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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Black Mountain Crest Trail – Pisgah National Forest, NC


North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains
North view from Mt. Craig of the jagged crest of the Black Mountains

The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of the most renowned and intimidating hikes in North Carolina. Located in the Appalachian Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, the trail crosses the crest of the Black Mountains across five 6,000+ foot peaks culminating in the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River, Mt. Mitchell. This trek is on almost every bucket list for hikers who live in North Carolina, but it is very difficult and a logistical challenge. Hiking it in one direction requires a shuttle and is tough. Hiking the trail in both directions is over 24 miles and 8,000 feet elevation gain, which is difficult for even strong hikers. You’ll encounter steep grades, continuous sun and wind exposure at elevations above 6,000 feet, and a lack of water throughout the entire length of the trail. If you try this, be mentally and physically prepared for the challenge. The views from the Black Mountains are spectacular and definitely worth the exhaustion. You can see most of the state’s notable peaks and mountain ranges in every direction on clear days. The Black Mountain Crest Trail is one of my favorite hikes in North Carolina, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

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Jacob Fork Rim – South Mountains State Park, NC


View south from Upper Falls Trail
View south from Upper Falls Trail

South Mountains State Park is a great area for exploration and gear testing in a relatively calm environment. The trails are immaculate, and are mostly former forest roads built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There are signs and blazes everywhere, it is impossible to get lost unless you really try. There are frontcountry and backcountry options for hikers of various physical fitness levels. It is also one of my fallback options when the weather doesn’t look so good in the bigger mountains ranges of western North Carolina. The South Mountains lie east of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a smaller, separate mountain range with peaks ranging between 2,000-3,000 feet. The state park is the largest in North Carolina, and that doesn’t include the vast South Mountains Game Land to the west. This is a huge area and much of the interior of this mountain range feels very wild and remote. On my previous two trips (including my recent post about High Shoals Falls) I did smaller loops that didn’t quite reach the state park interior boundary. My goal was to do the full southern perimeter of the state park which included peakbagging Benn Knob, one of the tallest peaks in the South Mountains. Since this hike either follows Jacob Fork or the ridges surrounding the headwaters, I dubbed this hike Jacob Fork Rim. I wasn’t sure what else to call it since I hiked so many different trails on this one big loop.

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High Shoals Falls and Shinny Creek – South Mountains State Park, NC


Fly fishing on Jacob Fork
Fly fishing on Jacob Fork

What do you do when the forecast is for rain and low-lying clouds all day? If you’re like me, you look for a hike featuring water. Views are secondary to the power and majesty of mountain streams and waterfalls, and no matter what the conditions you’ll be able to see these things up close. I had only visited South Mountains State Park once a few years prior, so I picked this as my destination. On my first foray I did a popular loop that included Chestnut Knob, Shinny Creek, and High Shoals Falls. This time I eliminated Chestnut Knob since it would socked in by clouds, and instead include the central ridges dividing the Jacob Fork River and Shinny Creek watersheds.


South Mountains State Park is the largest park in North Carolina and contains a huge variety of trails. The South Mountains are an isolated range with peaks between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. What they lack in height, they compensate with deep gorges and lots of water. This loop is what I would call a frontcountry option since it stays relatively close to the parking area. At 8 miles it is doable in a few hours, and you can easily shorten or lengthen the hike as desired. If you only have an hour or so, you can still enjoy the beautiful High Shoals Falls and many sights along Jacob Fork.

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Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area, NC


Northwest view of Phoenix Mountain with Whitetop Mountain and Mt. Rogers behind
Northwest view of Phoenix Mountain with Whitetop Mountain and Mt. Rogers behind

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area is a place I always kept in the back of my mind. It is usually mentioned in North Carolina hiking guides, which generally means it is a worthy hiking destination. However, this park is very small and in the past only offered 2.2 miles of hiking trails. That is typically not enough for me to warrant a full trip. I frequently check the North Carolina State Park website for updates and pictures, and happened to check the trail map for Mt. Jefferson before I planned this hike. To my surprise there were brand new trails, the Mountain Ridge Trail and Track Trail, and they incorporate the park office and two road overlooks. Perfect I thought, here’s a trail that adds length and difficulty to what is otherwise a really easy, short hike. Instead of 2.2 miles, I figured it would be around 7 miles. (The state park map, trail naming, and mileage aren’t clear). It was supposed to be a clear, crisp mid-April Sunday so I was excited to check out a state park unit I’ve never visited. Keep reading to check out the great views in Mt. Jefferson State Natural Area.

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Lower Cascade Falls – Hanging Rock State Park, NC


Lower Cascade Falls
Lower Cascade Falls

Hanging Rock State Park is popular for two reasons: views and waterfalls. On my recent adventure to Hanging Rock I took my friends on the Five Peaks Loop, a grand tour of all the best views in the state park. But I also had to show them the park has another superlative, an abundance of waterfalls. There are 5 waterfalls accessible by state park trails, and more via bushwhacking. This is the best location to view waterfalls east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the visitor center you can visit Upper Cascade Falls on an easy 0.2-mi hike or travel down the Indian Creek Trail on a slightly more difficult 0.6-mi one-way hike to Hidden Falls and Window Falls. All 3 of these waterfalls are crowded due to their location and ease of access near the visitor center, and not nearly as beautiful as Lower Cascade Falls. We were short on time and had already hiked 10 miles, so I decided that Lower Cascade Falls would be our one waterfall stop. Cascade Creek has much more water here than at Upper Cascade Falls, and the creek plummets ~35 feet into an amphitheater with an overhanging cliff above the waterfall. The setting is dramatic, and personally this is one of my favorite waterfalls in North Carolina. If you are visiting Hanging Rock State Park then plan on taking 45 minutes to see Lower Cascade Falls.

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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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Grandfather Mountain via Daniel Boone Scout Trail – Grandfather Mountain State Park, NC


Attic Window Peak rising high above MacRae Gap - from MacRae Peak
Attic Window Peak rising high above MacRae Gap – from MacRae Peak

This is one of my favorites in North Carolina. A hike along the crest of Grandfather Mountain should be on everyone’s bucket list if they live in the Southeast. The crest trail is readily identified as one of the most rugged in the East and some (probably just me) may consider this the “Old Rag of North Carolina.” While not quite as rugged and technical as the nicknames suggest, Grandfather Mountain offers miles of exciting rock scrambles, ladders, cables, huge cliffs, exposed rocky summits, 16 distinct ecosystems, and views in every direction of tallest mountains in the Appalachian chain. Topping out at 5,946 feet this mountain dominates the surrounding valleys. There are 3 ways to access the crest trail. Two of them require difficult ascents from the valleys below and are part of the state park system. The third option is part of the private tourist attraction that existed prior to the state’s purchase of the land in 2008 to create a new state park. This attraction operates independently from the state park and costs $20/adult person to enter. The advantage is you can drive all the way to the ridge between Linville Peak and MacRae Peak. Click here for more information about the tourist attraction area of the mountain. The disadvantage is the cost and you will be amidst the crowds flocking to the bridge. The best way to experience the mountain is to start at the Boone Fork parking area and traverse all 4 peaks on Grandfather Mountain (Calloway, Attic Window, MacRae, and Linville) en route to the Mile High Swinging Bridge.

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Buckquarter Creek and Holden Mill – Eno River State Park, NC


Eno River beside Holden Mill Trail
Eno River beside Holden Mill Trail

It was one of those days I did not feel like waking up early and driving a few hours to hike. Sometimes it is too much effort to get up on the weekend and drive 3 hours each way. My days usually come to 12+ hours with the hike and drive. It is difficult to do it every week without backpacking or changing my schedule entirely. I slept in and spent the early afternoon watching soccer and writing but the day was too nice outside to ignore. Located just outside of Durham, Eno River State Park is arguably the top outdoor destination in the Triangle. It boasts 3 sections with 28 miles of hiking trails along Eno River in the rugged foothills of the Piedmont. I’ve been to Eno many times throughout the years but primarily for short strolls along the river to see the power of the water after a large rain event. It does offer a lot of trails and my favorite section has always been in the West district along the river on the Buckquarter Creek and Holden Mill loop trails. My plan in the waning afternoon light was to tackle these loops and add the short out-and-back to Holden Mill and also the Ridge-Shakori loop. This hike samples some of the best trails Eno River State Park has to offer and provides a good half-day excursion conveniently located within the Triangle.

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