Little Snowball Lookout Tower (Big Ivy Historical Campus) -- 2,300'

Little Snowball Lookout Site


In 1934 the U.S. Forest Service determined to build a fire lookout at the end of a narrow ridge, just north of an unremarkable peak known as Little Snowball Mountain. Its location was perfect for watching over the western flanks of the Craggy Mountain Range as well as the numerous hills and ridges flanking the eastern side of the French Broad River Valley. The 21-foot steel-frame tower was topped by a 14x14-foot live-in cab, and served as a valuable fire detection asset up until 1980. As with most fire lookouts, upon being decommissioned the Little Snowball Lookout was soon scheduled for demolition. Thankfully a local man had taken an interest in the historic structure and bought it off the USFS for $300, at which point he dismantled it and transported it down to one of the nearby valley’s which the old tower had once overlooked. Now reconstructed, the tower stands on the grounds of the Big Ivy Historical Campus near the tiny community of Barnardsville and is easily visited by anyone who happens to be driving by. The former site of the tower can also still be visited, though a good deal more effort is required. To visit the site one has to make the 7+ mile round-trip hike from Beetree Gap, near the famous Craggy Gardens, along the challenging Snowball Trail, to its northern terminus where the Little Snowball Lookout was once located. Your reward for making the trek? A small grassy clearing with four concrete blocks which once supported the tower. The forest has reclaimed the slopes surrounding it, blocking what once must have been one of the most spectacular viewpoints in the southern mountains. Before you completely write this hike off, though, you also get to see the incredible vista from Hawkbill Rock along the way so it’s not a trek entirely without rewards.

The trailhead for this hike, as mentioned previously, is located at Beetree Gap which is located a short distance off the Blue Ridge Parkway up the Craggy Gardens Access Road. A wide bend in the road is the location of the trail crossing for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along with a small parking area. To start, follow the MST west…a small sign is located just inside the wood-line pointing the way to both the Snowball Trail and Hawkbill Rock. The trail makes a short climb into a beautiful high-elevation yellow birch forest and, barely a tenth-of-a-mile in, it reaches a junction where the MST makes a hard left while the Snowball Trail begins straight ahead. The Snowball Trail heads west along the ridge and soon begins the moderate ascent of Snowball Mountain itself. Footing is good and the grade is never extreme but the ascent is still a good workout. About halfway up, just past a sharp right-hand switchback under a fallen tree, there’s a nice limited view back across to the south. It’s a good place to pause and catch your breath. The climb continues and soon, at about the ¾-mile mark, the trail crests Snowball Mountain. There are limited views from the summit in the winter of the nearby Craggy Mountains. From the summit the trail immediately begins a moderate descent. Higher elevation spruce trees soon give way to rhododendron and laurel as the ridge gets increasingly narrow. As the route bottoms out the trail gets a bit more rugged as there is more rock underfoot and large outcrops appear in the trees nearby. Just before reaching Hawkbill Rock the route starts a steep final climb. In wet or icy weather this stretch could be tricky, if not downright dangerous. Scrambling up bare rock views begin to be had to the left, teasing what is to come above. A short time later the trail tops out on Hawkbill Rock itself. Here, a short spur breaks left to the open ledges. As mentioned earlier the views are stunning. Snowball Mountain is seen to the east, Lane Pinnacle rises straight ahead, while the valley of Reem’s Creek stretches away to the west towards the French Broad River Valley. On the clearest of days the Pisgah Ridge and Great Balsam Mountains can be seen to the extreme southwest. It’s a wonderful place to kick back, enjoy a mountaintop breeze, and soak in the stunning natural surroundings.

After enjoying Hawkbill, get back on the Snowball Trail where a sign points you in the direction of the lookout tower site. The ridgetop walk isn't all that difficult at first, descending a bit from Hawkbill before topping out on another minor tree-covered knob. Despite the elevation the forest remains purely deciduous, and quite open most of the way. There are no views to be had though. After crossing the aforementioned knob, the steep stuff begins. The drop from to Snowball Gap involves some of the steepest hiking of the day, as the trail descends nearly 500-feet in a half mile. Keep in mind you'll have to gain this vertical all back on the return trip! Around one mile past Hawkbill Rock the Trail begins to regain its sanity as it enters the broad grassy opening at Snowball Gap. Here the trail links up with the old forest road which once allowed vehicle access to the lookout. This is immediately obvious as the right-of-way suddenly becomes much wider, but also in at least one rusted vehicle which can be seen in the trees alongside the trail a short distance above the gap. The Snowball Trail is now heading north, ascending the eastern flanks of Little Snowball Mountain. The grade is downright gradual compared to what has come before and, in 2/3-mile reaches the crest of the ridge just north of Little Snowballs summit. The last half-mile is a breeze, as the trail follows a remarkably even grade along the crest of the increasingly narrow ridge. The laurels begin to fill in alongside and suddenly, after a sharp left turn, you'll emerge into the small grassy opening where the Little Snowball Lookout once stood.

There are no views from the former lookout site, except in the winter through bare treetops, but it's still an amazing spot. The remoteness of the site is still keenly felt, as it must have been by the men who once lived atop this ridge. Four concrete footings mark the former location of the tower. Use one to take a load off, there's still a lot of work to be done getting back. The return hike follows the exact same route along the Snowball Trail, just in the opposite direction. The walk back to Snowball Gap is easy enough but the climb back to the ridge from there is downright brutal. Luckily you'll get to stop by Hawkbill Rock once again for your efforts, where you'll probably want to rest and rebuild your morale for the final climb back over Snowball Mountain. After 7.2-miles of hard-earned hiking you'll emerge from the woods back at Beetree Gap.

This a spectacular and deceptively challenging hike. I can't recommend it for everyone as the distance, vertical gain, and short rock scrambles require a certain amount of preparation and familiarity with mountain hiking. You also need to take stock of your abilities as you go. The vertical gain creeps up on you and, trust me, the hike back is far more difficult than the approach to the old lookout site. If you find yourself getting winded before the descent to Snowball Gap, you may want to reconsider your goals for the day. Those that do make the trek will find it rewarding, however. Particularly beyond Hawkbill Rock there is an abundance of solitude to be enjoyed. Also, even though there are no views to reward you, arriving at the ridgetop clearing where the lookout once stood is a remarkable experience...especially if you can put yourself in the mindset of those once stationed at this remote outpost. With that, it's now my great pleasure to invite you along with me on my hike of the Snowball Trail, out to the former location of the Little Snowball Lookout. As always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.699867, -82.398845

Route Type: Out-and-back      Difficulty: VERY HARD (Petzoldt Rating: 10.80 )      Hike Length: 7.2 miles      Hike Duration: 3:30      Trailhead Temp: 60'F               Trail Traffic: 5-10 people      Min. Elevation: 4,350'      Max. Elevation: 5,370'      Total Vertical Gain: 1,800'      Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 250'

Trails Used (blaze color): Mountains-to-Sea (white), Snowball (yellow)


4-6-2020