Pilot Mountain State Park, NC

 

East view of Big Pinnacle from Little Pinnacle

Pilot Mountain is truly one of the iconic summits in North Carolina. The mountain, a monadnock and the westernmost peak of the ancient Sauratown Mountains, dominates the surrounding Piedmont and can be seen from many landmarks. Due to its ease of access directly off freeway U.S. 52 north of Winston-Salem, this state park is popular and is overcrowded during the summer months. Avoid the crowds and hike this park in the offseason when the leaves are down and the temperatures are milder than the Blue Ridge Mountains. A full loop of the mountain can be achieved using the newly extended Mountain Trail, with the addition a result of a fire break during a forest fire in November 2012. From there use the Grindstone Trail, the only trail leading from the base to the summit area. Once you attain the crest you are in cliff heaven as the trails hug the top and bottom of 100+ foot cliffs crawling with rock climbers. The highlights may be the Ledge Spring Trail, Little Pinnacle, or the Jomeokee Trail, it all depends on your preference. For those in a rush or wanting a shorter hike, you can do the shorter 2.7-mile loop from the upper parking lot. This is a great day hike for anyone who lives in the Triad or Triangle metropolitan areas.    

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Lane Pinnacle – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Beetree Reservoir above the town of Black Mountain, NC

How do you end a hazy bachelor party weekend in Asheville? With a hike of course! It was the first weekend of April, and I was staying in Asheville with my friends Friday through Sunday. We had to vacate the house before noon on Sunday, and everyone was leaving town anyways. The weather was perfect for a hike, sunny with no clouds and cold but no wind. My body and mind weren’t perfect for a hike, but I went ahead with it anyways. I decided to drive northeast on the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Craggy Gardens, a place I never get to because of drive time. I did no research beforehand, and had only brought a couple of maps and books in my car for reference. Unfortunately the parkway was still closed because of Tanbark Ridge Tunnel construction, or because it was still winter at the high elevations. I had a backup in mind, and it fortunately started at the road closure. Here the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) crosses the parkway at the T-junction with the Elk Mountain Scenic Highway. From here my plan was to hike east towards the historic remnants of Rattlesnake Lodge, then ascend a high ridgeline in the western Great Craggy Mountains to Lane Pinnacle at 5,230 feet. This was not a bad backup plan, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring this section of the MST.

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Woods Mountain – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

View #1 of Armstrong Creek watershed
View #1 of Armstrong Creek watershed

Although sandwiched between the Blue Ridge Parkway and U.S. 221, the Woods Mountain Trail sees few travelers. There are a lot of reasons people skip right by this trail despite being part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). Linville Gorge lies to the east while the Black Mountains lie to the west. Both are very popular destinations. The MST follows the Woods Mountain Trail for 6 miles along this east-west massif. Woods Mountain is part of the area that constitutes the first purchase of national forest lands established on the east coast. Even though this was the first tract of Pisgah National Forest, this vast area from Armstrong Creek southwest to Jarrett Creek has largely been neglected by the forest service and hikers over the years. Many of the trails have been abandoned. I’ve hiked trails in the western portion of this region, including Heartbreak Ridge and Snook’s Nose, but this is the first time I’ve explored Woods Mountain. This section has been designated an Inventoried Roadless Area and is also being considered for Wilderness designation. It sure feels like wilderness when you leave the Blue Ridge Parkway on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and follow the Woods Mountain Trail east. If not for the MST designation and blazes, one could get easily lost in this area since a vast network of forgotten trails crisscross the ridgelines. I knew there was a good view shortly into the hike of the Armstrong Creek watershed, but beyond that I had no clue what I was going to see. Ultimately I wanted to hike the full length of the Woods Mountain Trail and check out the eastern summit which houses the remains of a former fire tower.

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Five Peaks Loop – Hanging Rock State Park, NC

 

Northwest view from Moore's Knob
Northwest view from Moore’s Knob

One of my favorite hikes in North Carolina is the Five Peaks Loop which takes you on the grand tour of Hanging Rock State Park. If I have friends who want advice on a good day hike not too far from the Triangle, usually this is my first suggestion. Hanging Rock State Park encompasses the bulk of the Sauratown Mountains – a small, ancient range running east-west in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Although the tallest of the Sauratown Mountains, Moore’s Knob, only reaches 2,579 feet these mountains rise over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside. This hike is nicknamed the Five Peaks Loop because it crosses all five named rocks and mountains with fantastic views in the central district of the park. Starting from the visitor center, you can take this hike clockwise or counterclockwise. I chose to head to Hanging Rock first, the most popular view in the park. From there the trail heads west towards Wolf Rock and then a short out-and-back to House Rock and Cook’s Wall. The loop continues north ascending steeply up Huckleberry Ridge to the phenomenal views from the Moore’s Knob observation tower, before the finish wrapping around Hanging Rock Lake on your return to the visitor center.

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Mt. Mitchell Trail – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Mt. Craig and northern Black Mountains
Mt. Craig and northern Black Mountains

The Mt. Mitchell Trail has been beckoning me for years, and I had always wanted to hike it during the winter to get the full mountain experience. The weather was supposed to be sunny but bitterly cold and windy on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, which sounded perfect to me because visibility would be outstanding. I woke up extremely early on Saturday and drove to the Black Mountain Campground in Pisgah National Forest to begin my ascent. The Mt. Mitchell Trail is one of few trails in the mountains of North Carolina that boasts many similarities to a summit trail out West or in the Northeast. It starts deep in the South Toe River Valley far below the Black Mountain range and climbs unrelentingly for 5.5 miles to the summit. As you climb you’ll experience a multitude of ecosystems as the forest changes from Appalachian and northern hardwood forests to dense rhododendron and mountain laurel to tall pines and eventually the rare southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest near the summit. Mt. Mitchell, standing at  6,684 feet, is the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains and the eastern United States. You can drive to the summit, mill around the visitor’s center and stroll a few hundred yards to the observation platform before leaving. Or you can conquer this peak the old-fashioned way by hiking the Mt. Mitchell Trail.

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Mountains-to-Sea Trail to Bald Knob – Pisgah National Forest, NC

 

Southern end of the gorge with Shortoff Mountain in focus
Southern end of the gorge with Shortoff Mountain in focus

Bald Knob and Dobson Knob loom large over Marion and the North Fork Catawba River Valley. Standing separate from Linville Gorge, these peaks feel remote despite relatively easy access. The region of the Pisgah National Forest around the North Fork Catawba River Valley is largely unknown to me. If I’m driving in this direction I head to the Linville Gorge Wilderness or go farther towards the Swannanoa River Valley. However, I’ve been hearing a lot about these peaks with incredible views of the gorge and the Black Mountains. I knew I had to check it out, and it would continue my tradition of trying a brand new hike on New Year’s Eve. The plan was pretty simple, find the Mountains-to-Sea Trail crossing over the North Fork Catawba River and take it all the way up to Bald Knob and Dobson Knob. From there I’d hopefully have some awesome views to myself in a little known section of the national forest. I did not quite make it to Dobson Knob because I turned around before the true summit. It is safe to say that the hike to Bald Knob is well worth the effort and the views of Linville Gorge and the North Fork Catawba River Valley are outstanding.

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Julian Price Memorial Park – Blue Ridge Parkway, NC

 Boone Fork and Price Lake

 

Grandfather Mountain over Price Lake
Grandfather Mountain over Price Lake

Originally I planned on hiking the two mountain summits at Moses Cone Memorial Park on what I thought would be a nice Labor Day Monday with partial cloud cover. As I arrived at the Blue Ridge Parkway the clouds over the area were dark and threatening around noon. It didn’t look like the best day to be on exposed trails. When I got to the park, the parking lot was a mad house and that helped me make the decision to move on. Just down the road is Julian Price Memorial Park, followed by Grandfather Mountain. I decided on Julian Price since it had multiple hikes in the woods. Unfortunately the Price Lake picnic area was even crazier than Moses Cone so I almost gave up and drove an hour to Linville Gorge. Luckily there were some parking spots at the Price Lake Overlook down the street and I finally got started around 12:30 PM. My plan was to hike the Boone Fork Trail then continue on the Price Lake Trail in a figure-eight loop. This hike is roughly 8 miles and very easy. After that with a few hours of daylight left I drove over to Sims Pond and hiked the short Green Knob Trail, finishing all 3 major loop trails in Julian Price Memorial Park.

 

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Widow’s Creek to Devil’s Garden Overlook – Stone Mountain State Park, NC

 

Widow's Creek
Widow’s Creek

I didn’t have a plan for my hike. It was the day before 4th of July, and I felt like taking the day off and exploring. Unfortunately the forecast was clouds and possibility of storms all afternoon. I set off in the direction of Stone Mountain State Park and had two options in mind – try the Mountains-to-Sea Trail to the Blue Ridge Parkway or do the full Stone Mountain loop. Both hikes are not dependent on clear skies for the views, and they both have creeks and waterfalls. Darkening skies and sprinkles prompted me to try the MST, I knew it was mostly in the forest and there was the shorter bail out option of the Widow’s Creek Trail. Despite the thunder and intermittent rain, I hiked the MST to Devil’s Garden Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped by Widow’s Creek Falls at the end. This is a brutal hike without much to see at the top, the best part is the section along Widow’s Creek.

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Indian Creek Trail – Hanging Rock State Park, NC

 

Upper Window Falls
Upper Window Falls

I recently got my first GPS device and have been wanting to try it out and compare it to GPS apps on my phone. After a long weekend I slept in Sunday and decided to try my GPS on a trail in Hanging Rock State Park I’ve never hiked before. The Indian Creek Trail (3.7-mi) travels the length of Indian Creek from the main visitor’s center to its meeting with the Dan River. I’ve never done this hike because it is a very popular trail with two waterfalls, but not much else to brag about. The two waterfalls – Hidden Falls and Window Falls – do not get much fanfare from hiking books so I’ve been saving this hike for a rainy day. As I was driving towards the park, that’s exactly what I got. The clouds turned darker and darker, and I even had some raindrops. That’s what I get for not checking the weather forecast. Luckily this is exactly the type of hike suited for cloudy and rainy conditions.

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Flat Rock Ridge to Cedar Ridge – Doughton Park, NC

 

MST beyond Bluff Mountain
MST beyond Bluff Mountain

Finally, a current hike from this year and not an archived one from years past. I decided to start off the 2014 summer months with a whopper of a hike at Doughton Park. I’ve hiked here twice before, one time easy with many views, another time difficult with eventual payoff. This time I had my mind set on doing the longest possible loop hike in the park, 17+ miles. Doughton Park is the largest recreation area on the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and one of those unknown gems in North Carolina that doesn’t have the crowds because it isn’t a state park and isn’t close to Asheville. The park boundaries resemble a triangle, and all hikes from the base of the park conveniently start at the same spot then climb up ridges to meet the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) along the parkway. My loop started with the Flat Rock Ridge Trail (5.0-mi), then traversed the crest of the park along the Bluff Mountain Trail/MST (7.3-mi) before diving back down to the bottom on the Cedar Ridge Trail (4.3-mi).

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