You don't expect to see a mountain popping up from the gently rolling landscape of the North Carolina Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point). But Pilot Mountain is like that: full of surprises.
For hikers, the best surprise is that the trails, terrain and views from on high are good enough to make you forget you're a few hours east of the Appalachian Mountains.
The summit of Pilot Mountain (2,421 feet) is primarily a tourist attraction -- large parking lot, crowds of families wandering around soaking in the views (on clear days you can see Winston-Salem's skyline), easy walks to the overlooks. Invariably, though, you'll see a few veteran hiker-types lacing up their thick-lugged boots and hitting the trails.
Roughly 3.5 miles of trail track through Pilot Mountain's summit. Most of the trails are easy to moderate, but hiking all 3.5 feels more like six when you're done. It's an excellent workout.
Best time to go: Late October, when the leaves change. Next best: Early winter and early spring, when bare trees open even more vistas. Summer is the worst, though you can usually get a good like in during the morning hours before the heat gets blistering.
Try this route if you're hiking all 3.5 miles (See POIs for full directions):
1) Out-and-back to Sassafras Trail.
2) Parking lot to Ledge Springs Loop.
3) Right turn on Jomeokee Trail, loop around Big Pinnacle, return to main park pathway.
4) Turn left, stop by Little Pinnacle Overlook before returning to parking lot.
(An optional route is to take Jomeokee Trail first, then get on the Ledge Springs Loop -- however, this takes you through all the best terrain first and leaves a long, mundane uphill slog at the end. Starting on Ledge Spring gives you a nice warm-up on a descent, then a vigorous climb through fascinating terrain, then ends at the park's centerpiece.)
Use extreme care near the cliffs -- a fall will be fatal.
Avoid the summit during late summer afternoons, when thunderstorms raise risk of lightning strikes.
Signs at the entrance to the park and at the summit inform you when the summit closes; be sure you return to your car in time.
What to bring:
* Plenty of water if you're taking on the Ledge Springs Loop.
* Weather-appropriate clothing -- it can be very breezy at the top, but otherwise your main concerns are staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
* Park map