow public access by not leaving any trash. Access may become restricted if visitors trash up the trail, and it is up to all of us to prevent this from happening.
The trail initially follows a steep forest road that ascends through an open field with increasing views. At 0.2 miles, there is a bench on the left. A couple hundred feet later, the forest road bears left and enters a forested area. Several switchbacks follow that help to briefly moderate the ascent. At one of the switchbacks at 0.55 miles, there is a powerline cut with views to the east. At around 0.65 miles, the forest road exits the woods and approaches the beginning of the rugged open Snake Mountain ridgeline. At this point, there are great views northeastward and eastward toward many of the Amphibolite Mountains' signature peaks, including Three Top Mountain, The Peak, Bluff Mountain, and Elk Knob, as well as southward toward Potterstown Gap. At 0.7 miles, reach a small turnaround on the forest road, where you need to bear left onto the faint single-track Snake Mountain Trail, passing a large boulder with memorial plaques on the left. While you have climbed about 600 feet in the past 0.7 miles, this is where the true fun begins, as the trail ascends another 650 feet in the next half-mile. The pathway should be fairly obvious most of the time, as the trail follows the very spine of the rocky ridgeline which features many outstanding boulder formations. There are several steep rock scrambles along this part of the trail. Due to how open the scramble trail is, getting caught in a thunderstorm will be very unpleasant and potentially life-threatening - and that is exactly what happened to me, forcing me to wait it out in one of the few wooded sections.
As the trail climbs higher, the views to the north get increasingly better, and you'll be able to see the parking area with your car in the valley far below. As the trail turns south, it begins to follow the Tennessee/North Carolina state line and stays with it all the way along the rest of the ridge. At 1.1 miles, the Snake Mountain Trail reaches a wooded flat just below the North Peak of Snake Mountain. A campsite and fire ring lie to the left of the trail. The view of Snake Mountain rising up ahead like a spire is quite imposing. There is a confusing intersection in this flat. Do not continue on the seemingly distinct path that continues straight/bears right from the flat - this poor trail appears to be some sort of bypass and it will not get you to the summit or the views. I accidentally took this trail and had to make a strenuous bushwhack to the summit after I realized my mistake. What you have to do instead is take the trail that bears left in the flat. This trail then switchbacks toward the summit. You can also scramble up the cliff straight ahead, which is a more difficult shortcut that a lot of people have used (and what I personally did on my way back down). After the cliff, the trail breaks out into the open again on the very top of the knife-edge ridge. There are numerous rock scrambles along the way to the North Peak of Snake Mountain, and while all of them are passable, a few of them require a certain degree of agility. Some of the rock scrambles also have bypass paths.
At 1.25 miles, the Snake Mountain Trail reaches the North Peak of Snake Mountain at elevation 5500 feet. Here, the trail passes mere inches from the edges of several cliffs with absolutely breathtaking 360-degree views. The views are equally excellent to the right (west) into Tennessee and to the left (east) into north Carolina. Elk Knob is the closest and most prominent peak to the east. You'll have seen some of the roads and buildings of Sunalei Preserve to the north from the rock outcrops near the summit. From the North Peak, you can also see the South Peak of Snake Mountain standing out ahead. I highly recommend continuing to the South Peak for more views unless you're very short on time. Unfortunately, the South Peak and its vicinity actually remained completely fogged in after the thunderstorm, so I did not get to experience the views there, but at least I got to see the fantastic views - complete with lifting wisps of fog and clouds everywhere - from the North Peak. Regardless, continue to follow the Snake Mountain Trail southward from the North Peak, beginning the descent into a shallow saddle. The trail shortly enters the woods and there will not be any views for some time. As you follow the ridge toward the South Peak, there will be several brief descents and ascents as well as several small rock outcrops with splitting paths. Most of these paths end up in the same place, but it is best to stick with the paths that are on or closest to the crest of the ridge.
At 1.8 miles, the Snake Mountain Trail crosses the wooded South Peak of Snake Mountain at elevation 5560 feet. Continue following the trail as it begins descending into an open bald area on the south side of Snake Mountain. Views to the west, south, and east should quickly open up in clear weather. Around 2.0 miles is a good turnaround point, just before the trail begins a precipitous drop to Rich Mountain Gap. From this point, the spectacular panoramic view will include nearby Rich Mountain Bald, as well as Grandfather Mountain and the Roan Highlands in the distance.
From the southern viewpoint, simply retrace your steps along the Snake Mountain Trail, returning back to the trailhead and concluding the hike at 4.0 miles. While you will get to see all of the northern views again on the return route, except it to take nearly as much time as the ascent due to the rugged terrain. Due to the absolutely incredible views on the Snake Mountain ridgeline, I am going to rate this hike a "Best Hike". Every experienced hiker in North Carolina or elsewhere in the Southeast must have a hike to Snake Mountain on their bucket list. I can safely say that I will be back during better conditions.
0.0 - Meat Camp Road
0.7 - Begin Scramble Trail
1.1 - Old Fire Ring, Stay Left
1.2 - North Peak of Snake Mountain
1.8 - South Peak of Snake Mountain
2.0 - Southward Panorama, Turnaround Point
4.0 - Meat Camp Road
Hike out and back from Meat Camp Road to North Peak of Snake Mountain (not recommended) - 2.4 Miles
There are several bonus hike options after Snake Mountain. Consider hiking to nearby Elk Knob via the trail from Elk Knob State Park. A bit farther away, hikers can hike the trail to Three Top Mountain, another peak with spectacular views that I haven't been to yet. An easier bonus stop would be the trail to Glen Burney Falls in Blowing Rock.
Note: Due to heavy rain, I did not take pictures of some of the hardest parts of the trails, and I did not take a picture of the split at the fire ring either.
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 390.5 Miles