State Parks In The Sauratowns
Extol the virtues of North Carolina’s mountains to a fireside ring of avid campers and most will assume you’re lauding the Blue Ridge Mountains on the state’s western side. Mention the Sauratown Range and most folks scratch their heads and stare blankly. Is it the obscurity of old age that shrouds the Sauratowns? Geologists theorize that this range was formed some 700 million years ago. Pilot Mountain (2421 feet above sea level) in the Sauratowns is roughly seven times as old as the 14,110-foot summit of Pike’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies. What outdoor opportunities are available in this practically unknown range? “The mountains away from the mountains,” as the Sauratowns are known, are a monumental resource of natural beauty and camping amenities, even though the small range rarely shows up on maps.
Nestled in the midsection of North Carolina, the ancient Sauratowns offer hiking, fishing, birding and canoeing, coupled with knock-your-eyes-out scenery that might easily keep a photographer busy for a lifetime or two. Two delightful state parks in the heart of the Sauratowns allow easy access to these activities: Pilot Mountain State Park and Hanging Rock State Park. They are close enough that you can base camp in one park then explore both.
PILOT MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
“Jo-me-okee,” a lilting term from the language of the Saura Indians, factors prominently into the history of Pilot Mountain State Park. Long before white settlers reached the fertile valleys of North Carolina, the Sauras hunted and gathered nature’s bounty in the hardwood forests. The quartzite column of Pilot Mountain was such a dominant feature of the landscape that the Sauras used it as a navigational tool to guide them on their travels. Jomeokee means great guide or pilot. Like the Sauras and early pioneers, modern residents often look to the “Pilot” to guide them as they tramp the local ridges and ravines.
Just one glimpse of the Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain makes it easy to see why the mountain has factored prominently into the history and recreation of north central North Carolina. You simply can’t view the mountain without wanting to see it up close. Although the Big Pinnacle can be seen from numerous points in and around Pilot Mountain State Park, one of the best viewing areas is the Little Pinnacle Overlook.
To find this overlook, follow the “main” park road past the visitor center and up the mountain. After a series of steep, winding turns, the road dead-ends in a parking area. The trail to the Little Pinnacle Overlook is on the eastern side of the parking lot. A short walk of just one-tenth of a mile pops you onto the overlook and seemingly within touching distance of the bright quartzite of Pilot Mountain.
If you spend any time at all on the overlook in the summertime, you’re almost sure to spot soaring black shadows in the sky near the mountain’s summit. In all likelihood, you’re eyeing common ravens or turkey vultures, both of which frequent the area. Although the vultures are much larger, ravens are the “distinguished” avian residents of Pilot Mountain. The top of the Big Pinnacle is one of just a few verified nesting sites of the raven in North Carolina.
If the view of the Big Pinnacle from the Little Pinnacle Overlook whets your appetite for a closer look at this rocky raven sanctuary, head out on the Jomeokee trail. The trailhead is located just beyond the northeast corner of the parking lot and marks the beginning of a roundtrip hike of just under a mile that leads to the base of the mountain and back. While peering at the rock faces and sheer sides of the Big Pinnacle, you might be tempted to make an ascent to the summit. Don’t. Although a rickety wooden “staircase” allowed visitors to scale the pinnacle when Pilot Mountain was a privately owned park, the steps were removed in 1970 to protect nesting ravens and the unique natural features atop the mountain. As a continuation of its protection policy, climbing activities are now prohibited on the Big Pinnacle.
On a warm afternoon in early summer, the Jomeokee Trail rewarded us with our first sighting of a five-lined skink, a darting little reptile whose juveniles sport a fluorescent-blue tail oddly reminiscent of the “fashionable” hues of some juvenile humans’ hair. We spotted deer during a morning hike.
Although the “mountain” portion of Pilot Mountain State Park attracts the most visitors, don’t overlook the park’s unit on the Yadkin River. If you’re up for a long walk or horseback ride, use the 6-mile hiking and bridle trail that links the mountain and river sections of the park via a woodland corridor. To reach the north side of the river unit by car, take the Pinnacle exit off U.S. 52 and follow the signs to the Horne Creek Farm (an interesting historical site). The park entrance is 0.4 miles past the farm.
On the north side of the river, hiking trails are perhaps the unit’s most popular attraction. The Bean Shoals Canal Trail is a short (half-mile) route that skirts the bank of the Yadkin River and meanders along the ruins of the unfinished and abandoned Bean Shoals Canal. Sharp-eyed hikers on the Bean Shoals trail sometimes spot Carolina wrens singing in the trees or brown thrashers scratching about in the undergrowth. The road to the trailhead passes through several small clearings, all of which are good places to glimpse the azure flash of an eastern bluebird.
The main attraction on the south side of the Yadkin is a canoe launch site. According to many of the area’s paddlers, the 2-mile stretch of the 165-mile Yadkin River Canoe Trail that runs through Pilot Mountain State Park is the most beautiful segment on the river. Huge birches and sycamores adorn the riverbanks. During the low water of midsummer, large, flat rocks rise above the surface like the backs of brownish breaching whales.
One of the quickest ways to acquaint yourself with canoeing on the Yadkin is to join one of the ranger-led trips that begins at a launch site 6.5 miles upstream of Donnaha Park. Canoes, paddles and life jackets are provided, but participants must bring their own lunch, water, sunscreen and insect repellant. In addition, paddlers must arrange for their own transportation back to the launch site, which is accessed from the town of East Bend.
HANGING ROCK STATE PARK
Hanging Rock could be called “Waterfalls State Park.” The Upper Cascades, a gorgeous series of falls that plunges over the rocks in a narrow ravine was my introduction to this park. My wife and I had driven to the park on a mid-June morning and were idling about the visitor’s center, wondering what to do with the hour we had before lunchtime. A brochure on the park’s hiking trails quickly caught my eye and we were soon trooping down the Upper Cascades Trail. The cool water of the creek murmured sweet seductions to our sweating feet, which were soon out of boots and into the rippling pool at the base of the waterfall. There we sat on a rock, backs soaking up sun and toes wiggling in the soothing water.
Given the great time we had at the Upper Cascades, I would have to say it’s probably my favorite Hanging Rock waterfall. Had we parked on the opposite end of the parking lot, my sentiments might be different. Two spectacular torrents, Hidden and Window falls, are found down a hiking trail that begins on the east side of the parking area.
To reach these falls, head down the trail past the picnic shelters. At just less than one-quarter-mile, the trail forks. A short hike down the right fork takes you to Hidden Falls, a winsome cascade nestled beneath towering trees and surrounded by rhododendron and mountain laurel. The left fork leads to Window Falls, a waterfall that can be viewed through a naturally sculpted “window” in an imposing rock ledge. Just below Window Falls is another precipitous waterfall that can be viewed and photographed by scrambling down the steep trail to its base.
LAKE O’ THE PARK
With the abundance of cascading water in the mountains of Hanging Rock, it’s not surprising that the park is home to a 12-acre lake. Park Lake is a great place to swim, canoe or paddle a rowboat. Private craft aren’t allowed on the lake but boats can be rented.
Once on the lake, paddlers can explore the shoreline, watch for birds or break out a fishing rod. Bass and bream fin the lake waters in abundance, challenging the angling skills of novice and seasoned fisherman alike. In addition to paddling and fishing, Park Lake boasts a delightful sandy beach and swimming area that’s great for kids. Its shallow water and gently sloped bottom make it possible to do lots of wading before encountering “the deep end.” At the edge of the marked swimming area is a spacious dock, complete with diving board.
On hot or rainy days, you might want to take shelter in the bathhouse. Much more than just a restroom and changing facility, the Hanging Rock bathhouse is an architectural delight. Dramatic stone pillars and huge timbers create a sheltered lounging area that offers an excellent view of the lake and surrounding hillsides.
We’ve covered the highlights of the Sauratown region, discussed the swimming and canoeing, and covered the hiking, waterfalls and wildlife. Have we overlooked anything at Hanging Rock or Pilot Mountain? Oh, yeah. If these activities are too “soft” for you, go hang off a cliff; there’s rock climbing at both parks. So if you’re looking for adventure, technical or otherwise, look toward the ancient and all but forgotten Suaratowns.
When You Go
Pilot Mountain — There are 49 tent and trailers sites, which can accommodate motorhomes up to 32 feet. There are no electrical or water hookups, but drinking water can be found throughout the campground. Hot showers and flush toilets are available in the bathhouse. The campground is operated from March 15 to Nov. 30. Sites are first-come, first-serve. For more information, contact the park at 336/325-2355.
Hanging Rock — Two one-way loops circle 73 campsites for tents and trailers. Drinking water is available throughout the campground, but there are no electrical or water hookups. Centrally located washhouses provide flush toilets, hot showers and laundry sinks. Sites are first-come, first-serve. Cabins and group camps are available on a reservation basis. For more information, contact the park at 336/593-8480.
Horne Creek Living Historical Farm — This farm is a “working” operation that showcases farming activities and practices dating to the pioneer days. Various programs are scheduled throughout the year (mostly on Saturdays) and feature sheep-shearing, plowing, traditional music, ice cream socials, cider making, corn shucking and wagon rides. For more information, contact the farm at 336/325-2298.
Mount Airy — Andy Griffith buffs can visit the site of “Mayberry” near Pilot Mountain State Park in the town of Mount Airy. The filming site for The Andy Griffith Show, Mount Airy has scores of Griffith attractions, including Floyd’s Barbershop and Andy’s car (which can be viewed at the Mayberry Motor Lodge). For more information, contact the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce at 336/786-6116.