The Pinnacle Trail at Pinnacle Park, Nantahala National Forest

Pinnacle Park is an 1,100 acre tract of land owned by the town of Sylva in Jackson County, NC that was previously used as the community watershed. In 1991 it was leased to the Pinnacle Park Foundation for developing hiking trails that pass by streams, waterfalls, and beautiful long distance vistas. The Pinnacle, where the park got its name, is a large rocky outcropping that rises above 4,900 feet and offers 270° views of the town, the Plott Balsams, the Great Balsam Range, and even Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This hike occurred on Tuesday, February 18, 2014 beginning at 9:50AM and ending about 2:40PM. Our plan was to take the Pinnacle Trail to The Pinnacle, then return the same way.

Hike Length: 7 miles Hike Duration: 4.75 hours

Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous climbing Blaze: Purple and gold

Elevation Gain: 2,455 feet Elevation Change: 1,880 feet

Hike Configuration: Up and back, V shaped.

Trail Condition: The trail is a rocky old roadbed.

Starting Point: Parking area at the end of Fisher Creek Road.

Trail Traffic: We encountered eight other hikers in four groups.

How to Get There: Take exit 85 off the Smoky Mountain Parkway (Hwy 23, 74) in Sylva, NC and turn west on Skyland Drive (Old 19,23). Turn onto Fisher Creek Road near the Parkway underpass and go to the parking at the end of the road.

This was my first trip to Sylva. Despite living in Western North Carolina for nearly 10 years, I’d never managed to make it to this small town at the foot of the Great Balsam and Plott Balsam mountain ranges. After seeing the views from The Pinnacle and the other hiking trails that are available in the area, I most certainly will return.

Pinnacle Park used to be the town watershed for Sylva until 1991 when a larger water source was required to supply the growing community. The east and west forks of Fisher Creek were the primary suppliers of the fresh mountain water, and you’ll see both as you follow the nature trails that were constructed at the bottom of the park for those who enjoy a brief walk in the woods.

The groomed trail really only covers the first quarter mile of the Pinnacle Peak hike however, and you will soon meet what is called the “Main Trail” or “West Fork Trail.” It’s simply the old roadbed that was leftover from the watershed days. Because it was a road, and is all uphill, it is quite rocky. The rocks were needed for traction back in the days when town maintenance vehicles needed to get to the top.

This main trail climbs mostly due north and has purple and gold blaze marks, a tribute to nearby Western Carolina University. After climbing for 10-15 minutes you will reach a trail junction where Fisher Creek splits to West Fork and East Fork. To get to The Pinnacle, stay on the West Fork Trail. The East Fork Trail goes to a large waterfall that will be on our agenda for another day.

The West Fork of Fisher Creek will be on your left as you continue to climb the mountain. The next landmark is a house-sized granite formation known as “Split Rock” because of a large fissure right through its heart. Keep this large rock in mind, because you will actually be able to see it from The Pinnacle later (in winter that is, when the leaves are off the trees). Over the next mile there are several very photogenic spots along Fisher Creek with small waterfalls and multi-tiered cascades.

The trail maintains a relentless climb at a rate of about 800’/mile totaling 1,800′ of gain in 2.1 miles to the junction with the Blackrock Trail. I was having one of those hikes when the legs and lungs want to take a day off, but the trail says oh no you don’t. And to make it even more difficult, at about 4,000′ elevation we encountered snow that was left from the previous week’s storm. Time to put on the Yaktrax ice traction device over my boots. Two other hikers passed us… two we would meet again on The Pinnacle.

The higher we climbed, the deeper the snow got, eventually reaching about four inches when we approached the junction of the Pinnacle Trail with the Blackrock Trail. By now my breathing was quite labored and there was still 1.4 miles to The Pinnacle. I stopped for a five minute respite, then resumed my snail’s pace climb.

West Fork Fisher Creek

The Pinnacle Trail continued climbing, now in a southerly direction, for about another 100 feet of gain. Then, much to my surprise and relief, it leveled out and remained that way for the duration. Whew! There was still quite a bit of snow covering the trail, but at least it was flat, and I was moving at a pretty good pace now.

From the top of the ridge, it was now possible to see the surrounding mountains through the trees. While I’m sure this trail is dotted with wildflowers and a beautiful hardwood forest during the green season, you can’t beat winter for views you would not see in summer.

You will know you’re getting close to The Pinnacle when the rhododendron starts getting thicker and thicker. During the bloom season, this canopied area along Pinnacle Ridge is no doubt quite flowery. You will reach a 30-40 yard clearing at the top of the ridge that you may think is the destination, but you still need to pick your way through a tight rhododendron forest to get to the precipice of The Pinnacle.

When you finally pop out of the rhodies you will definitely know you’ve reached the prize. The Pinnacle is a very craggy, and dangerous, outcropping with substantial cliffs on each side. You will make a dip on a narrow crossing, then up and over the knob of The Pinnacle and down the southern side about 30 feet. Be sure to carefully watch each step, especially when snow or ice covered, as it was on this day. It’s a long way down if you misstep.

We encountered the two women, Sue and Janice, who had passed us before and sat down to break bread with them. There are plenty of naturally made rock seats here that enable fabulous viewing while enjoying your lunch. Sue and Janice are Sylva locals, so it was our good fortune to learn a lot about what we were looking at in each direction.

To the east you can see the Smoky Mountain Parkway snaking its way through the valley, and far in the distance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Straight ahead to the south are the massive mountains of the Great Balsam Range, and the town of Sylva directly below. Sylva is the county seat of Jackson County, and their beautiful white courthouse is visible on its hilltop perch far below.

Looking westward yields the left shoulder of the Plott Balsam Range that runs across the northern horizon to an eventual meeting with Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a trail that crosses the Plotts and comes out at the Parkway Visitor Center on Waterrock Knob. That is definitely a hike that has been added to our list of future endeavors. Just peaking out above Pinnacle Knob to the north is Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thanks very much to Janice and Sue for sharing their neighborhood with us.

Pinnacle Ridge

The Pinnacle is one of those places you hate to leave. We could have enjoyed the scenery for hours, but we still had two hours of hiking and another hour of driving ahead of us, so we geared back up and started the reverse trek. By now it was a perfect day for hiking… clear skies with a gentle breeze and temps in the low to mid-50s. It doesn’t get much better.

The snow was already beginning to melt as we retraced our steps across Pinnacle Ridge. The snow was squishy now and tended to give way on the canted terrain. We could hear the melting trickle down dozens of tiny waterways making their path to Fisher Creek. We saw firsthand why this had been a watershed decades ago.

On the way down the trail traffic picked up. We first encountered two young guys, probably students from WCU, then a trio of more senior hikers more in our age group. Our final hiker encounter was a young women and her two beautiful German Shepherds who were just as friendly as could be. Getting started several hours after us, I suspect all these other hikers were in for a wet and mushy descent later.

Though going downhill was a whole lot easier for me, after a couple hours the continuous down takes a toll on the knees and thighs. My calves and lungs were definitely feeling it on the way up, and the descent let the other parts of me know that they had a workout as well. You will definitely get your exercise on this hike.

To summarize, The Pinnacle Trail at Pinnacle Park is a wonderful way to discover the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. The Pinnacle Park Foundation has done a nice job of turning the former watershed into an area of recreation for Sylva locals and anyone else who wishes to enjoy the captivating views. The Foundation has this hike measured at 7 miles, but my GPS recorded an 8.5 mile track, so bring supplies accordingly. It took me a long time to make it to Sylva, but I will certainly be back to try some of the other trails in the area.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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  • Mark Oleg

    I heard that the trail right from the Blackrock Trail junction eventually goes to Waterrock Knob. Is that correct? Also, does the “Blackrock” on the sign have any views? Please let me know. Thanks.

    • Yes, Mark, that’s the one I mentioned above that goes to Waterrock Knob. The trail junction is in the middle of the forest, so no views there. I can’t speak for the ridge across the Plott Balsams because I haven’t done it yet.

      • Mark Oleg

        Is it possible to do both The Pinnacle and Waterrock Knob in one day? What do you personally think?

        • It isn’t possible for me. I suppose if you left cars at both Pinnacle Park and Waterrock Knob, that a very strong hiker could do both. Remember that at The Pinnacle, you are just 4,800 feet and Waterrock Knob is 6,292. So you still have 1,500 feet of climbing above and beyond the 1,880 you do to get to The Pinnacle.

          • Mark Oleg

            Thanks for the input. I’ll attempt it. Since I am used to hiking in the dark, I suppose I can do it in 9 hours, from 1 pm till 10 pm.

          • Mark Oleg

            One more thing – is there any contact information for Pinnacle Park, besides calling the City of Sylva?? And where did you find mileages (besides on the signs)?

  • Just a reminder:

    Many of the activities described on this site involve traveling to outdoors areas and then walking and doing related activities in those areas. As with any activity, there are potential dangers involved. These potential dangers can include, but are not limited to:

    1. driving to and from the outdoors area
    2. difficult terrain that can result in falls
    3. weather extremes, including floods, lightning, rain, snow, and high temperatures
    4. animals
    5. insects
    6. getting lost and darkness
    7. injury and death

    You are responsible for your own safety.

    This requires that you:

    1. be fully prepared for contingencies
    2. are in good enough physical condition
    3. pay attention to where you’re going
    4. bring the proper equipment and supplies