Laurel Mountain and Pilot Rock: Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

On my recent fall trip to North Carolina, my main goal was to ride Bent Creek Experimental Forest… but there was no way I was going to visit the Pisgah area without doing a ride in Pisgah proper! After consulting with GoldenGoose and doing some research in the Singletracks trail database, I decided on the Laurel Mountain trail.

The Route

After reading through the trail descriptions and all of the reviews, I decided to take GoldenGoose’s advice and ride up the Laurel Mountain trail and descend the Pilot Rock trail. I mean, who could pass on this description:

“We chose to ride the trail in reverse of the directions above and it made for a KILLER descent down Pilot Rock. DH bike worthy. Tons of pucker factor, sharp/tough switchbacks, and techy rock sections to navigate.”

Also, based on GoldenGoose’s review, it sounded like the singletrack would be much more climb-able in this direction. A rideable climb and a white-knuckled descent is always a win in my book!

To break up the monotonous gravel road climb from the bottom of Pilot Rock to the beginning of Laurel Mountain, I threw in the nearby Pilot Cove-Slate Rocks trail as well. This trail worked into the loop very well, and turned a lot of the gravel road into singletrack. However, this trail does add even more climbing (as well as descending) and mileage to the loop. Only attempt this combination if you’re looking for a long day of riding and hiking!

When everything was said and done, I traveled 16.2 miles and climbed over 3,000 vertical feet in 3 hours and 11 minutes of moving time.

The Trail

If I have ever mountain biked a route that could be classified as “all mountain,” this is it. This route is one massive bag of radically different conditions and disciplines–and it is excellent!

Descending the leafy Pilot Cove singletrack.

In classic Pisgah style, there’s no way you’ll be able to stay on your bike for the entire ride unless you have Herculean quads and lungs. I did a lot of hike-a-bike on the first climb up Pilot Cove and, as GoldenGoose mentioned, at the very top of the Laurel Mountain trail. However, I did find that the majority of the Laurel Mountain trail was much more rideable than a lot of other trails I’ve ridden in Pisgah. Granted, it is still pretty technical by most anyone’s standards, but the grade isn’t nearly as steep as it could be. Instead of mostly hike-a-bike with one or two rideable sections (par for the course on most Pisgah climbs), Laurel Mountain is mostly rideable with only a few hike-a-bikes thrown in.

Riding in the clouds near the top of Laurel Mountain.

As I neared the top of Laurel Mountain, I realized I was riding in low-lying clouds. It suddenly felt as if I was back in Montana. As I began to descend the Pilot Rock trail, I realized that if the clouds hadn’t been so thick there would have been many amazing views of the surrounding forest.

After I dropped below the clouds I was able to get a couple of scenic shots. Click on over to the Laurel Mountain trail listing to check out pictures that other people have uploaded of the views from higher up.

While the Laurel Mountain trail features classic backcountry-style ridgeline singletrack, the main event is the Pilot Rock descent: four miles of steep, never-ending rock gardens with a series of tight switchbacks thrown in. When you drop out the bottom of Pilot Rock you will either be cursing the day you were born or wishing for a teleporter back to the top to do it all over again! Guaranteed to give you serious arm pump, this is probably one of the most technical backcountry-style trails I have ever ridden anywhere in the nation.

I shot a few photos to try to showcase the rocks, but as usual these aren’t the rockiest spots on the trail (I was trying to hold on for dear life in those), and the rocks look bigger in real life:

I do have to disagree with GoldenGoose on one thing: I wouldn’t call this trail DH-bike worthy. There are no features I couldn’t ride on a 5.5″-6″ all mountain bike. Also, this is truly all mountain territory because there is no way to easily get a big hit bike up to the top of the trail, and because every inch of the suspension on your AM bike will probably be utilized on this descent.

I rode my '07 Jamis Dakar XLT with 5.5" of suspension. I would have preferred a slacker headtube angle and a little more suspension on this trail.

Yeah, I’ve ridden gnarlier trails than this before, but very few (if any) that are so far out in the middle of nowhere. Most trails this challenging are much closer to civilization in the boundaries of a ski resort instead of miles and miles from the closest paved road in the heart of a national forest. If you do summon up the gumption to tackle Pilot Rock, be sure to ride within your ability level and do your best not to crash!

Your Turn: What’s the most technical backcountry-style trail that you’ve ever ridden?

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About Greg Heil

My name is Greg Heil, and I am the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com. I've been mountain biking seriously since 2005, and I love to travel and ride new trails. My travels have taken me across the United States multiple times. To date (November 2013), I have ridden hundreds of different trails in 18 different states, and am adding more singletrack to my trail resume every year! I enjoy all types of mountain biking, from ultra endurance cross country all the way up to chair lift-accessed downhill runs.

20 thoughts on “Laurel Mountain and Pilot Rock: Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

  1. Well, the most technical backcountry trail *I’ve walked* is Blackjack in the Buffalo Creek trail system. But I suppose that’s a slightly different animal, otherwise you would’ve mentioned it.

    Good trail to add to my “maybe someday” list. I have a feeling I’d be walking a lot but I’d still love to experience it!

    • Good point–blackjack is definitely a similar sort of situation. Guess I didn’t really think of that. Blackjack did have a different sort of vibe in that it felt like a bunch of big features strung together with trail, and all the ride arounds and options took some of the sting out. But there definitely weren’t any features on pilot rock as big as some of the ones on blackjack.

      Just goes to show that every trail is different!

      When I was writing this post, Dakota Ridge came to mind as something fairly comparable–but then I realized that that’s basically located right smack in the suburbs, whereas laurel mountain (and blackjack) are way the heck out in the middle of national forests.

  2. I think I still have to give the number one spot to the black diamond trails in Palmer Park. Because I ride there almost 4 days a week when it comes to other trails still nothing compares to the infamous “Templeton Trail” Only thing I can think of is parts of the decent on Deer Creek trail in Denver.

    • Templeton has some tough sections, but nothing like Black Jack. I’ve managed to clean all of Templeton but I have no hope of ever riding Black Jack. I have ridden Raspberry, the approach to Black Jack, but that is as far as I ever plan on going. My body (and bike, for that matter) just can’t take that kind of abuse.

      • Funny–I’ve ridden the scariest drops at Blackjack, but there’s parts of Templeton I’m sure will confound me ’til I die. Like Greg said, Blackjack is like a bunch of features connected by trail, so you can regain your composure in the spaces in between. Templeton, by contrast, is a mostly continuous series of challenging features, often many in a row with no opportunity to reset between themselves–you either maintain flow or fail. I think Blackjack is mostly mental because the consequences of failure look so much more severe, especially on that one really big roller. Parts of Templeton continue to be my nemesis.

        I always thought the descent on Deer Creek (I’m assuming you’re referring to the “Wall of Shame”) was no biggie–now climbing it on the other hand . . .yet another spot I fear I may never conquer.

  3. Most technical? Fountainhead in VA. Not nearly the same amount of elevation (1100′ over 11 miles or so), but a very difficult but fun trail. One of the few black diamonds in the DC area. The Frederick Watershed may be tougher, but I haven’t gotten that far out, yet. Watershed may be more of a “backcountry” feel than Fountainhead, but I can’t say that for certain. Fountainhead winds its way through a local park, so not too backwoods’ish.

    And the nice thing about both of those (Fountainhead and Watershed) are that they are close to population areas.

    • Have you ever ridden any trails in the Fredericksburg area? Definitely more technical and backwoods than Fountainhead. Since the redesign, Fountainhead is a flowfest with a few miles of rocky trail in the back. Nothing real technical or backwoods about it. (but don’t get me wrong…I love riding there! haha)

      • I haven’t ventured that far south. Last season was spent logging trails in MD for Singletracks. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to head down to Fredericksburg and hopefully the trails at Liberty University (50-60 minutes from where my parents live) and see what those have to offer. With a better bike and full advantage of the entire warm season in MD/VA/DC/PA, I hope to make some longer day trips to hit some more notable trails in the area.

        Fountainhead is flowy, and all the GPS data I’ve seen from the previous layout makes it look insane. The lack of appreciable downhill rests and near constant climbing makes it tough in my book.

        I guess I need to grow my repertoire of trails to get a better appreciation of technical.

      • Fountainhead has almost nothing I would call “technical.” There’s nary a rock to be found in the place, just a lot of annoying roots. Lots of steep, but short climbs, so it can be an anaerobic nightmare if you’re out of shape, but the challenge is all physical (and, to some degree, mental), but certainly not technical.

        In the NoVa area, technical can be found about an hour in either direction–heading east toward the aforementioned Frederick Watershed or west to the Elizabeth Furnace area. The nice thing about Frederick is, if you’re not sure you’re ready for the Watershed, you can break yourself in at the adjacent Gambrill State Park that offers a nice progression of technical difficulty among its trails. On the other side, the Elizabeth Furnace area will have even Hans Rey shouldering his bike a couple times.

  4. Pics 1, 6 and 7 remind me very much of the Frederick Watershed area in Maryland. Constant jagged rocks at the most inconvenient angles–definitely a challenge requiring at least a bit of a masochistic streak to enjoy.

  5. Pilot rock, definitely has a serious pucker factor. Nothing more exciting than hanging off the back of your bike and trying to make a switch back with a serious penalty for not making it. I had ridden this trail two times. After riding Pilot Rock each time, I had a great sense of accomplishment. This trail and Black Mountain are the most technical for me yet. Didn’t care for FountainHead in VA.

  6. Wow! Those rocks and leaves look slippery as snot… got pucker? Question, did you ride this by yourself or with friends? Last time I was out on a N GA trail (Aska), I was thinking I should NOT be out here by myself! Looks like an awesome ride!

  7. This is terrible. I can’t even remember the name of the trail.

    All I remember is it’s in Tucson, AZ, it’s technically hiking and biking but trail designer didn’t want bikes so the switchbacks are tight and steep.

    I do remember falling at one section of a difficult climb. Thankfully, a cactus was there to catch me from going down the mountain! :lol:

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