Pilot Mountain stands 5084 feet above the western edge of Pisgah National Forest, near the Blue Ridge Parkway and Looking Glass Rock. There are three ways to get to its summit, but the one I enjoy most is the section of the Art Loeb Trail from Gloucester Gap along Forest Road 475. It isn’t particularly long, but it is quite strenuous. You will get your exercise climbing Pilot Mountain. The views are stunningly panoramic, making it totally worth the exertion. On an especially clear day you can see all the way to Tennessee and South Carolina. We were also treated to a potpourri of early season wildflowers on this first day after the summer solstice. The hike occurred on Thursday, June 21, 2012 from 8:35am to 12:05pm. Our plan was to take the Art Loeb Trail from Gloucester Gap to the summit of Pilot Mountain, then continue northward on the Art Loeb until it met Forest Road 229 for the return.
Hike Length: 5.6 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult; strenuous Blaze: White Hike Configuration: Loop
Elevation Change: 1823 feet Trail Condition: Excellent
Starting Points: Gloucester Gap on Forest Road 475.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two other hikers on the trail.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC get on Scenic Hwy 276 west into Pisgah National Forest. Go 5.2 miles, then turn left onto Forest Road 475. Continue 6.4 miles to Gloucester Gap, a four-way intersection. The road turns to gravel after the turnoff to the Cove Creek Group Camp. The trailhead is on the right, parking on the left.
This makes four weeks in a row we’ve hiked from Forest Road 475 in Pisgah National Forest. It’s easy to do. There are so many great trails you could spend an entire season enjoying everything there is to see. This time we went all the way to Gloucester Gap, deep into the forest, about five miles beyond the Fish Hatchery. Last week we hiked from the Cove Creek Group Camp. Well, you want to go beyond that, where the forest road changes from pavement to gravel. There are no signs at Gloucester Gap. It is simply a four-way crossing where FR475 meets FR229. There is limited parking on the left. You will see the Art Loeb Trail coming down from the left, crossing the road, then resuming up to the right. Go up the steps on the right.
Blaze color for the Art Loeb Trail is white. The trail begins climbing steeply immediately. You might as well get used to it because this one is up all the way. It’s about 90 minutes and 2.2 miles to the summit of Pilot Mountain, so the trail climbs about 850 feet per mile. We were treated right away to blooming rosebay rhododendron on both sides of the trail. They say this is a “super bloom” year in the Blue Ridge and Smokies. I believe it. The rosebay has certainly put on a show. That wouldn’t be all the wildflowers we would see.
After about 20 minutes of climbing you will reach two crossings of Forest Road 229. Remember these crossings on your way back because you can save some time by cutting back down the trail rather than continuing to follow the road. The trail matches the ridge line for the remainder of the ascent. There are some switchbacks to ease the effort, but be prepared for high stepping. The trail is good, not particularly rooted or rocky helping make it less prone to error like slips and stumbles.
The forest is ready for summer. Everything is a verdant symphony. The oak and maple and chestnuts are very healthy. Look for black locusts, cucumber trees, beech and poplar. And then there’s the laurels. As you get higher and higher, the laurel gets thicker and thicker. Most of the blooms on this delightful evergreen occurred last month, but we still found a few pockets that were flourishing. Also the higher you get, the more galax lines the trail. We’ve enjoyed these pointed blossoms for more than a month now.
The natural presentation didn’t stop there though. Mixed in with the galax at ground level were dainty bluets and white violets. Standing above were sundrops, honeysuckle and flame azalea, playing overtures of color. My companions probably get irritated when I want to stop and photograph each new floral attraction. We all have our reasons for wanting to be in the forest, right?
About half way up, there’s an outcropping on the southwest side of the ridge with the first hint of what will come later. There are excellent views to the south and to the west of the endless ridges that give these mountains their famous name. You can see the occasional small family farm on the valley floor below, seemingly miles from anything else. Distance is always a difficult perspective in these mountains, especially on foot. Many times when I’m sitting on such a rock peering across counties I ponder what the pioneers were thinking. “Yo Eleanor, we should be able to make it to that holler over there by nightfall.” Well, three days later when they finally reach that holler it becomes quite apparent how these mountains can make you a fool.
This is one of those hikes that will give you false hope. That’s because of the faux summits. There are three along the trail that make you think you must be almost there. The first is the outcropping mentioned above. Second is a trail crossing with an old logging road that isn’t even on the topo maps. The forest clears modestly and flattens for a short distance as it approaches this old road. Perhaps? Are we just about there? Oh darn. Nope. Onward and upward. The final false summit is actually only a few hundred yards before the actual summit where the trail tops a steep rise into a flat area in the laurels. Again, it’s a disappointment, but know that it’s just one final push.
The clearing at the summit of Pilot Mountain is not especially large
— perhaps 30 feet long by 12 feet wide
— but oh is it a great place to be. There are rocky outcroppings popping out of the ground like fins that make nice seats for lunch, and rest. You can see in every direction except due north and due south, which are blocked by trees. Otherwise, it’s probably a 300
° panorama. There are chestnut trees on the summit. There are blueberry bushes on the summit. The fruit was just in the beginning stages of changing from green to blue.
While the other guys started pulling out their sandwich and snacks, I first setup the tripod to get ready for the photo opportunity, then joined them for lunch. We’ve been there before, on a windy, biting autumn day when we couldn’t stay long because of the chill. That wasn’t a problem on this day as the weather was ideal. The prevailing breeze felt great after the hard, sweaty climb. There were a few dark clouds to the north, but really no sign of imminent bad weather.
After lunch it was time for pictures. To the east is Looking Glass Rock, about four miles away. You’re seeing the western and northern face, the area on the rock where the trail goes. Swing around to the southeast and you can see John Rock with the mountains of Hickory Nut Gorge miles in the distance. To the northeast is the Blue Ridge Parkway meandering toward Mt. Pisgah and the tall peaks of the Great Craggy Mountains far away on the other side of Asheville.
To the north are the 6000 foot peaks of Chestnut Bald and the Black Balsam area. Following the Blue Ridge Parkway northwest, you first see Richland Balsam, the highest point on the parkway. If you are blessed with an extremely clear day (usually in winter), beyond that you can see all the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Clingman’s Dome.
Perhaps the best view is the one due west. That’s the photo at the top of the page [click it for a larger view]. There is a valley directly below, but on the other side is ridge after ridge after ridge as far as you can see. With names like Brushy Ridge and Big Fork Ridge and Tanasee Ridge, they are the terraces to Nantahala National Forest. Tanasee Ridge is the perimeter between Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. On the northern end of Tanasee Ridge is Mt. Hardy and Rough Butt Bald. Standing on Pilot Mountain, beholding the western horizon, you understand why these are called the Blue Ridge Mountains.
To the southwest are the mountains and plutons of Panthertown Valley and the cool water of Lake Toxaway. Farther beyond that are the sharp cliffs of the Blue Ridge Escarpment that denotes the edge of the South Carolina Upstate. It is truly an outdoor adventurer’s wonderland as you can see so many places of fun and enjoyment from this one single spot. You will probably find yourself thinking, “I wonder what is over there?”
We spent about 45 minutes on the summit. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and we wanted to get off the exposed peak before those ominous clouds to the north got any darker. The Art Loeb Trail continues to the north down the other side of Pilot Mountain to Deep Gap. This downhill stretch is just as enjoyable as the ascent because of what the long ago loggers left for us. They didn’t clear cut the entire mountainside. Some of the oaks and poplars on the north side of Pilot have been standing more than a hundred years. They certainly towered over us. Can you see the Meanderthals?
There were more flowers over there too, particularly honeysuckle and hemlock. And I saw the first Mr. No Shoulders of the season. He was green and slithered away as we approached. The trail drops for about a half mile, then meets Forest Road 229 at Deep Gap. If you continue north on the Art Loeb Trail, you will pass Farlow Gap and climb Shuck Ridge, eventually getting to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then on to Black Balsam and Shining Rock. However, that was not on our agenda for the day, so we turned south on the forest road for the return to our vehicle.
The first quarter mile of the forest road is kinda narrow and rocky, not well maintained, but you soon see why. You will reach a large turnaround that is the recommended end of 229 for vehicles. From this point on, the forest road is wider and quite smooth, an easy trip for even a conventional vehicle. In fact, if you want a quicker ascent of Pilot Mountain just for some pictures or a picnic, this is the way to go. Drive your car from Gloucester Gap up FR229 to the turnaround, and it is less than a mile to the summit. But what fun is that? You need to get out there and sweat!
The forest road winds in a generally southeast direction for a little more than a mile. You can take the road all the way back to Gloucester Gap, but remember above where I mentioned the Art Loeb Trail crossing the road twice? If you look for the trail peeling down to the left you can save yourself a few switchbacks in the road. It isn’t marked so you may miss it, but not to worry either way.
This is becoming a favorite spot for me, and the rest of the Meanderthals. It’s a relatively short hike, and you definitely get your monies worth from an exertion standpoint. Unless you get up on the balds over 6000 feet, it’s hard to find mountains with near 360
° views of the surrounding countryside. The trail is well maintained and the scenery is spectacular. This is a hike that can be done any season, but be sure to dress appropriately in winter because it does tend to be breezy on the summit. You are likely to have the longest views in winter because of less haze. So take your camera and a lunch and plan to enjoy a visit to Pilot Mountain.
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