Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Pilot Rock on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Morning view from Chestnut Cove overlook

A trail for mountain bikers, rock climbers and hikers – this challenging route on the Pisgah National Forest has it all! With a trailhead on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Pilot Rock trail is ideal for a fall hike - cooler temperatures and vibrant autumn scenery your companion for a memorable excursion into Pisgah National Forest.

View from the Laurel Mountain Connector

There are several pull-offs in a short stretch past the Buck Springs Tunnel including the Buck Springs trailhead, Mount Pisgah Overlook & trailhead at MP 407.6, Frying Pan Mountain Trail at MP 408.5, and the campgrounds, Pisgah Inn and trailhead at Mount Pisgah, MP 408.6. Our hike to Pilot Rock started at the Buck Spring Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, although it is possible to connect via the Pisgah Inn. Facing south from the Parkway from the parking lot a trail heads off to your right, and 500 feet later you’ll have reached the site of George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge. In addition to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, Vanderbilt owned 471 acres here in Buck Springs Gap where he constructed an enormous log hunting lodge; the stone foundation of the spring house is still visible today.

Buck Springs Lodge spring house foundation

When the Blue Ridge Parkway was constructed in 1961, the lodge and outbuildings were razed. We read about the lodge and site on the informational placard, and admired the grand view before continuing on. Soon we reached a split in the trail, the Laurel Mountain Trail following the ridge to the left while continuing straight takes you to the Buck Spring Trail which climbs over the top of Little Bald Mountain. Connecting Pisgah Inn with Buck Spring Lodge is a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and together this network of trails allows for a small loop – we followed the white blazes of Buck Springs on the way in and the Laurel Mountain Connector on the way back from Pilot Rock.

Note - the milage on this sign is incorrect, it is NOT 2.3 miles to Yellow Gap from this point

From the Mountains-to-Sea Trail intersection with Pilot Rock Trail it is 3.6 miles south to FS 1206 (Yellow Gap Road), although we would be returning once reaching Pilot Rock. The hike starts with an uphill climb to reach the summit of Little Bald Mountain, a grass savanna that is home to Ruffed Grouse and features views to the west, especially now that the trees had started dropping their leaves.

From summit of Little Bald

From Little Bald the trail descends down a dry ridge until reaching the top of Pilot Rock - 2.5 miles and 1,300 feet later. First we passed the intersection with Buck Springs/Pilot Rock Trail, and then following orange blazes through tunnels of rhododendron the descent became rather rocky, slowing our pace as we paid careful attention to our footing on the leaf-covered trail. The granite and shale at this elevation is the result of thousands of years of erosion attacking the pluton, and soon after the forest transitions to hardwoods, the fall foliage ablaze despite the cloud cover.

Along this stretch we found mature American chestnut trees, the spiky seed husks littering the trail. Before the species was devastated by the chestnut blight these giants filled the Appalachians, numbering in the billions and providing an important food source for wildlife as well as livestock. At the beginning of the 20th century the fungal pathogen responsible for chestnut blight was accidentally imported into the US from Asia, and it rapidly spread throughout eastern forests, leaving only the rare American chestnut standing by the 1950s. The fungus enters the tree through an injury in the bark, and spreads, killing tissue as it advances - effectively girdling the tree. Despite being infected, the chestnuts we saw were survivors; it was incredible to see these trees ‘in the wild’. (There has been much success in crossing the American chestnut with the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut – for more on the work being done to reintroduce the American chestnut to the eastern forests, please visit the American Chestnut Foundation’s website.)

American chestnut tree and seed husk

Soon the trail gets steep, each switchback a reminder that you’ll soon be going the other way to return to the trailhead. A rock outcrop gave us the perfect spot for lunch, and as we fueled up we took in the views over the Pisgah.

This rock outcrop makes a good lunch stop

According to the Forest Service website, there are two access points to the rock face, which at this point on the trail will be on your left. From this vantage point the breathtaking 180° views include Funneltop Mountain, the Pink Beds Valley, and the Cradle of Forestry. Down below is Yellow Gap Road; if you kept heading downhill you would descend another 600 feet in elevation over the course of a mile, emerging on the Forest Service road at Grassy Lot Gap where there is room for a couple of cars to park. On the way is also the intersection with the Pilot Rock Extension spur trail, which provides access to the rock’s base for rock climbers looking to scale the pluton.

However, the ascent back up to Buck Springs would provide enough of a challenge to us on this excursion, and so we headed back the way we came, Vilis growing heavy in the backpack carrier before I had even traveled ½ a mile. I carried him over the more steep/treacherous sections, and he would stretch his legs on the more level sections of trail. To avoid an extra bit of a climb, take the Laurel Mountain Connector; it skirts the side of Little Bald to return to Laurel Mountain Trail. On this side of the mountain we found ourselves crossing entire hillsides covered in rocky boulders, the moss-covered rocks a landscape straight out of fairytales. A bit of warning, that although the Connector has less elevation change than crossing the summit of Little Bald, the terrain is a bit more challenging, slippery climbs in some spots with rocky ground making for slower going.

Before too long we reached the junction with the Mountains-to-Sea trail, closing the loop, and just after that arrived at the former site of the lodge. We soaked in the view yet again, and then in the parking lot almost submitted to the lure of climbing Mt. Pisgah as we still had daylight to burn – Vilis was asleep in the carrier after all! But a celebration awaited this birthday girl back in Greenville, so I took one last longing look before loading up the car and turning east on the Parkway towards Asheville.

View from Buck Springs Lodge site

Note: The NC Arboretum is located right where we turn off the Blue Ridge Parkway on our way back to Greenville, meaning the Winter Lights event could be a perfect conclusion to a day on the Blue Ridge this December. Or, if you're headed west on the Parkway, my Pisgah to Cherokee post would be a good guide of sights to see en route! Finally, check out the Meanderthals post on Buck Spring to Pilot Rock for detailed trail descriptions, maps and fantastic photos.   

Mount Pisgah

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