Snowbird Creek, North Carolina, US
|Usual Difficulty||III-IV+ (for normal flows)|
|Avg. Gradient||137 fpm|
Hike into the Upper Snowbird from the Hooper Bald parkinglot on the Cherohala Skyway. The Upper Snowbird has fourwaterfalls in between sections of class III whitewater. Theriver then changes into class IV whitewater for the last few miles. Three of the waterfalls can be found in most senicwaterfall books and are labeled on most maps. Upper falls is along slide, Middle falls is a 22' riverwide drop, Big falls is a series5 or 6 small slides ending with a 10' drop, and the last waterfall (which is not labeled on the map) is a 4' drop directly on to a 20'slide. If you are in the area and everything else is too high this will be a good run.
Snowbird is by far one of the best runs in the southeast. It has all the elements of a truly long, expeditious paddle which passes through multiple styles of SE rivers all set in a hard to reach area of WNC. It includes probably 1 mile of mank, followed by 2 miles of class III micro-creeking, after that a section of 4 class IV+ waterfalls, followed by about 4 miles of continuous class III-IV boogie water to the takeout.
The takeout for upper snowbird is at the end of Big Snowbird Road near Lake Santeetlah. Park in the obviously large gravel parking lot at the end of the dirt road and from here you can get a good look at the river by hiking about 50 yards down the trail to a bridge. If the creek is raging (no/few visible rocks) from the takeout/bridge then the upper section will be running. Just keep in mind rain could still make this rise or drop out quickly and you have about 2 hours of driving and hiking before putting on the river.
At this point you can consider a couple of options regarding shuttle:
1) From here you do have the option to hike your own shuttle, big creek style. There's a trail that parallels the creek on river left all the way up to the top. The waterfalls are 4 miles up so this would be a long hike in but you could walk a shorter distance and enjoy continuous class III-IV boogie water and make the lower section longer.
2) With snowbird, It is certainly an adventure just getting to the put in and involves careful navigation. It will also require carrying your kayak and gear 2.5+ miles on poorly maintained trails.
If you elect to hike down from the top, start off by taking the Cherahola Skyway to the parking lot for Hooper Bald. Begin your hike with the trail to the right of all the signage in the parking lot. You'll hike for about 100 yards and come to a gravel road with a gate on your right. Turn right onto the road and head down. BE DISCREET as you hike because there is surrounding private property and you'll need the road to get access to the trailhead. After a little bit, the road will fork. Be sure to take the right fork. Continue down until the road turns to dirt and there is a house a little ways in front of you. Off to your right will be signage for the trailhead (Snowbird #64). This is the start of the long trail section of the hike and is where things can get interesting if you're not careful with your directions.
Continue along the trail and be conscious of the number of "streams" you cross. Along the way, there will be multiple streams you cross but you're only keeping track of the significantly larger ones. After you've crossed 2 of these larger streams, be on the lookout for a trail going off to the left marked with a bunch of orange flagging tape. This trail was after a steep uphill section and was about 2 miles into the hike.
From here you're getting close! As you follow this trail, you'll come across a few sections with multiple trees and logs laying in the path. It seemed like the trail disappeared for a small portion of this section but it was obvious which direction to head. After about a mile or so of heading downhill through slick mud and ducking under oak trees, you'll eventually reach an intersection with a well marked sign and snowbird creek!
As tempting as it may be to put on here after a long hike, Snowbird Creek will only be a small stream and you'll have to continue down the trail. Once you reach a tributary coming in from your left. Take a sigh of relief as you've made it to the actual put-in and the boating begins!
The character of the put-in tributary will be the character of the river for the first mile or so of the run. There was one portage early in the run but it was obvious and we easily walked down a side stream on river left. After you've passed this, continue to bounce down the mank knowing that reinforcement flows are coming your way. You'll pass multiple tributaries as you head down, each one delivering it's share of water and making the creek more navigable the further you go downstream.
The mank will begin to fade and the river will slowly begin to widen, resulting in a few 2-3 foot ledges and slides. Approximately one mile in is where the first big rapid of the day comes up. The high flow made the ride down this bad boy very cushy and controllable but provided little to no eddies above it, causing us to route it blind. Everything was good to go and we ran it right down the middle, ending in a nice boof into the pool below. I’d describe it a similar slide to rapid transit on the green.
The river will begin to mellow back on the gradient after the slide, making it seem like a weirdly placed feature. For our high flow day, this part became continuous in nature but nothing more than class 2. Approximately ¾ of a mile past the slide, the river will make a slight bend to the left and a horizon line will develop resulting in a small series of boat scoutable ledges that can be run down the left. Continue past these and after 150 yards look for the river to make another left hand bend and grab the large eddy on the right. Just downstream is another big horizon line and the tallest waterfall of the day!
Start at the top by navigating the boogie water and keeping the general game plan of staying right. The first feature you will approach is a diagonal ledge hole that tends to typewriter you to the left. The 22’ vertical drop is immediately after this. The drop can be run almost anywhere but there is a sweet autoboof right of center. If you aim right of center off the lip, look for the rooster tail, which can launch you if you hit it just right. All in all, it’s a clean line into a big pool and quite the sight to gaze at after running it.
For the next few miles the river goes back to it’s continuous class 3ish nature. Somewhere in this stretch we encountered a river wide log that was hanging above the water (it came into view around a left hand bend). There’s an eddy to catch on the left and you can duck under the far left side of it. After this, the river begins another bend to the left and few slots form in the river. With the high water we were able to get through the left slot, but at lower flows it may be more feasible to run it down the center or right.
A little while later, the river will form another horizon and signal the third big drop of the run. This one has the trickiest and longest lead-in of the 4 big drops. You’ll start out by punching and boofing over multiple ledges which will culminate into a double drop (1st drop 7ft, second drop 12ft) There is an eddy on the left after 1st 7ft drop. The 12ft drop is best run left of center to avoid the stronger side of the hole on the right. The second drop also has an autoboof on the far left but lands in green water in an eddy. The lines might change at a lower water level
Visible from the bottom of the 12 footer is the horizon line for the last big waterfall of the day. Grab an eddy on the right and crawl through the rhodo to scout. This last waterfall (around 25ft) is a broken/stair stepped slide down the left side of a large drop.
Water level will definitely dictate which entrance lines will open up for this one but the game plan is all the same. One way or another you’ll want to run this down the left side. At higher flows you can take the far left side setting you up perfectly for the slide and the eventual 8 foot boof at the bottom of it. Lower flows may have you enter from the middle, heading left through a slot and turning hard to the right. This one also has a lot more eddy service at lower flows and can make the boat scouting a lot easier.
This drop concludes the larger rapids of the day and is your marker for approximately being halfway down the river. From this point on for the next 3.5 to 4 miles the river begins to move in a continuous flow, meandering in and out of class 3/4 rapids and slides along with the occasional log & branch duck. A 4 foot boof (somewhat similar to Tanner’s boof on Tallulah) is a signal to be on the lookout for an eventual river wide tree strainer, 4 feet in diameter. THIS IS A MANDATORY PORTAGE! As soon as you see it, grab an eddy on the left to use the trail. If you eddy on the right it will result in the classic southeastern rhododendron suffer-fest portage.
Shortly after this, you’ll continue downstream and be greeted by the familiar bridge from which you started your day many hours ago. Be vigilant about catching an eddy here if it’s a high flow day as lower snowbird starts right after the bridge.
Upper snowbird is quite the adventure for anyone looking for a sweet wilderness run. This creek offers every logistical skill required for an epic trip and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If your lucky to go with someone who’s been down before, it’ll make a world of a difference in your experience (it certainly did for us). Having the right map, beta, stamina, gear, and crew will make all the difference in making this run some of the best 8 miles of whitewater you can paddle in the southeast!
-Emory Klesick (2/12/2018)