Hike the West Fork Trail at Pinnacle Park in Sylva, North Carolina, climbing to exceptional views from The Pinnacle, a high-elevation, knobby summit.
LOCATION:Near Sylva, North Carolina in the Nantahala National Forest
OFFICIAL MAP: Nat Geo 785 Trails Illustrated Map
Towering high above the western North Carolina town of Sylva, The Pinnacle is a knobby, craggy peak that rises from the edge of the Plott Balsam mountain range. The views from the rocky summit are sublime, stretching over the surrounding Appalachian peaks to the far-distant horizon.
The journey to the summit makes for a fantastic, strenuous, upward hike through a scenic, creek-filled forest on Pinnacle Park’s West Fork Trail. The hike is challenging, but exceptionally rewarding. The trails meander through a beautiful hardwood forest, and the summit views at the end of this out-and-back hike are simply unforgettable. The Pinnacle’s sun-drenched rock outcrops offer a great spot to soak in views of the nearby Blackrock Mountain and the Plott Balsams, the town of Sylva, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains on the northern horizon.
The hike racks up over 1800 feet of elevation gain in the outbound 3.5 miles, so it’s a challenging one, for sure – and the hike’s initial rocky climb along a boulder-crusted old roadbed makes for a great, calf-burning workout. But the summit’s views are a fantastic, rewarding payoff for the effort.
Pinnacle Park to The Pinnacle: the hike
The hike begins at the Pinnacle Park trailhead, north of Sylva, NC (view maps and driving directions). A wooden kiosk marks the trailhead; the hiking trails and backcountry sites at the park are free, but require a permit (available at the trailhead kiosk) before starting the hike. The hike skirts around a metal gate, following the trail northbound. In just under a tenth of a mile, the trail reaches a small spillway dam and waterfall on Fisher Creek, the remains of the Sylva’s former watershed that occupied the park before its conversion to recreation land in the 1990s.
The hike begins a nearly relentless climb to the Plott Balsam ridgeline, following purple and gold trail blazes through a ferny, mossy hardwood forest. The trail passes a small campsite before reaching a trail fork at .3 mile; from here, this hike veers left, following the West Fork Trail and hiking northwest. The sound of falling water fills the forest as the West Fork Trail continues to climb elevation, reaching a towering, split rock outcrop with an enormous fissure at .5 miles.
The West Fork Trail arcs to the southwest at .6 mile, crossing Fisher Creek and passing a small series of cascading waterfalls.
The trail meanders through wide switchbacks, following the route of an old, rocky, boulder-filled, gravel road bed. The elevation climb intensifies as the trail climbs steadily upward, gaining over 1100 feet of elevation over the next course of 1.3 miles. The trail passes large, towering, mossy rock outcrops as it climbs and winds, and hikes past a trickling creek on the right at 1.6 miles. Just after passing a small, mossy waterfall, the West Fork Trail meets a signed trail junction at 1.9 miles; from here, this route turns left, hiking The Pinnacle Trail westbound. (The trail to the right leads 1.8 miles to the summit of Blackrock Mountain, an intense climb that rewards with stunning 360-degree panoramic views. If you’re up for the extra mileage and a great workout, it’s a great addition to this hike.)
Towering, old-growth oak shade gnarly-branched rhododendron as The Pinnacle Trail begins to level at 2.25 miles. The trail’s gentle rolling elevation is a welcome break from the nearly continuous climb. The trail is scenic in every season, with through-the-trees views framed by towering hardwoods. But it’s an especially beautiful hike in late spring, with the blooming of the trail’s abundant rhododendron, and in fall, when autumn paints the towering deciduous forest in vibrant hues.
The trail arcs southbound, winding through the forest. The hike rolls over a small knob at 2.8 miles, tunneling through dense rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets. The trail reaches a campsite at 3.2 miles. The hike continues on the opposite, south side of the campsite, ducking through dense rhododendron on a tight, narrow singletrack trail. And, suddenly, the trail breaks through the cover, and the sun-drenched summit is dead ahead.
A careful scramble up The Pinnacle offers stunning views, but the summit’s drop-offs are steep and sudden, so some caution is needed to navigate out to the craggy peak. The town of Sylva is easily visible to the south, and the towering peak of Blackrock Mountain, another of the park’s hiking destinations, dominates the near horizon to the northeast. Exceptional, mountainous views wrap around the summit in every direction.
After soaking up the views (and grabbing a few Instagram-worthy shots), the hike flips in reverse in a nearly continuous downhill trek to the trailhead. The hike reaches the trailhead at 6.5 miles, completing the adventure.
Nearby hiking adventures
In the area with some energy left to burn? Explore the stunning and remote stretches of the Shining Rock Wilderness, including the exceptional hike on the Art Loeb Trail to Shining Rock and the calf-burning climb to Cold Mountain. To the northwest, explore the rugged stretches of the Smoky Mountains on a hike to Chimney Tops, or follow the Alum Cave Trail to Mt LeConte to score some epic summit views. Or cross the Georgia border to the south, and follow the Bartram Trail to Pinnacle Knob, climbing to beautiful views from this similarly-named peak.
Trails and routes may change – so please refer to official trail maps for the latest route.
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Free parking is available at the trailhead; donations accepted (and encouraged). Permit required (free; fill out the provided form at the trailhead).
35.422617, -83.191217 // N35 25.357 W83 11.473