PilotKnob-sIt’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve lived in North Carolina for 45 years, but only this weekend explored two of the state’s greatest treasures. It was about time.

Pilot Mountain, in Surry County just 20 miles or so north of Winston-Salem, has such a distinctive appearance that it served as a landmark for native Americans for thousands of years before Europeans first laid eyes on it. The mountain’s moniker is a translation of the Saura Indian name “Jomeokee,” which means something like “Great Guide.”

In December 2014, I was honored to be among several North Carolina writers invited by North Carolina’s Our State magazine to pen “A Prayer for Our State.”  In the course of the prayer, while rhapsodizing on the natural wonders of the state, I wrote: “You can hike the forests from the Great Dismal Swamp to the stony nipple of Pilot Mountain to the Balsams and beyond.”

From the seabed to the mountaintop, Pilot Mountain's metamorphic rock has had quite a journey.

From the seabed to the mountaintop, Pilot Mountain’s metamorphic rock has had quite a journey.

Not surprisingly, “stony nipple” was edited out before the prayer reached print, but for travelers approaching Pilot Mountain from the south on Highway 52, it’s hard not to visualize the mountain as a giant breast rising from Mother Earth.


Rock climbing isn’t allowed on Pilot Mountain’s “Big Pinnacle,” but an exposed face on the mountain’s southwest ridge is a popular spot.

What I found most thought-provoking is that the mountain’s stony crown was originally formed from sandy sediments beneath a shallow sea (called the Iapetus Sea), maybe a billion years ago. Pressure from overlying layers compressed the material into sandstone and other sedimentary rocks before volcanic action added igneous granite to the mix. High temperatures and pressures associated with compression from the movement of tectonic plates forged the sandstone into quartzite and other metamorphic rock before pushing the Sauratown Mountains, along with the Appalachians, out of the sea. Hundreds of millions of years of weathering have worn much of the mountains down, but the quartzite in Pilot Mountain’s “Big Pinnacle” is just hard enough to have held firm.

Rock climbers rest at the top of Stone Mountain.

Rock climbers rest at the top of Stone Mountain.

A massive intrusion of igneous rock led to the formation of Stone Mountain, a massive granite “pluton” that straddles the border of Wilkes and Allegheny counties just north of Elkin. The steep face of that mountain rises 900 feet and is popular with rock climbers as well as sightseers. While younger than the surrounding metamorphic rock (at only 330-360 million years old), the granite mountain stands as king of the surrounding hills, and is as impressive from the bottom as from the top.

Both mountains are home to state parks and miles of well-kept trails that are beautiful even in the winter, and I’m sure that 45 years will not pass before I visit either of those parks again. If you haven’t been, go.

When W. L. Spoon was trying to sell Pilot Mountain in the late 1930s, he described it as “fresh from the creator’s hand.” One doesn’t have to believe the earth was just created 6,000 years ago, as some biblical literalists contend, to appreciate the beauty of a creation hundreds of millions of years in the making. In the larger scheme of the universe, that still smells like morning.



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