Kind of an unusual name for the mountain this trail is named after, but it is at 5,200 feet, so the snow comes earlier in the season, and more frequently than in the valleys below. North of Asheville, NC on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this hike is in the Craggy Gardens area. There are splendid views of the Great Craggy Mountains and the Black Mountains from the three summits that are encountered along the trail. You cross Snowball Mountain, Hawkbill Rock, and Little Snowball Mountain along a trail that is roller coaster in nature, lots of up and down, and up and down. This hike occurred on Friday, September 9, 2011 from 10:10am to about 3:15pm. The plan was to take the connector on the Mountains to the Sea Trail along the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area road to the Snowball Trail. From there, it is out and back to the remnants of an old fire tower on Little Snowball Mountain, an eight mile roundtrip.
Hike Length: 8.0 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate going out, difficult coming back Blaze: White and Yellow
Elevation Gain: 2300 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Mostly very good, brief all fours rock scrambling
Starting Point: The trailhead is on the road to Craggy Gardens Picnic Area.
Trail Traffic: Solitude. We encountered no other hikers on this day.
How to Get There: At milepost 367.6 of the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville take the service road to the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area. To reach the Snowball Trail, start at the Mountains-to-Sea Trail crossing at the Picnic Area road and continue south a few hundred feet. The Snowball Trail turns to the right (NW) off the MTS Trail.
View Snowball Trail at Craggy Gardens, Blue Ridge Parkway in a larger map
After three weeks of overtime at work because we were short-staffed, it was good to put the pack on again. The mountain air smells a whole lot better than office air any day, and just seems to make the lungs open wider wanting more. This particular day was one of those with low valley fog that occur so frequently in the North Carolina mountains. I love it! My companion and I got on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Asheville and headed north to Craggy Gardens. It’s 17 miles through beautiful woodlands on my favorite road as it passes the Parkway Headquarters as well as the Folk Art Center.
The trail for this hike is located on the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area road, at milepost 367.6. It’s just a few hundred yards up the road on the left. Look for the short concrete trailhead marker with a white blaze that designates the Mountains to the Sea Trail. It’s then only a few hundred feet up the MTS to the fork. The MTS goes left and more or less follows the parkway. We took the Snowball Trail to the right. Don’t be looking for a sign; there isn’t one. My trail map said that Snowball has a white blaze, but all the tree markings I saw were yellow.
The first mile is a pretty good climb; it goes from 4,200 feet to about 5,200 on top of Snowball Mountain. The grade is not steep though, so I didn’t really feel tired along the way. All along the left-hand, or southerly, side of the trail we kept encountering spur trails every couple hundred yards. We tried a few of these to see if there were nice views, or campsites. There probably are good views of the Great Craggy Mountains at the end of some of these short spurs in winter, when all the leaves are off the trees. But on this day in late summer, with the trees still fully clothed, we were disappointed and stopped taking the spurs after the third one. The forest is mostly deciduous with some spruce, black balsam particularly. There was even some old growth oak that had survived the logging and blights that had to be a few hundred years old. Some of these trees are huge.
When we reached the top of Snowball Mountain there was a great view to the northeast of the majestic, more than 6000′ Black Mountains. That’s the picture at the top of this post. The clouds were creating quite the entertaining sight. There was the low lying fog still hovering in the gaps between the ridges, then another layer sitting like a hat on the mountaintops. Despite some greyness to the clouds, they weren’t the least bit threatening, the weather was ideal for hiking.
From Snowball Mountain the trail drops down the ridge about 600 feet, then begins climbing again to Hawkbill Rock, a large rocky outcropping that stands at 4800 feet. The climb from the gap up Hawkbill is a pretty steep rock scramble, the only part of the hike that requires the use of all fours. Reaching the summit is definitely worth the effort, as there are great views of the Great Craggy and Black Mountains to the northeast, and the Reems Creek drainage to the south. Directly to the east we could see the ridge we just came down from Snowball Mountain. We were fascinated sitting on the rock watching the wisps of valley fog lift and float away on the air currents. This dance of cloud and forest went on for the 10 minutes we took to get some nourishment and enjoy the scene. We were totally surrounded by forest. There were no roads in sight, no meadow, no buildings; just green, green forest as far as we could see in every direction.
On the west side of Hawkbill Rock, the trail again plunges down to Snowball Gap, a drop of another 800 feet. The trail itself changed to one suitable for all-terrain vehicles. It got wider and smoother in the gap. As the day began to warm, so did I, so I took off my long sleeve shirt. It didn’t take long to get introduced to a plant I had never encountered before. It’s called stinging nettle. I hadn’t noticed it with sleeves, except that my knees had an unusual itch through my pants, but with just short sleeves on I got stung, and stung, and stung. It isn’t an OWWWWWW! screaming kind of sting, but more of a nuisance ouch that definitely gets your attention. In all the hiking I’ve done in western North Carolina for the last four years now, this was the first time I ever experienced the annoyance of stinging nettle.
Down in Snowball Gap, the trail takes an odd little zig-zag as it parallels the private property of the Blackberry Inn. The private land is well marked with red and orange paint and ribbons, so you don’t have to worry about straying where you don’t belong. Just past this point the short climb up Little Snowball Mountain begins, just a touch more than 100 feet more of up. As we neared the top, we began to see broken glass along the trail, a sign that we were nearing the end of the four mile trail.
There used to be a fire tower on top of Little Snowball Mountain. Some years ago it was disassembled and moved to Big Ivy Historical Park near the community of Big Ivy that the tower once protected. The only thing that remains on Little Snowball are the four concrete pillars where the tower once stood, and a lot of broken glass. I would think the tower would have had shatter resistant windows because of the high winds that can howl through the Craggy Mountains, so I was at a loss to explain the broken glass.
Those pillars made great seats for our lunch break. The views on Little Snowball aren’t quite as dramatic as the previous two summits. The area is surrounded by laurels and rhododendrons that have grown high enough through the years to block the immediate vicinity. Still, we could see tops of distant mountains crowned by the ever-present cloud formations. With our bellies full, we were revitalized for the trek back.
The out part of Snowball Trail is easy to moderate. Not so of the back part. It is quite strenuous, and therefore somewhat difficult. The up is a lot steeper going back, and there’s more of it. The climb from Snowball Gap to Hawkbill Rock seems a lot longer after already having five miles on your legs. Hawkbill Rock was a welcome sight, and another opportunity to rest, drink lots of water, munch an apple, and take some more pictures. By now, the morning fog had completely lifted, but the large clouds were still doing their hat routine over the mountains. The super-steep rock that I climbed on all fours going up was quite dicey going down. I even wondered aloud to my friend how many broken ankles there had been on that stretch over the decades. Then it was another 600 feet up to Snowball Mountain. Huff, puff. Huff, puff. I know, I’m just a whining Meanderthal.
The last mile is all downhill a thousand feet. It didn’t seem so bad going up nearly five hours before, but the seven miles already on my tired legs took a toll. The feet and knees and hips were getting weaker with every step down. Y’know it’s funny. I thought this trail was fairly easy going out, but I sure changed my mind coming back. It is quite the workout. What was really nice though, was the late season wildflowers that had opened up in the warmth of the afternoon
— and the mountain ash berries bursting with bright red glory.
I really enjoyed the Snowball Trail. It had slipped past my radar until now, and I’m glad I took the time to search the map for a trail I had yet to explore. The views of the surrounding mountains are first rate, and the trail itself is in very good condition. We had it all to ourselves too. The solitude was relaxing for the soul. I would say this would be an excellent trail for the autumn leaf peepers. No need to do the full length
— just going to Hawkbill Rock and back would make an excellent excursion.