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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains

By Lynda McDaniel

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Sherpa Guides > North Carolina Mountains > The Snowbird Mountains > Snowbird Area

Snowbird Area

[Fig. 32(5)] The Snowbird backcountry area lies in the Snowbird Creek basin near the convergence of the Snowbird and Unicoi mountain ranges. For centuries the area was hunted by the Cherokee, and due to its steep and rugged terrain, it was one of the last areas in Western North Carolina to be settled by European pioneers.

In the nearby town of Robbinsville lies the grave of Chief Junaluska, the Cherokee chief who saved Andrew Jackson's life in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe against the Creek Indians. Years later, Jackson betrayed his rescuer when he signed the Indian Removal Act, and in turn the great Cherokee leader earned the name we know him by—Junaluska, meaning "he tried repeatedly but failed." A short walk from NC 143 just west of town leads up a flight of steps to the well-maintained grave and memorial plaque to the chief; his wife, Nicie, is buried next to him. During the Trail of Tears when the Cherokee were moved to Oklahoma, a number of Cherokee, led by Tsali (see Tsali), escaped exile by hiding in the remote wilderness of the Snowbirds. Today, approximately 300 direct descendants of these families live in the Little Snowbird community.

In 1943, the federal government acquired the Snowbird area as part of the Nantahala National Forest. Seven hiking trails covering 37 miles ascend the surrounding ranges and follow the Snowbird and Sassafras creeks. Like the nearby wilderness trails, these are purposely kept primitive and rugged; they are rated "easiest," "more difficult," and "most difficult" on the forest service map of the area. Big Snowbird Trail [Fig. 32(9)], for example, crosses the stream numerous times without the aid of bridges or footlogs. After heavy rains, trails may be impassable. Other trails in the area include Burntrock Ridge, King Meadows, Middle Falls, Mitchell Lick, Sassafras Creek, and Snowbird Mountain. Snowbird Creek offers excellent fishing opportunities for brook trout, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), and brown trout (Salmo trutta), although some fishing sites are accessible only by hiking along Big Snowbird Trail or wading upstream.

Sassafras Falls, Big Falls, Middle Falls, and Upper Falls are four waterfalls within the Snowbird Creek basin. These falls are all accessed off Big Snowbird Creek Trail, and some strenuous hiking is required to reach them. For a complete guide to their accessibility and beauty rating, refer to Kevin Adams's book, North Carolina Waterfalls.

For those wishing for a break from the wilderness experience, fine lodging and dining are available near Santeetlah Gap at the historic Snowbird Mountain Lodge. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 22-room lodge features breathtaking views from a number of decks and overlooks, comfortable accommodations, and gourmet dinner and breakfast to rival any found in more likely locations such as Asheville or Highlands.

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Published (print): 1999, Published (Web): December 2000, Revised (Web): November 2002, ISBN: 1-56352-463-5
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