A trip to Sassafras Falls in the Snowbird Mountains of North Carolina is often described as a destination that you can “walk to.” Well, in my opinion Sassafras Falls is a wonderful destination for a day in the outdoors, but “walk to,” is a bit of a euphemism. I’m not sure if I’m using my adjectives correctly, but the trails (there are two main ones and a spur) to the base of Sassafras Falls are primitive; i.e., there are no bridges, no log crossings, and many streams to cross. In some way shape or form, your feet will get wet. In a very few places corrugated pipes to keep the trail intact where it would simply get washed away by a tumbling stream (“branch” in these parts, most of which are lovely).
Branch running downhill from the trail
Although the incline is slight in percentage terms, it is an absolute change of about 800 feet, with my GPS is indicating an elevation of 3497 feet at the base of the falls. The main trail is above that, however, and thus the “up” portion of the hike is probably a little bit higher then the absolute change from the trailhead (elevation 2780 feet) to the base of the falls (or at least the portion of the base where the spur trail ends).
I hiked Sassafras Falls with two others in late December 2015 on a cloudy 50 degree day which followed a lot of rainfall in the previous several weeks here in North Carolina. Thus, when we got to the main crossing at Sassafras Creek, it was moving fast. I think we could have waded it successfully even with packs, but we had a rope and so one of my companions with expertise tied it to a tree, crossed, tied it to another tree, and then the other two of us used it as a handhold while we crossed.
Sassafras Creek is about 2.5 miles into the hike (which is 3.5 miles one way) and thus you really don’t want to quit at that point unless the stream is flat out dangerous. In the North Carolina mountains, however, the depth of a stream is probably not as big an issue as the likelihood that the rocks, even when they appear to be dry, probably have a thin film of algae on them, and may be slippery. This leads to the risk of falls and spills, which in turn can lead to bad cuts, broken limbs and–more seriously–head injuries. I don’t mean to exaggerate, it’s just that rookies may not realize what some of the more mundane risks might be.
I’m an older guy now, so when I do certain forms of cardio I wear a heart rate monitor and I stayed in zone three most of the way, making sure I paused whenever I spiked too high into zone four. I do a lot of walking for exercise at home, but training for an uphill hike, even at a gradual change of elevation, probably requires more preparation than I did; i.e. I would recommend a half length or 90% length regimen a week or two in advance just to be ready.
Most printed directions to the trailhead are accurate and fairly easy to follow. Yes, you do have an extended drive on a gravel Forest Service road. When we took our trip (again December 2015) relatively new trail signs had been posted at the trailhead and at later trail intersections and were very helpful. If you’ve read about Sassafras Falls, however, you also know that a set of loop trails can take you to three other falls (or cascades) in the immediate area. I have not been to any of the other three, but it is my understanding that one of them is easy to reach on a marked trail but two others are on trails that are less evident because of the infrequent use. This is truly eastern wilderness.
As is often the case, a winter hike has its advantages. No bugs may be the best one, but my favorite is basically the lesser foliage on the trees which gives better views of everything both near and far, including a sharper view of typography and nearby flowing creeks, which are one of the nice parts of this particular hike.
Our total round trip was about 4 1/2 hours which was made up of two hours and 20 minutes from the trailhead to the base of the Falls (with the pauses to set up our stream crossing and 30 seconds every now and then to let the heartbeat calm down), then about 20-30 minutes at the Falls, and then the remainder on the hike back out, again including the Sassafras Creek Crossing and the necessary or at least helpful rope work.
Sassafras Falls are indeed beautiful and well worth the trip. My kids and I always enjoy a hike that has some sort of a view or feature destination, and this one met (or exceeded) all expectations.
Sign for the spur trail to the base
My personal advice (for whatever it’s worth) is to get to the trailhead at lunch time or earlier (you’ll need about 20 minutes to drive there after you leave Robbinsville) to make sure you have plenty of daylight even on a winter day. We cut it a little bit close, but we left the Falls at about 3:15 on purpose so that we would be very likely to have daylight all the way back to the trailhead (which we did). Our lodging required us to return to Robbinsville and then go a further 15 miles in another direction, so it was dark by the time we were “home.”
Good shoes are a must, but for a day hike of seven total miles a decent pair of running shoes should do just fine. I like to use liners with my hiking socks and that has seemed to protect my office-worker-tender-feet whenever I take a serious hike. I recommend at least a liter of water per person in the winter and thus I’d plan on 50-100% more in the summer. Use a good checklist to decide what other items you should carry (some are on the “always” list).
For this and other waterfall hikes I’ve used a map called “Waterfalls of North Carolina” published by Outdoor Paths Publishing, Black Mountain North Carolina www.OPPmaps.com. I recommend a good guide like that for any of these hikes, because the more details the author provides, the more likely the overall accuracy. Some hikes in some books are described as “it’s kind of out there somewhere,” which is not a good characteristic for a hiking reference. I think the map I’ve attached below (as a hyperlink, “SnowbirdBackCountry”) is fairly accurate and is also available on the Graham County tourism website (I claim no authorship in it).
Graham County is the “back of beyond,” and is very lovely. The distance from the nearest cities (Charlotte, Atlanta, Chattanooga) keeps visitation manageable. Even Asheville is two hours from Robbinsville. A singular attraction are the spectacular mountain roads, which draw a lot of car and motorcycle clubs to travel in groups. The hiking trails are usually fairly quiet. I never hike alone, however, and even when I’m with friends we don’t generally resent other hikers at the same time or place, but rather tend to enjoy them. Nevertheless, if you’re fussy about avoiding too many other hikers, you can find some remote hiking in Graham County.