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.
Sometimes you just feel like turning the alarm clock off and sleeping in. I do that all the time on the weekends, and then noon comes around and I feel like I’ve wasted my opportunity. Fortunately there are a lot of great state parks within 2 hours of Chapel Hill, including Pilot Mountain State Park. It had been a few years since my last hike there, and recently they had completed the Mountain Trail around the base of the mountain. I hurriedly packed my stuff and drove to the park, arriving around 2:00 PM. At a fast pace I figured I could hike all of the trails before sunset. From Winston-Salem drive north on U.S. 52 and get off at the exit for Pilot Mountain State Park. Turn left onto Pilot Knob Park Rd and drive 0.6-mi to the visitors center. Park here if you can, this is an unusually small parking lot for the visitation the park receives. The trails are located across the street. If you absolutely cannot find a place to park, you can start this loop in two other locations. One is located less than half a mile up the road at the parking area for the Grindstone Trail. You can also park at the summit area.
Max elevation: 2264 ft
Min elevation: 951 ft
Total Time: 03:06:41
**FYI my GPS did not pick up a satellite signal for the first ~0.5 miles of the hike. I drew the GPX track fairly accurately using various maps, but when you draw these points it doesn’t reflect elevation. That’s why the beginning of this track is flat-lined with points, but the distance should be fine.**
I crossed the road from the visitors center and picked up the Mountain Trail (red circle blaze) heading left. The trail on the right is the Grindstone Trail, which is the end of the hike. Anxious to get away from the crowded visitors center I hiked quickly, almost jogging in spots. It was December but it was a decidedly warm day. I was wearing shorts, long-sleeved shirt, and lightweight trail runners. The Mountain Trail circles the base of Pilot Mountain for three-quarters of the distance, while the Grindstone Trail connects that last bit. There’s not a lot of interesting sights along the Mountain Trail, especially the first leg on the east and south sides. You’ll pass the Grassy Ridge Trail on the left at mile 0.2 then at mile 1.2 you’ll pass the Mountain Trail Connector. Both of these trails lead to the periphery of the state park, and to alternative parking areas for longer hikes. This is as good a time as any to do this hike since you’ll get some winter views of Pilot Mountain above. I imagine in the summer this is hot, muggy, and not exciting.
After 2 miles you’ll begin climbing closer to the heights of the mountain. Some of the cliffs are visible above, but not that close to the trail. You’ll begin to see periodic fire damage as you round the southwest side of the mountain. The most visible damage is after mile 2.5. The forest fire was a controlled burn that breached its containment lines in November 2012. Part of the fire break was used to finish the Mountain Trail. I always enjoy walking through fire damage as you get to see how a forest recovers. There are periodic views west in this section but nothing significant. The Mountain Trail ends at mile 4.1 at a T-junction with the Grindstone Trail. Turn right onto the Grindstone Trail (blue circle blaze) and moderately climb up the west side of Pilot Mountain.
The Grindstone Trail was a bit steeper than I remembered, but it is not tough and this is the most difficult trail in the park. If you can make this moderate climb then you can do any trail here. At a Y-junction at mile 4.7 the upper Ledge Spring Trail loop follows the Grindstone Trail. You can also go right here, doing the reverse loop. In half a mile the trail opens up significantly on the right as you closely follow huge south-facing cliffs. Feel free to explore any of these cliffs carefully, they vary in height and vantage point. You may also see some climbers coming up. This is one of the most popular rock climbing spots in the state. There are big 180º views south from most of these cliffs of the Piedmont. You should be able to see the skyscrapers of Winston-Salem, and on clearer days Greensboro.
The Grindstone Trail ends at the upper parking lot at mile 5.5, keep walking around the edge of the lot on the Ledge Spring Trail towards the Little Pinnacle Overlook. Little Pinnacle is the easternmost tip of the southern cliff band above the saddle between Little and Big Pinnacles. The overlook has phenomenal views in three directions. There is no better view of the venerable Big Pinnacle. At times Big Pinnacle may appear small when you are far below in your car, but from here it is massive. Just past Big Pinnacle on the left are the Sauratown Mountains. The closer peak is Sauratown Mountain, and the distant peaks are Moore’s Knob and Cook’s Wall Mountain in Hanging Rock State Park. To the north and northwest you can see the line of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Virginia border.
After Little Pinnacle head back to the parking lot and turn right onto the Jomeokee Trail (no blaze). This 0.8-mile trail encircles the base of Big Pinnacle. Big Pinnacle is closed to all hikers and climbers because the cliffs are a protected national landmark for bird nesting. Raptors, vultures, and falcons are a common sight around Pilot Mountain as they soar around the summit using frequent updrafts. Even though you sadly do not get to hike to the summit this trail is still fascinating. Colorful cliffs soar over 100 feet above you as the beautiful Jomeokee Trail climbs up and down natural stone steps and other indicators of immaculate trail construction. You’ll also get views to the east of the Sauratown Mountains, especially around mile 6.2 on the far east side of the mountain. There are fun overhangs to look at as well, but please stay on the trail and resist clambering around the rocks.
As you dip into the saddle below Little Pinnacle, turn left onto the Ledge Spring Trail (yellow circle blaze) before you reach the parking lot. This is the lower portion of the loop, and this time the trail follows the base of the cliffs you passed earlier. It was an early sunset in December and I could already see the sun beginning to set. Last time I hiked here I spent more time admiring the cliffs, but this time I booked it. You can’t go too fast here though, this trail is quite rocky. I stopped briefly to watch some rock climbers, I think the shot looked pretty cool because the cliffs had a bright orange glow from the sun. After that it was downhill and fast for me. The Ledge Spring Trail ends at the Grindstone Trail at mile 7.4, which I took downhill past the Mountain Trail. The Grindstone Trail heads downhill and gradually turns right towards the Grindstone Campground. There are multiple side trails and service roads in this section, but with the blazing it is obvious. The trail crosses the park road at mile 8.9 winding through an alternate parking area before descending the last 0.4-mi to the visitors center. This was a fast hike even for me. I covered 9.3 miles in just over 3 hours. I would expect most hikers would be able to do this loop in 4 hours, and yo may want to take longer to enjoy the cliffs and the views. Pilot Mountain State Park is a special place, I just wish it wasn’t so crowded all the time.