Snowball Trail at Craggy Gardens, Blue Ridge Parkway

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: 2,300 feet Elevation Start: 4,836 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.

Lane Pinnacle OverlookWhen 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.

Mountain Ash BerriesThere 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.



Update August 22, 2017

Looking for a haven from the heat and humidity of late August, I headed up into the high country of the Great Craggy Mountains to visit the Snowball Trail. It was good timing as the summer wildflowers were in abundance and the early morning air was cool and breezy. Still very humid though. I was lucky enough to see a little bear cub not far from the trailhead and butterflies and mushrooms galore. Here are some new photos of my adventure on the Snowball Trail to Hawkbill Rock.



This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


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  1. Jeff – This write-up just convinced me we need to plan another trip to Asheville… only this time we’ll cut down the stops at the microwbrews and get out on the trails instead 🙂  I’m so glad to have found your blog through Steve’s list at My Life Outdoors.  We’ve been researching other hiking blogs and you’ve done a great job of making it very user friendly and easy to find info about the trails.  Our blog is based on the hiking we do around Nashville and the greater TN-area (and wherever life happens to find us).  If you get back into TN, you may want to check out Honey Creek – it’s a really wonderful (and exhausting) trail in the Big South Fork NRRA.

    If you get a chance, I’d love to get your thoughts on our blog – we hike with our dogs a lot so try to keep a dog-friendly focus in the write-ups.  I’ve added you to our blog roll, too, and will keep checking back.  Keep up the great posts!  – Amy 

  2. Hi Jeff, thanks for this post. My husband and I just did this yesterday, and were quite stumped when we never found the “tower” our map showed so prominently at the end of the trail. We were racing a setting sun (and actually finished the hike after sunset, with about 30 minutes of trail lamp use) so we didn’t hang around for long trying to find the tower. I actually suspect that we overshot the old tower point… we passed the orange/red trail markings you describe as the private land boundary of the Blackberry Inn, and kept going, and going… and I think we followed the ridge line well past where the tower ought to have been. From your Google map here, I suspect we may have continued down the next gap and up to the third peak, rather than taking a right-hand veer and heading to the tower, as your map shows. We’ll have to try it again some other time, and start much earlier in the day!

    • DeLene, believe me y’all didn’t miss much. It’s just four small concrete pillars surrounded by scrub laurel. You would know you’re close when you begin seeing broken glass on the trail.

  3. Jákob Róka

    Hey Jeff, I left a comment on the map as well but I wanted to point out in response to DeLene that I had the same problem. The trail very distinctly continues NW past the area indicated on your map to Alexander Knob and then down into Snowball Gap which is NW of Little Snowball Mountain, the gap to the SE back towards Hawkbill is unnamed to the best of my knowledge but I do see that TEHCC and other groups do call the first gap after Hawkbill Showball Gap as well. I never encountered the turn-around area indicated on the official trail guide and never saw anything leading to the old tower, I’m almost wondering if at this point the trail has been overgrown from disuse? I camped in Snowball Gap which upon further investigation I don’t think I was supposed to do per NPS regulations, oops! I attached a map of where I ended up.

    • Hi Jakob. Thanks for the info. I don’t know. I haven’t been on the Snowball Trail for more than three years, but it didn’t seem like it would be subject to overgrowth. Perhaps I should schedule another trip up there next spring. I don’t kn

      • Jákob Róka

        I’m sure I’ll end up there again and will do some further exploring, I was pretty confused when I ended up in the gap on the other side but it was nice regardless. Thanks for all of the great guides, you’re my primary resource ever since I moved here in August.

        • Phil Schaefer

          We hiked up there yesterday. Found the 4 pillars as promised, but no broken glass. I think there may be a tech problem with the google map above, as our GPS did not agree. The actual end point was well NW of the map, along that ridge you can see a mile or so NW. (I can figure out how to post it if anyone’s interested!)

    • Thanks for the rundown… great blog! I hiked up from the north side of Little Snowball (starting from down near Dillingham) and made it to the fire tower site, but ran out of time due to having gotten lost a few times on the way up in fields of stinging nettles (forest service needs to update their maps) and couldn’t get all the way to Hawksbill.

      Thank you for taking the picture at the end, it was truly the only place on the internet I could verify that I had made it to the right place because all my maps were wrong! I thought maybe I had wandered into a vortex where GPS was useless.

      I look forward to making it all the way to Craggy Gardens one day soon. The path South from the tower site appeared to be in great repair and was clear to hike for the 100 or so yards I took of it.

      If anybody runs across this and is looking for the tower site, the coordinates are 35.726086, -82.426744. You can see the pillars on Google Earth as well.

  4. Just made it out here on accident, got to Craggy Gardens and it was all iced over in the trees. Wandered up and made it to Hawkbill, it was magnificent!

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