Pilot Mountain State Park is one of my favorite North Carolina State Parks. The rugged terrain and tough climbs to the top make this my go-to for training hikes. I have an 18 mile route I do in full pack when I want a workout.
But if you’re not up to a massive hike, you can drive up the paved road to the top and enjoy the same views with minimal effort.
There are 2 sections, the mountain section and the river section and there are several entrances to access both areas. The mountain section with the Visitor Center has better trails and is home to the pinnacle overlook known as Jomeokee.
The trails are rocky and steep if you’re climbing up the mountain. Make sure you have good shoes made for hiking with solid tread.
You can drive to the top and hike less than 0.2 miles to the overlook on a gravel trail.
Rock Climbing is allowed in the park. Please register before heading down. Park at the top and head down Three Bear Gulley where you can set up your top rope. Hikers can watch by hiking the Ledge Trail.
Horses are only allowed on specific trails, mainly by the River entrance. Check a map before heading out.
If you’d like to camp in the family campground, you must reserve your site ahead of time.
Background on Pilot Mountain
The mountain is a quartzite monadnock. A monadnock is an isolated hill of bedrock that is noticeable and stands above the level of its surrounding area. It makes sense once you see Big Pinnacle for the first time.
As you approach the park, the round, rocky Big Pinnacle can be seen from miles away. The native Saura Indians called the mountain Jomeokee or “Great Guide” (also “Pilot”). Rising 1400 feet from the base, the 200-foot-tall Big Pinnacle was used as a point of reference to guide travelers through the nearby corridor.
Big Pinnacle connects to Little Pinnacle via a narrow saddle. When you drive to the top parking lot, you’re parking on top of Little Pinnacle. You’ll traverse the short saddle as you take Pilot Knob Trial to and around Jomeokee.
Pilot Mountain became North Carolina’s 14th state park in 1968. It’s part of the Sauratown Mountains which also include Hanging Rock State Park.
There are two main sections, the Mountain Section and the Yadkin River section. Both offer distinct ecosystems.
This is a well-run park that provides plenty of information both online and at the park. Everything is well-marked, and the Visitor Center has paper maps and information about every trail that you can take with you.
- Key Takeaways:
- Background on Pilot Mountain
- What to Know Before Visiting Pilot Mountain State Park
- Things to do at Pilot Mountain State Park
- Waterfalls Near Pilot Mountain
- Trails at Pilot Mountain State Park
- Camping at Pilot Mountain State Park
- Tips for Visiting Pilot Mountain State Park
- Wrap Up – Pilot Mountain State Park
What to Know Before Visiting Pilot Mountain State Park
This is where I come when I’m training for a big hike. I would say Pilot Mountain has the most challenging trails of any NC State Park.
The trails in the Mountain Access area can be rocky in places, and at least three of them, Mountain, Grindstone, and Ledge Spring, have steep sections. Before you head out, be aware it’s going to be a long day of hiking since most trails are one-way. Make sure you correctly account for all mileage before you start.
Bring plenty of water and food to stay hydrated and powered.
Cell phone service is spotty in the Yadkin River section, but reliable in the Mountain Section.
Horses are allowed on the Corridor Trail and about 1 mile of the Yadkin Islands Trail. There are 2 parking lots that can accommodate several horse trailers at both ends of the Corridor Trail.
You’ll find bathrooms at every entrance. The Mountain Entrance with the Visitor Center is the only one with running water, other parking areas have pit toilets, but they’re all well-kept.
There are plenty of picnic areas throughout the park. There’s an area just down from the summit parking lot, tables at the Visitor Center, and an area near the Horne Creek Trail entrance.
The park is popular because it’s one of the few places where you can drive to the top of the mountain for easy viewing. From the summit parking area, you can see Winston-Salem and some people say you can even see Greensboro on a clear day.
The park’s website lists seven entrances, but there are really six. The Shoals Fishing Area is accessed through the Ivy Bluff entrance.
Mountain Section and Visitor Center
This is the main entrance to the park and where you can find Jomeokee. As you enter, there’s a traffic circle. If you make a left, you’ll reach the Visitor Center, which is viewable from the traffic circle. There is parking, restrooms, a gift shop, educational scenarios, a water bottle refill station, and helpful staff here.
When the park is crowded, usually on weekends, there is a shuttle that will take you to the summit for a small fee.
You can also go through the traffic circle and continue until you reach the parking lot at the top where there is parking, restrooms, and a water fountain.
This is also how you access the family campground. Follow the road to the summit until you see the sign indicating the split with the campground loop.
Rock climbers can access the climbing area from the top parking lot.
Pilot Creek Access
This is my favorite entrance. It’s a small gravel lot off Boyd Nelson Road. You can see Jomeokee in the distance from some areas, but it can be blocked by trees in places.
From here, you can access the Pilot Creek Trail which connects to the Grindstone Trail in the Mountain Access area. Occasionally, I see a car in the parking lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone on this trail.
The butterfly meadow is also in this area. As you drive down Boyd Nelson Road, before you reach the parking lot, there is a red gate on your right, then you’ll cross a small bridge, then another red gate. The butterfly meadow is accessed through an opening in the first gate.
There’s a small pit toilet in the parking lot.
Pinnacle Hotel Road/Culler Road
This is the most confusing entrance. Is it on Pinnacle Hotel Road or Culler Road? Are they the same road? The parking lot is actually on the corner of Pinnacle Hotel Road and Culler Road, but two of the trail entrances are on Pinnacle Hotel Road.
At the corner, you’ll find a large dirt and gravel parking lot. This is one of two lots where horse trailers are allowed, and several will fit. I’ve seen five parked in the lot and there was plenty of room for at least another five.
The far end of the lot (away from Pinnacle Hotel Road) is access to the Corridor Trail where horses are allowed.
If you cross Pinnacle Hotel Road, you’ll see signs guiding you to the separate entrances for the Mountain Trail and Grassy Ridge Trail. Both will take you into the Mountain Access section of the park. The Mountain Trail entrance is a small spur that connects with the main Mountain Trail, but it has the same blaze.
There is a pit toilet in the parking lot.
Bean Shoals Access
I’m going to talk about this entrance, but I would advise parking at the Hauser Road lot 0.1 miles down the road and hiking to Bean Shoals Access.
Bean Shoals Access requires driving across 2 wide stream crossings to reach the picnic area, and a third to reach the Bean Shoals Canal Trailhead. These are mountain stream crossings, meaning you drive down a little hill to reach the creek, then cross the water and rocks, and up the dirt on the other side.
A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, and before you fill yourself with bravado thinking you’ll be fine, remember that people have gotten stuck.
If it’s been raining, even a high-clearance vehicle may not make it. I have a small SUV with 8 inches of clearance and I don’t try it. I like my car too much.
The entrance is marked with an old sign and cabin. You can access the Bean Shoals Canal, Horne Creek, and Yadkin Islands Trail from this entrance.
There is a picnic area with a pit toilet near the Horne Creek Trailhead just before the third creek crossing on the road.
Parking is available along the side of the road before the first creek crossing, at the picnic area, and at the end of the road near the Bean Shoals Canal Trailhead.
Hauser Road Parking
If you want to access either the far end of the Corridor Trail or the Bean Shoals area, this is where I would park.
You’ll see the large dirt and gravel lot about 0.1 miles down from the Bean Shoals entrance. It’s well-marked and easy to spot.
This is the second lot where horse trailers are allowed. It’s at the opposite end of the Corridor Trail from the Pinnacle Hotel parking area.
You’ll need to cross the street to access the Corridor Trail. To reach Bean Shoals, head behind the pit toilets where you’ll see the trailhead. After a short hike, you’ll reach the gravel entrance road to Bean Shoals. Here the trail and road parallel each other until they split just before the first stream crossing.
There are two pit toilets in the parking lot.
Ivy Bluff Access and Shoals Fishing Area and Paddling Access
The park website splits these into two entrances, but they’re in the same location. As you drive into the park entrance on Shoals Road, you’ll see the parking lot for the Ivy Bluff trailhead on your right. It’s a large lot with a pit toilet. The trailhead is easily spotted from the lot.
You can also continue down the road to the Shoals River Access where you can put in a kayak or canoe, or fish.
Things to do at Pilot Mountain State Park
You’ll find a lot of outdoor activities at the park. From hiking to camping to rock climbing to paddling, you won’t be bored.
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Pilot Mountain State Park has 15 hiking trails and the Mountains to Sea Trail that runs across the state comes through the park. It follows Corridor, Mountain, and Grindstone Trails. You’ll know it from its white circle blaze.
Most trails are moderate or strenuous due to steep climbs and rocky terrain. This is where I come when I need to do serious training. I would say these are some of the most difficult trails in the entire NC State Park system.
There are 2 campgrounds at Pilot Mountain State Park, a primitive Canoe Campground, and the Family Campground.
Horses are allowed on the Corridor Trail and for about 1 mile on the Yadkin Island Trail. There’s a sign indicating where horses are no longer allowed on the Yadkin Islands Trail which you won’t miss.
Parking is relatively easy with two large lots on either side of the Corridor Trail. The first one is at the intersection of Hotel Pinnacle Road and Culler Road, and the second is on Hauser Road about 0.1 miles from the Bean Shoals Access.
Both lots are well-maintained dirt and gravel with a pit toilet.
There is a put-in at the Ivy Bluff entrance. Continue on Shoals Road past the trailhead parking lot and the road dead ends at the parking area for the put-in.
Fishing is allowed with a valid North Carolina Fishing license.
Pilot Mountain is one of the few State Parks that allow rock climbing and rappelling. All climbing is at the Mountain Access from the parking lot at the top of the mountain. Climbers need to register at a box located at the start of the trail down.
Most climbers take Grindstone Trail to Three Bears Gulley where you can hike/slide down to the climbing area on Ledge Spring Trail. Before you head down Three Bears, there’s an area to secure top ropes and rappel down.
This is a popular area and can become crowded, you’ll want to arrive early, especially on a weekend. It holds a special place in my heart because this is where I took my first rock climbing course.
Waterfalls Near Pilot Mountain
There are no waterfalls inside Pilot Mountain State Park. The closest will be the 5 waterfalls at Hanging Rock State Park.
Personally, I would aim for all 5 since you can see then in one day. But, if you’re short on time, Lower Cascades at Hanging Rock State Park is the most bang for your buck.
Trails at Pilot Mountain State Park
Pilot Mountain State Park offers 15 hiking trails. Don’t be fooled if a trail seems easy at first. Most are rated moderate to strenuous because the area is hilly and most of the trails have long, difficult, rocky sections.
I recommend having a solid hiking shoe that will protect the bottom of your feet from the terrain.
You don’t have to hike up the mountain if you’re not up to it. There’s a paved road and a parking lot at the summit. It’s easy to drive up there, enjoy the view, then head home.
Maps are available online and at the Visitor Center.
Pilot Creek Meadow Walk
Location: Boyd Nelson Road, on the right approximately 0.1 miles before the Pilot Creek Trail parking lot
This wasn’t easy to find because it’s not obvious. Luckily, the park staff at the Visitor Center had a picture and showed me what to look for. As you’re driving down Boyd Nelson Road towards the Pilot Creek Trailhead parking lot, you’ll see a red fence on your right. Then you’ll cross a small bridge and see a second red fence.
The entrance to the Meadow Walk is through a gap in the first fence. You’ll see it once you park and walk over to the gate.
It’s a pretty field that has a mowed section with a sign noting the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail. You can meander and enjoy the wildlife in the area. I saw a ton of rabbits and some butterflies. Evenings are a good time to enjoy the field with a view of Jomeokee poking through the trees across the street.
Pilot Creek Trail
Mileage: 3.3 miles one-way
Blaze: Orange circles
Location: Boyd Nelson Road
This is one of my favorite trails in the park. Like most trails at Pilot Mountain, it starts off fairly easy as it winds through a pretty forest. As you get closer to the main entrance of the park, the trail becomes rocky. There are no overly steep climbs, but the rocks take a toll on your feet.
The trail takes you into the Mountain Access of the park and intersects with the Grindstone Trail. If you want to avoid the weekend crowds by parking at the lot on Boyd Nelson and hiking in, just remember it’s 6.6 miles round-trip.
Mileage: 0.4 mile one-way (1 mile if you use Grassy Ridge to create a loop)
Blaze: Orange squares
Location: Main Entrance, across the street from the Visitor Center parking lot
This is a nice trail and a great addition to the park. Located across the street from the Visitor Center, its main role is to connect the parking lot to the Grindstone and Grassy Ridge Trails.
If you head to the right, less than 100 feet in you’ll make a left which puts you on the Grindstone Trail. But head left on Fiddlestick and you’ll connect to Grassy Ridge. You can use Grassy Ridge to make a short 1-mile loop. The trail is marked with both blazes to guide you.
This is an easy trail with no major elevation gains, just a relaxing hike.
Grassy Ridge Trail
Mileage: 1.5 miles one way
Blaze: Yellow squares
Location: Main Entrance, across the street from the Visitor Center to the left. Alternate entrance across the street from the parking lot on Pinnacle Hotel Road/Culler Road
Even though it’s rated moderate, Grassy Ridge is one of the easier trails located in the Mountain Access. The fairly flat terrain winds through a forest. There are areas with green grass where you can sometimes see wildflowers.
I don’t often see a lot of hikers on this trail which makes it a good option if you want a peaceful hike.
Mileage: 3.5 miles one way
Blaze: Blue circles
Location: Mountain Entrance, across the street from the Visitor Center to the right. It ends at the parking lot at the top of the mountain
Grindstone is no joke. This and Ledge Spring Trail tie for the most difficult hike in the park. It runs from the Visitor Center at the bottom of the mountain straight to the top. You’ll find yourself moving from easy natural trail to dirt and gravel to rocky terrain.
The trail becomes steeper, rockier, and more difficult as you continue to climb up the mountain. Just past the campground it steepens, then eases up a bit after the intersection with Ledge Spring Trail. After you pass the intersection with Ledge, you’ll go through a few switchbacks. Make sure to stop and enjoy the views!
I head up this way when I want to train for a big hike. Although the mileage may not be much, you need to be in good shape to tackle this one.
Ledge Spring Trail
Mileage: 1 mile one way
Blaze: Yellow circles
Location: Mountain Access from Grindstone Trail or Pilot Knob Trail
You’re on your way up Grindstone to the top and see the intersection with Ledge. “Oh heck,” you think, “it’s a mile either way., Let’s just do it.” Rethink that. Ledge Spring Trail is one mile of rocky terrain with a lot (I mean A LOT) of large stone steps.
If you want to give your quads a workout, this is your trail.
The payoff is great views and passing the rock climbers. Both make this a fun trail with a lot to see.
Little Pinnacle Overlook
Mileage: 0.1 mile one way
Location: Mountain access from the parking lot at the top of the mountain
From the parking lot, use the sidewalk heading towards Jomeokee. You’ll see a small trail noting the Little Pinnacle overlook. It’s a short trail that leads to a wooden observation area where you can get a good view of Jomeokee.
This is an easy trail and offers one of the best views in the park.
Mileage: 4.3 miles one way
Blaze: Red circles
Location: Mountain access from Grindstone Trail. It intersects Grindstone twice, once about 0.25 miles from the Visitor Center and again about 1.5 miles below the parking lot at the top of the mountain. Alternate entrance is a spur trail across the street from the parking lot on Hotel Pinnacle Road/Culler Road
I can’t explain it but I’m not a fan of this trail. Usually, I hike up Grindstone and come back down Mountain Trail. For some reason, it always feels longer than its 4.3 miles. Maybe I’m tired and want to get home, or maybe it’s something else.
The scenery can be monotonous, or you may find it relaxing. You can let your mind wander as you head down Mountain Trail. The entire trail is under tree cover which offers a bit of respite from the sun.
Pilot Knob Trail
Mileage: 0.8-mile loop
Blaze: Red squares
Location: Mountain access, from the parking lot at the top of the mountain
Head down the sidewalk around the back of the restrooms and you’ll find the entrance to Pilot Knob Trail. This is what most people come to hike.
The loop takes you around Jomeokee. On a clear day, you can see nearby Hanging Rock State Park.
While the park rates this trail moderate, I would have to say it’s easier than that. There are stone steps in two places which can make it a little more difficult, but most people seem to handle these well. Once you’re walking around the Pinnacle, it’s an easy hike.
If you don’t like heights, you may not like this trail. While there’s plenty of room from the edge, there are places where you could feel the trail is narrow.
CAUTION: On your way back to your car, head down the first set of stone steps, then hug the trail to the right. The next set of stairs you climb should be with a rock wall up against your left. If you find there’s a cliff to your right and/or you see yellow blazes, back up. You accidentally got on the Ledge Spring Trail and the sooner you fix this, the better. This is a common mistake. The best map to see how this happens is the Park’s Climbing map.
Mileage: 0.15 miles one way
Location: Mountain access from the parking lot at the top of the mountain, to the left of the restrooms
Sassafras is part of the Kids TRACK program. You’ll find small stations where you can learn about the ecosystem and track adventures.
I feel like the moderate rating is a bit much. It’s an easy trail, although it does involve a short climb to head back out.
Mileage: 6.6 miles one way
Blaze: White triangles
Location: Parking lot at Pinnacle Hotel Road/Culler Road and parking lot off Hauser Road
The Corridor Trail connects the Mountain section of the park with the Yadkin River section. It’s mainly used by horseback riders, although some people enjoy the hike.
The trail has a decent slope which means it’s a pleasant downhill one way and a continuous uphill climb on the way back.
Yadkin Islands Trail
Mileage: 1.5 miles one way
Blaze: Orange squares
Location: Bean Shoals Access, but I recommend parking in the Equestrian Lot on Hauser Road
Yadkin Islands Trail is a nice little jaunt through forest and shrubs. That is until it becomes a jungle. If you start at the trail entrance by the Corridor Trail parking lot (behind the pit toilets), you’ll eventually come out at the gravel entrance road to the Bean Shoals access. Just keep heading down the road to your right and you’ll see where the trail splits and enters the forest again.
There is one creek crossing along the road that can be easily traversed. Eventually, you’ll reach a sign indicating entrance onto railroad lands. Horses are not allowed any further, and humans should proceed with caution. The overgrowth was bad, and I had to continually push brush and briars away.
If you keep going, it will intersect with Bean Shoals Canal and Horne Creek Trails. Both take you along the river.
Bean Shoals Canal Trail
Mileage: 0.5 miles one way
Blaze: Red circles
Location: Bean Shoals Access (Note: you will need to traverse 3 stream crossings in your vehicle which can be impassable after rain. High vehicle clearance is recommended. Check water levels before you cross). Alternate option is to hike to the trail via the Yadkin Islands Trail
This is a pretty trail that will take you past what’s left of the Bean Shoals Canal along the Yadkin River. The canal was started in the 1820s but never finished.
You’ll walk along natural surface trail with some rocks and roots.
Horne Creek Trail
Mileage: 2.5 miles one way
Blaze: Blue circles
Location: Bean Shoals Access (Note: you will need to traverse 2 stream crossings in your vehicle which can be impassable after rain. High vehicle clearance is recommended. Check water levels before you cross). Alternate option is to park at the Corridor Trail lot down the street on Hauser Road and hike the Yadkin Islands Trail to Bean Shoals entrance, then follow the gravel road to the picnic area
This is a nice trail and you’re unlikely to encounter anyone while hiking. You’ll meander through a forest along Horne Creek. There are occasional wildflowers and small water crossings. Eventually, you’ll connect with Yadkin Islands Trail and Bean Shoals Canal Trail.
Ivy Bluff Trail
Mileage: 1.3 miles one way
Blaze: Red circles
Location: Ivy Bluff Access
I really enjoy this trail. It’s a pretty hike where you start above the Yadkin River and then head down for up-close views. Just past the Canoe Campground, the trail forms a short loop through a green forest. While it’s a short hike, it’s perfect for a hot day or after-work release.
Camping at Pilot Mountain State Park
Pilot Mountain State Park offers camping at two sites. The family campground tends to be quiet and not as busy as nearby Hanging Rock State Park.
There is a small, primitive campground with 2 campsites and a privy located off the Ivy Bluff Trail. You must reserve the sites in advance.
The Family Campground is located at the Mountain Access. Go through the traffic circle and continue on the road until you see the sign for the campground.
There are 42 campsites with 2 bath houses. Check the map before you reserve your site. Some are best for tents, others for RVs of specific lengths. The park’s campground map is a great resource.
The tent sites have pads but overall, the area is rocky and tends to be dark because of tree cover.
Tips for Visiting Pilot Mountain State Park
Because the trails are so difficult, the best time to visit the park is in the fall and early winter. The cooler weather makes it a little easier to power through the climbs.
In the spring and summer, the parking lot at the top of the mountain fills quickly. The park offers a shuttle service for a small fee from the Visitor Center lot to the top and back.
Hikers looking for peace and quiet will find the Yadkin River section less crowded, but it can be buggy in the hotter months.
There are bathrooms at every entrance (I know right!), including flush toilets at the top and bottom of the mountain at the entrance. You’ll also find water fountains and a bottle refill station at the Visitor Center.
Take a moment to peruse the Visitor Center while you’re there. From inside, you can see Jomeokee through the glass on the far side. There are also educational stations throughout the building.
Smartly designed, the restrooms, bottle refill, and water fountains are outside so they’re accessible even after the Visitor Center closes.
You’ll also find another restroom at the top of the mountain, along with water fountains.
Wear good hiking shoes, the trails can be rocky. And bring a camera for those views!
I always get bit by some bug when I hike at the park. My clothes are treated with permethrin, and I’m doused with DEET, but I still get bit. Since several trails are overgrown in spring and summer, I would wear longer pants and make sure you have tick protection.
It can get hot so wear lighter materials. Be sure to dress appropriately for hiking in the summer.
Ask for Help
You won’t find many people at the Yadkin River section and cell signal is spotty so make sure you have a map and know where you’re going.
At the Mountain section, there are often plenty of people, but the park tends to attract a lot of first-timers. While you will encounter locals and hiking groups that may be able to assist you, grab a map before you go. The trails are easy to navigate as long as you pay attention to the blazes.
Wrap Up – Pilot Mountain State Park
Pilot Mountain State Park is one of the most rugged hiking experiences you can get in any NC State Park. However, if you’re not up to the terrain, you can also drive up the paved road to the top and experience the same views. The park truly does offer something for everyone.
This is a popular place for rock climbing and horseback riding. The best part is that most of the crowds are at the top of the mountain. Even on a crowded weekend in the summer, if you park at the bottom by the Visitor Center and hike to the top, you won’t encounter too many people on the journey up.
Somehow Pilot Mountain remains crowded and quiet at the same time.