Pilot Rock-Thompson Creek Loop
Pilot Rock is the name given a massive 300-foot high open ledge at the lower end of the long ridge extending south from Little Bald Mountain. Though not as prominent or massive as nearby neighbors Looking Glass and John Rock, Pilot nonetheless commands impressive views overlooking the high elevation valley known as the Pink Beds and the mountains surrounding. It’s also a relatively easy spot to reach, accessible by a short but steep one mile walk up from Forest Road 1206 (also known as Yellow Gap Road). I had visited Pilot Rock many time previously by this route. This time, however, it was my intention to include it along a more challenging, and much longer, loop hike. Instead of starting from below, I would instead start from high above at the Buck Spring Gap Overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I would use the Mountains-to-Sea, Pilot Rock, and the lesser used Thompson Creek Trails to descend to Yellow Gap Road. I’d then make an eastward road-walk along Yellow Gap to the lower end of the Pilot Rock Trail and use that trail, along with the nearby Laurel Mountain Trail, to ascend Pilot Rock and then the ridge above back to the trailhead. The elevation changes on the hike, while not extreme, will still pose a decent challenge to those not in proper shape. The descent down the Thompson Creek Trail is remarkably steep and rocky while the climb back up the Pilot Rock Trail can, at times, be grinding. The reward for the effort, though, is a walk filled with little bits of everything the Pisgah Ranger District is famous for…deep woods, cascading streams, and open cliff-top views…all of which you’ll feel you’ve very much earned seeing by the end of it.
The starting point for this hike would be at the Buck Spring Gap Overlook, along the access drive to the Mount Pisgah Trailhead, at MP 407.6 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Parking at the Overlook the Mountains-to-Sea Trail can be spotted easily ascending into the forest via wooden steps. The first part of the hike is the easiest of the entire route as the trail follows the ridge south on a wide and relatively flat grade. Within a few hundred yards the trail passes the former location of the historic Buck Spring Lodge. Built in 1896 for George Vanderbilt (who you might know as the owner of the Biltmore Estate) the old Buck Spring Lodge served as a retreat for Vanderbilt and his guests for over 60 years. Nothing remains, save for the foundations of the old spring house, but there are some more fabulous views to be had from a trio of benches located at the site. A third of a mile in the MST passes the upper end of the Laurel Mountain Trail (which will be used on the return) and then, in another tenth of mile, reaches the junction with the Pilot Rock Trail. Turning left onto the Pilot Rock Trail the route now ascends moderately to the summit of Little Bald Mountain which, despite its name, is anything but bald. There are no views from the top. As the trail begins to descend along the steep southern face of the summit, however, there are some nice views to be had overlooking the Pink Beds towards Looking Glass Rock and the mountains beyond. The ridge extending south from Little Bald is remarkably narrow and rocky which keeps things interesting as the path winds its way down and along it. A half-mile below the summit of Little Bald the Thompson Creek Trail arrives from the right at a signed but still easy to miss junction.
It is immediately apparent that the Thomson Creek Trail is far less used than the Pilot Rock Trail. It’s also a lot steeper. Over the next ¾-mile the path will drop nearly 800-feet off the ridge into the narrow valley of Thomson Creek below. It’s the steepest portion of the hike and you’ll be glad you’re descending rather than climbing, trust me. After crossing scenic little Thompson Creek the path turns and continues to follow the hillside above the creek, at a moderately steep grade, towards the south. After crossing a small cascading tributary 1.5-miles from the ridge, the slope eases and the valley widens. The open mid-elevation hardwood forest of the upper valley gives way to lower elevation thickets of laurel and rhododendron before, at about two miles from the ridge, the Thompson Creek Trail reaches its terminus at Yellow Gap Road. Turning left (east) here begins the one mile road-walk along Yellow Gap. This is, admittedly, a major downside of this hike…especially so during the busy summer season. I was lucky on this day as Yellow Gap Road had been closed due to a winter storm a couple months prior, so along its entire length I remained alone. This is a rarity, however, outside the winter months so watch for traffic. Eventually, you’ll see Pilot Rock itself rising through the trees ahead and that will be your warning to keep an eye out for the Pilot Rock Trail on the left which offers your escape from the road back into the forest.
The Pilot Rock Trail is heavily used, by hikers and bikers alike, and that will be apparent form the start. The wide, sometimes eroded, trail gets steeper and rockier as it climbs before reaching an easy to miss junction on the right with the access trail leading to the base of the Pilot Rock Cliffs. This quarter-mile spur trail is primarily used by rock climbers and, if I’m honest, isn’t really worth your time if you’re just hiking. The view of the cliffs from the base isn’t all that inspiring. I included it on this hike just for completionist reasons…namely I hadn’t walked it yet so I figured why not this day? From the junction with the base spur trail the main trail continues an increasingly rocky third of mile climb to the top of Pilot Rock, which you’ll have to watch for through a break in the laurels on your right. Pilot Rock is a spectacular spot but, just a warning, it’s also potentially quite dangerous. To get the best views one has to very carefully inch their way down the steep rock face. In dry conditions, being cautious, this shouldn’t be a problem. If the rock is at all wet or icy though, don’t attempt it. A slip here would almost certainly be fatal. On this day I was lucky enough to find it dry and could thus enjoy the full panorama from the cliff tops. The view faces south and west down the wide forested valley known as the Pink Beds. At the far end of the valley stands the iconic Looking Glass Rock while countless other high ridges and peaks rise beyond and to both sides. It’s a fantastic spot to soak in the beauty of the mountains and rest up a bit for the climb that remains.
That climb, which includes the next three miles of the hike, involves a vertical gain of around 1,300-feet. The steepest part, by far, is the mile immediately above Pilot Rock in which over half of this vertical is logged. The trail on this section switches back and forth across the crest of the ridge, in many places crossing bare ledges populated with hardy gnarled pines. Part way up there’s another nice ledge just off the trail offering similar views as what were seen at Pilot Rock earlier. Just under 1.5-miles above Pilot Rock the trail comes to an unmarked junction where the Pilot Rock Trail continues straight ahead and the unblazed (from what I could see) Laurel Mountain Connector descends to the right into the rhododendron. If you accidentally miss this junction it’s not the end of the world as you’ll end up back at the MST where you started down the Pilot Rock Trail early in the hike. You’ll just end up climbing extra as you’ll have to cross Little Bald Mountain again. I decided to make the right onto the quarter-mile long LMC which descends at a moderately steep rate until it intersects the Laurel Mountain Trail itself at another unsigned junction. The Laurel Mountain Trail should be obvious to the left, the direction to now head, as it climbs into yet another rhododendron thicket. The Laurel Mountain Trail has a very wild feel. Narrow and rocky, it makes a gradual ascent up along the extremely steep eastern face of Little Bald Mountain through a dark forest frequently underlain by huge moss-covered boulders. It’s a rough path, despite its relatively gentle grade, so don’t expect to make great time along it. After a long mile the Laurel Mountain Trail reaches the top of the ridge and the intersection with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail which was passed near the start at the beginning of the days loop. A right turn on the MST will take you the pleasantly flat 1/3 mile back to the trailhead.
There’s not much more I can say about this hike. It’s a workout, to be sure, but I feel it has just enough variety and flavor to make it enjoyable despite the effort. Pilot Rock is wonderful and, like I said earlier, if this hike seems too much for you simply hike to it from Yellow Gap Road which involves a more manageable 2-mile trek. Either way it’s a spot you shouldn’t miss. There’s also the option of starting the loop from the bottom, at either the Thomson Creek or Pilot Rock Trailheads along Yellow Gap Road (when it’s open), if you prefer to get the climbing out of the way up front. However you do it I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it, as I did. That said I now have the pleasure to present my walk around the Pilot Rock-Thompson Creek Loop in Pisgah National Forest…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.415385, -82.748445
Route Type: Loop + spur Difficulty: HARD
Hike Length: 8.7 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 30'F Trail Traffic: 1-5 people
Min. Elevation: 3,280' Max. Elevation: 5,285'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,100' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 241'
Trails Used (blaze color): Laurel Mountain (blue), Laurel Mountain Connector (unblazed), Mountains-to-Sea (white), Pilot Rock (orange), Pilot Rock Extension (blue), Thompson Creek (blue)