The Plott Balsam Mountains of Western North Carolina, sometimes considered part of the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of the most scenic areas along the southern Blue Ridge Parkway. A long history exists behind the land covering the western Plotts. Until 1991, the area now called Pinnacle Park was a watershed providing the town of Sylva's residents' water. Then, Sylva's residents were in need of a better water supply, and the watershed was transformed into a public park maintained by The Pinnacle Park Foundation. The main reason of this was to allow public access to the Pinnacle, a jagged rock outcrop on the very western end of the Plott Balsams, making for a sharp ending to the long ridgeline. Nearby, the exceptionally steep and rugged peak of Blackrock was previously on private land, until just a handful of years ago when the Blackrock Ridge Tract was purchased. Since then, these two features are fully connected to trails extending from the Blue Ridge Parkway. This hike occurred on Saturday, November 1st, 2014. My plan was to hike the West Fork Trail from the Pinnacle Park trailhead to the summit of Blackrock, and if time would permit, to Waterrock Knob. Along the way, I would take the side trail to The Pinnacle.
R/T Length of Trail: 10.8 Miles
Duration of Hike: 7:15
Type of Hike: Out and Back with Spur
Difficulty Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Fantastic viewpoints; good trail signage
Cons: Old and very rocky roadbed; steep, tiring, and long scramble (almost off-trail) to Blackrock; some confusing trail blazes in Blackrock area
Scenic Views: The Pinnacle - 9 stars; Blackrock - N/A (fog and I didn't quite reach the official peak)
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter (if you can make it through the wind and cold!)
Trail Blaze Color(s): West Fork Trail - Blue and Gold; The Pinnacle Trail - None
Beginning Point: Parking area at the end of Fisher Creek Road
Directions: From Sylva, NC: Take Allen Street North for 2.1 miles. Then, turn left onto Fisher Creek Road, and follow it for 2.2 miles to the parking area at the end.
Do you like challenges? If you do, then one visit to Pinnacle Park will be enough for you to fall in love with it. This is simply that type of hike that you can't miss, especially the part on to Blackrock. It gets quite tough, but you should like it, if you like this type of hiking.
From the parking area at Pinnacle Park, take the old road heading steeply up past the kiosk. There is a sign at the trailhead with some mileage information. Originally,I planned to go all the way to Waterrock Knob (and t's not impossible), but the plan had to be changed at Blackrock. The West Fork Trail follows an old road for the better part of its length, so it starts off rather steeply at the beginning. Near the beginning, intersect the Bridges Loop, the second end just a few dozen yards from the first one. At 0.2 miles, the West Fork Trail crosses West Fork Fisher Creek, and resumes climbing in earnest. At 0.3 miles, reach a junction with the East Fork Trail. If I come back here someday, and I probably will, I'll take the East Fork Trail that time. If you are not going to The Pinnacle, East For Trail is the best option, as it is a slightly shorter route to Blackrock following East Fork Fisher Creek. It may also be more scenic, as I have heard it has some small waterfalls, although I have not confirmed that. For the purpose of this listing, keep forward on the West Fork Trail. Your first landmark is at 0.5 miles - Split Rock, a large boulder with a big crack in the middle, almost splitting it in half. At 0.7 miles, the trail makes another crossing of West Fork at a particularly scenic spot, as West Fork spills down in cascades down the mountainside. Snow made an appearance in this area, progressively increasing in depth to around 2 inches at The Pinnacle Trail junction at 2.1 miles. Before the unction, the trail is sometimes steep, but mainly not - the main problem is the countless amounts of rocks, which are a big nuisance, especially on the way back down.
At this junction, first take a left to visit the Pinnacle. It's about 1.4 miles from here, without much climbing involved. The trail does climb at first, but at around 2.5 miles, it levels out and starts heading downhill. All the trees were covered in snow, making for a beautiful scene. There will be one more brief but steep ascent at around 3 miles, before the trail resumes heading downhill. At 3.4 miles, the trail topped the ridge with some views. Then, it seemingly dead-ends - however, take the small path going diagonally left. This is a steep but short descent to The Pinnacle. Some places can be a bit sketchy in snow. However, when you come out onto The Pinnacle, the reward is amazing. Especially in this weather, this might have been one of the most beautiful and epic views I have experienced. Directly ahead, clouds were moving fast, although sun rays could be seen lighting up the valley far ahead near Sylva. And to the left and right, fog and clouds were skimming the tops of the ridges, with the wind blowing like crazy. The view certainly wasn't very good in terms of visibility, but it might have been better like this, being so epic.
Many people end their hike at The Pinnacle, not continuing to Blackrock. I was one of the few who did. From The Pinnacle, return the way you came to the intersection with West Fork Trail, and then keep going up in the direction of Blackrock. At first, the trail will climb for a bit, crossing the now small West Fork. At around 5.5 miles, the trail enters a forest with more spruce and fir trees. They looked absolutely beautiful covered in snow. At 5.9 miles, reach a junction with East Fork Trail. This is the other end of it. Like I mentioned before, it is a shortcut to the West Fork Trail, if you're not going to The Pinnacle. I would also think that it is probably better to return by East Fork to avoid the rocky roadbed of West Fork. The snow kept getting deeper after this intersection, and also the the clouds lifted a little bit, opening some valley views through the trees. At 6.2 miles, the West Fork Trail makes a sharp turn (I think it might change names here but I have not found a confirmation. The old road continues forward (although not an official trail). However, looking at maps and talking to some people, it looks like you can follow that road to Peter Branch, where it comes out onto another access to the trails. I'm not sure if it's private property though, or if you're allowed to park there. I may check it out sometime. Meanwhile, the "trail" turns left. There's a sign "Blackrock 0.6 ^". Sounds fast and close, eh? Not so fast.
The trail starts off right away incredibly steep up the mountain. There's some areas where you need to crawl on all fours, and most areas require tree trunks to get yourself up. This was especially harder in the snow. At first, it's more or less manageable, but it gets more confusing after 6.4 miles. Blazes are seldom, and it's not often clear where the trail goes, especially in snow. One thing is clear - it's the most prolonged stretch of so steep trail I have ever hiked. The closest comparison is Pinnacle Mountain, South Carolina, but the section there was only 0.1 - 0.2 miles. At around 6.5 miles, there is a very confusing place. There's a large tree on the left with a blaze on it. It would SEEM like the trail goes left, but it doesn't. I probably lost 15-20 minutes here wandering around past the blaze only to return to this same spot later and find out that the trail just continues forward! Please don't make the same mistake I did! The more obvious trail keeps climbing upward after this incredibly confusing blaze. The steepest stretch comes around 6.6 miles. There are few trees to hold to, and in snow, there was nothing much to do besides climbing up on all fours. This is a very slow section - allow ample time to complete it, especially during winter weather! Right after the steepest section, the trail reached what I think is Blackrock. Some people scramble straight up the rock - the trail turns left and goes down under a rock overhang and then back upwards. I decided to make this turnaround point. This section was taking way too much time and I could tell that there was some more steep climbing ahead. I would come out to the top of the rock in bitter wind, dusk, and in the middle of a cloud. Plus, the snowfall depth was at least 4 inches by now. What's the point? I would rather get back down the bad part before complete dark, and that's what I did.
No matter what, I will definitely come back to here and make it to Waterrock Knob too. I will just need much more time than I had for this hike. Obviously, my 7 hours weren't enough. I'll be back - there's no way I can not finish this hike in the future! If you do this hike, please heed my advice and be careful. See some of my pictures and a video below.
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