Snowbird Creek Waterfalls and Panther Top Lookout Tower – 9/3/14 - 12 miles
Jim and I spent another day in the far, far western parts of North Carolina hiking in a place with a pretty name: Snowbird Creek in the Snowbird Mountains of Nantahala National Forest.
Resources for this hike: Hiking North Carolina’s National Forests, a new book this year by Johnny Molloy and North Carolina Waterfalls, a well-used guidebook by Kevin Adams. [I highly recommend both.] Each book has a different perspective and varying routes for our hike and I carried photocopies of both. Adams refers to the Forest Service’s Snowbird Area Trail Map but I couldn’t locate one, so I carried my NatGeo map. We needed all the help we could get. Being prepared can mean the difference between a safe return and a search party.
The trailhead is remote, turn right, turn left, etc. on backroads beyond Robbinsville, NC and then 4 miles of gravel on FR 75 following Snowbird Creek upstream to a dead end. Along the way there are sites for a nice car camp base. I made a mental note of them in the event of a return trip.
Snowbird Creek was roaring loudly at every turn, “dirty” whitewater from last night’s big rain, and I pondered the multiple crossings described in Molloy’s narrative.
Fixing to get ready to go. One car was already there. And right at the parking area I pulled out the hiking guides to solve my first dilemma: left trail or right trail? Neither was marked. Answer: stay left.
Following fresh boot prints on what we now knew was Big Snowbird Trail, we knew someone was ahead of us, and after a mile we caught up to two backpacking fishermen, retired. They were familiar with the area and gave a little background on what was ahead up to the big bridge and camping area.
The first miles were on a gentle grade logging road, plenty wet, and followed the creek on up the mountain.
An obvious waypoint stands at 2.5 miles, a rusted old vehicle nicknamed the getaway car displaying multiple bullet holes. As Snowbird Creek flows strong on the right, Sassafrass Creek comes in from the left to join it – not a small tributary, a tricky wide rock hop.
After another mile we began to look for a side path on the right to Big Falls. The side path was a very steep scramble down (Jim looked at me like I had lost my mind) but we did it. More brown tinted water from the volume of water scouring away the creek banks.
We scrambled back to the main trail and a minute later found a second faint side trail to the right. Turned out to be another vantage point of Big Falls, a many-tiered cascade.
At 3.9 miles we crossed Snowbird Creek on a big sturdy bridge and entered a large campsite area. [Pay attention, this will help you if you ever decide to check out these waterfalls]. This is where the two hike narratives differed. Molloy’s route sticks with Big Snowbird Trail up to Middle Falls, including eight fords of the creek. From what we’d seen of the water flow, Jim and I were interested in alternatives. Adams acknowledges that although Big Snowbird Trail is the most direct route, finding the trail on the far bank at each creek crossing is challenging. He suggests Middle Falls Trail, which stays on the right side of the creek, bypasses all the crossings, and ties back into Big Snowbird Trail near Middle Falls. That’s what we elected to do. But which one of the trails is Middle Falls? No signage and multiple false starts to camping areas kept us guessing for about 20 minutes. We ultimately knew we were on the right trail because, as Adams describes, it starts with “an absurdly steep climb for about .2 miles before moderating.”
Indian cucumber root berry
Delicate rippling lichen
Middle Falls Trail was a mile long and surprisingly well maintained…until it wasn’t. A vague cutoff to connect to Big Snowbird was difficult to follow but thankfully very short. After a quick left turn and a little backtracking, we found Middle Falls.
What a treat! Middle Falls, very full and noisy, all ours
And that water was c-o-l-d!
Two waterfalls so far, one more to find: Sassafras Falls. From this point we relied on Molloy’s trail description to complete a loop. His cautions and warnings that “if navigation and faint trail tracking aren’t your thing, consider returning to the trailhead from Middle Falls” turned out to be (do I hear Alanis Morrisette?) good advice that we just didn’t take.
We could not avoid fording Snowbird Creek. Jim dashed across in bare feet, which was my turn to freak out because the water was very swift and deep and I couldn’t see the bottom. I painstakingly removed my boots and socks and put on Crocs, then looked up and down and up again for a good place to cross. At the edge I stuck my hiking poles in to test the depth and the water grabbed one of them from my hand and pulled it downstream. No time to react, but I certainly wasn’t going to run after it anyway. Then here comes Jim, prancing back across the water as though he was going to swim for it. He is uber cautious about scrambling down a hill but will risk breaking a leg in a creek. Jeez.
After crossing (Jim for the third time) we tried to pick up faint Burntrock Ridge Trail. We followed something for about a quarter mile, crossed what we thought must be Littleflat Branch Creek, but after that the land didn’t seem to match up with either the trail map or Molloy’s description. We saw flagging tape on a few trees, but the last one was on a limb on the ground at a big ditch with no discernible path through a rhododendron hell that was impenetrable. We worked for a half hour before admitting defeat.
The completer in me was offended and disappointed, but time was ticking and the safest course was to turn back. We had spent four hours and were facing a five-miler back to the car. The hike back was a march, me going very fast to get it over with. Hiking with just one pole felt lopsided.
On the return we saw the two backpacking fishermen at their campsite at the bridge and told them about our failed attempt. They had no experience that far up the trail and no advice to offer. I noticed half a dozen Mountain House meals and lots of Ramen noodle packets spread out on a log near their campfire. How long are you guys staying out here? Just overnight.
What – you think this day is over? Nah.
We reached the car much later than I had originally planned and thought we should call it quits, but Jim encouraged me to go for the Panther Top lookout tower, another on the challenge list based on Peter Barr's book Hiking North Carolina's Lookout Towers. We drove an hour further west, beyond the town of Murphy, reaching the tower parking at 6:00 p.m. Facing a .75-mile steep walk up yet another boring gravel road, I was hot and tired and not amused, but tried to appreciate that Jim was willing to do it.
The unexpected reward: the tower is the only structure, no communications clutter
With the late afternoon sun, the view was spectacular, blue rows of mountains...
...and a storm on the horizon. Wow.
Worth the timing even though we got back to the cabin at last light, after 8:00 p.m. Safe and sound. I’m calling it a great day.
“Just because it’s a bad idea doesn’t mean it won’t be a good time.” ~Anonymous