Sometimes I love peakbagging the hard way. Sometimes this means bushwhacking but on this particular trip it means many, many miles of forest road walking. While this may not be that difficult of a hike, it is tedious and tough on the feet. I’ve hiked in Montreat before and summitted Pinnacle. My goal was to connect the trail system in Montreat to the remote Pinnacle. Although a trail to Pinnacle is located beside the Blue Ridge Parkway this is not part of an official trail system. In the winter the parkway is closed anyways, so the only way to reach Pinnacle is by difficult hikes using Bald Knob Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, or Old Mitchell Toll Road. Previously I’ve hiked Heartbreak Ridge to Pinnacle which is more than 14 miles. I wanted to try something new, and I especially wanted to check out Rocky Knob which can only be reached using the Old Mitchell Toll Road. I know the “toll road” is a well-graded forest road so the miles would be easy albeit long. My original plan was to tackle Pinnacle and Rocky Knob, then bushwhack to Graybeard Mountain and stopping by Walker’s Knob on the return. I skipped that bushwhack and stopped by Walker’s Knob before sunset. This is a very long hike, but worth it for the views of the Great Craggy and Black Mountains from Pinnacle and Rocky Knob.
Montreat is a small community in the Swannanoa Valley that contains a historical Presbyterian college and conference center. The Montreat Conference Center maintains more than 25 miles of trails in the 2,500+ acres of the Montreat Wilderness. These trails also connect to the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest and the Ridgecrest Conference Center. Two outstanding, little-known peaks in the national forest can be accessed by a long hike from Montreat connecting trails in the Montreat Wilderness to the Old Mitchell Toll Road. The Old Mitchell Toll Road was a railroad used for logging and tourists in the 1910s that was turned into an automobile toll road after World War I. Tourists could drive from Black Mountain to Mt. Mitchell. When the Blue Ridge Parkway opened in 1938 the toll road lost popularity and soon ceased operations. Today the toll road is primarily used for hiking and hunting. This section of the national forest is part of the Mt. Mitchell Bear Sanctuary and bears can be hunted with tags. When hiking the trails in the national forest you should wear orange or bright colors, and be mindful of hunters who primarily use vehicles to get around. The ones I’ve passed were friendly, and they gave me info on bears they spotted in the area for safety.
When you enter Montreat stop by the Montreat Store on the 2nd floor of the Moore Center Building. This is at the intersection of Lookout Road and Assembly Drive beside Lake Susan. They have a free paper map and you can also purchase a color topographic map for $8.99. The free map is good enough for the Montreat trails but will not be helpful for the area north of Rocky Knob. In addition to the free map, the National Geographic #779 map of Linville Gorge/Mt. Mitchell displays all national forest maintained hiking trails for the area.
Max elevation: 5653 ft
Min elevation: 2936 ft
Total Time: 06:38:27
Graybeard Trail crosses Flat Creek on a large wood bridge then climbs on the east side of the creek through a tunnel of Catawba rhododendron. This would be a prime viewing spot for Catawba blooms in late June but today it shut out the light from the sun. Since it was my third time hiking this section along Flat Creek my goal was to breeze through. I planned on a very long hike and only stopped to take key pictures at trail intersections and creek crossings for HikingUpward. The climb is moderate until you pass a junction with the Harry Bryan Trail. From here the climb is a bit tougher and you leave the rhododendron tunnel behind for open forest. There are 3 rock hops across Flat Creek, all relatively easy. At this point you probably are wondering how did it get the name “Flat Creek?’ For almost the entire stretch the creek is cascading down towards Lake Susan with barely a flat spot. After the third creek crossing you reach the toughest climb so far as the valley closes in on both sides. You are close to Pot Cove Gap, a major trail intersection in the area.
The Graybeard Trail reaches an intersection with Old Trestle Road on the west side of Pot Cove Gap. Old Trestle Road heads east crossing Flat Creek and passes by campsites on its way to meet Old Mitchell Toll Road. My goal was to eventually reach Old Mitchell Toll Road, but there are multiple ways to do this. I turned left on the Graybeard Trail which follows the Old Trestle Road grade up the mountain. The old Graybeard Trail used to cross Flat Creek at Pot Cove Gap and head straight up the east bank of the creek. Thankfully Montreat decided to funnel traffic along the road grade which is much easier. The section is called “the switchbacks,” but these are not your typical switchbacks. They are very long, almost flat, and take their sweet time climbing up the south side of Walker’s Knob. Since they are very long you do not notice they are switchbacking up the mountain, but check the map and you’ll see they do. The first switchback almost runs into the Seven Sisters Ridge with a nice view through the trees of Lookout Mountain, before turning east towards the creek. At mile 2.8 you can hear the roar of the creek once more. Take the short 200-foot spur trail to check out Graybeard Falls. This is one of my least favorite named waterfalls in North Carolina, but the campsites are nice. The next 2 switchbacks are a little darker as they mostly pass through rhododendron and mountain laurel, and they are usually muddier. After 4 total switchbacks you meet Flat Creek a second time where it is barely more than a tiny stream. From here an arrow points left indicating the Graybeard Trail climbing parallel to the creek. Cross Flat Creek here taking the Old Trestle Road east.
The short stretch on Old Trestle Road is through a wonderful tunnel of trees. You are leaving the Montreat Wilderness and entering Pisgah National Forest, but there are no markers indicating this change. The trail ends at Old Mitchell Toll Road and I could see Pinnacle in front of me some fair distance away. I knew this hike would be long, but I could see the ridges the trail winds around on its way to Pinnacle. It looked miles away. I put my head down and mixed fast hiking with jogging. Although this is a well-used forest road, it was quite rocky at times and I couldn’t maintain a fast pace. The toll road straddles the east side of the Seven Sisters Ridge connecting Graybeard Mountain, Rocky Knob, and Pinnacle. While there are no views to the west, there are constant winter views east in addition to Pinnacle looming over the landscape. Remember a prominent T-junction around mile 5.2 with a forest road heading down on the right beside a wide campsite. You might miss it, but on the left is the Rocky Knob Trail. This trail is very narrow, and has a white diamond blaze on a tree 20 feet from the road.
The next 1.3 miles are nondescript, and the view of Pinnacle disappears as you get closer. On the east side of Pinnacle is a scattering of old hunting trailers. An unmarked forest road dips down on the right side leading to Heartbreak Ridge, an alternative approach to Pinnacle. After this road there are two trailers on the right then one trailer on the left — all very run down. The road curves around a bend heading west and the forest immediately changes to conifers. Since I was on the north side of the mountain it was very shady, cold, and ice-covered potholes appeared in the road. You begin to see the Blue Ridge Parkway far below on the right side, and it gets closer as you walk. The toll road meets the parkway on the east side of Black Mountain Gap. Look carefully on the left before this junction and you’ll spot a faint trail heading up a hill. If you can’t find it, look for the bright orange sign posted on a tree indicating the boundary for the North Fork Reservoir Watershed. The Pinnacle Trail is an unmaintained summit trail shown on the Montreat Trail Map but not on the national forest map. Although not well-marked (occasional faint yellow and white blazes), it climbs the ridge and follows the watershed boundary. If you follow the frequent orange warning signs you can’t get lost. The trail is steep but short, and the walk through the forest is beautiful. It’s one of those stretches of woods that looks untouched.
After 7.9 miles of walking through the trees I emerged onto the summit of Pinnacle (5,665 feet), one of the most spectacular summits I’ve visited in North Carolina. Pinnacle stands alone at the northern tip of the Seven Sisters Ridge surrounded by the Great Craggy and Black Mountains. In addition to these eye-popping views immediately west and north, you can spot Grandfather Mountain and Linville Gorge to the northeast and to the south Graybeard Mountain and behind that the Swannanoa and Hickory Nut Mountains. The only view you don’t have is east, and I was fine with that.
On this small, exposed summit it was quite windy so I hunkered down between rocks and ate some lunch. It’s hard not to lie there and stare at the mountains for an hour, but it was past 2:00 PM and I had over 8 miles to go. On the east side of the summit there’s a trail leading into the trees, then this trail splits. Last time I visited the summit I went left and it led me down to a campsite beside the toll road. Not wanting to waste time on the rightmost trail, I went left again. After the trail quickly drops you’ll start to see a lot of white blazes on the trees. This summit trail is much steeper than the first trail, so if your knees are bad I would avoid it. It cuts off 0.7-mi from the original trail. At the campsite I went right walking towards Rocky Knob.
I reached the Rocky Knob Trail (white diamond blaze) intersection at mile 9.8. This trail is tiny! Unlike the Pinnacle Trail, the Rocky Knob Trail winds through thick forest on a track barely wide enough to fit two feet. Since the forest is thick, it is almost impossible to get lost on this narrow trail. The climb was steeper than I expected. At mile 10.0 I passed the only other blaze at an intersection with a side trail on the left. I do not know whether this trail leads towards the toll road or connects to Graybeard Mountain. The summit of Rocky Knob (5,240 feet) is 0.1-mi after this intersection and was not as spectacular as I imagined. There were good views but trees were ruining the best pictures. I walked south and spotted a trail and followed it about 50 feet. It led to a great open view. I kept following the trail south and it led to an even better view, although the trail was a bit harder to follow. On the south side of Rocky Knob is a large, almost vertical cliff facing southwest. Even though I was only a couple of miles from Pinnacle the feeling here is completely different. Pinnacle is tall and somewhat even in elevation with the surrounding mountains. Rocky Knob sits well below Pinnacle and Graybeard Mountain and gives you the feeling of being boxed in on all sides in a remote place surrounded by tall peaks. Graybeard looks imposing immediately south while the Great Craggies are intimidating. The vertical nature of the cliffs adds to the sensation.
My original plan was to bushwhack the ridge between Rocky Knob and Graybeard Mountain, but this cliff was tall and steep. Plus the climb to Graybeard looked tougher than I imagined, so I axed that plan. Walking back to the summit I decided to explore the trail going north because I saw a prominent rock from the southern cliffs. It quickly ducked down along the ridge, and I could see big rocks above me to the left. I backtracked and scrambled up the hill and found an amazing spot. The cliffs were covered in coarse, windswept grasses and heath and the reflecting light made the rocks look black. From here the view of the Blacks were top notch and I could see Pinnacle rising above. After a few minutes relaxing on the exposed rock I turned around heading back down the Rocky Knob Trail.
When I reached Old Mitchell Toll Road it was almost 4:00 PM and I had 6 miles left. I jogged most of the way back to Old Trestle Road. When I reached the Graybeard Trail after 12.3 miles I decided to turn right, heading upwards to Walker’s Knob. I know this is kind of nuts but I was making good time and I wanted to GPS track as much of this area as I could for Hiking Upward. The climb was moderately steep but I soon reached Walker’s Knob Shelter. From here the peak is 0.2-mi on the left. Walker’s Knob (4,780 feet) is more of a sub peak of the Seven Sisters Ridge, but it is popular because it has amazing views of the Swannanoa Valley. This was my third visit, and probably the worst because the sun was directly in my face. The pictures were decent to the east but I couldn’t manage to take a nice picture of the Swannanoa Mountains or the Seven Sisters Ridge. It’s still a great spot though, and Walker’s Knob has a great collection of dead trees.
I decided to strap my backpack on tight and run the next 3.5 miles to my car. It was getting dark and I did not feel like taking my time strolling with a headlamp. Plus I was hungry for some local BBQ. Other than a couple slips it was fine, although the trail beside Flat Creek is very rocky and tough to jog. This hike is 16.6 miles and over 7 hours. It is tedious at times, especially connecting the peaks along Old Mitchell Toll Road. But you have you visit Rocky Knob and Pinnacle, they’re amazing spots. Unless you can park on the Blue Ridge Parkway a long trek is the only way to accomplish this. The route described here is the longest possible route for a day, so choose Heartbreak Ridge if you only want to see Pinnacle. In the future hopefully I’ll try hiking Bald Knob Ridge Trail to the parkway and connect to Pinnacle for a shorter route.