Depending how you count, Blue Ridge Pinnacle is the second or fourth highest peak in the main Blue Ridge front of Virginia and North Carolina, eclipsed only by triple-summited Grandfather Mountain. It's also about as rewarding a summit as any you can bag in an hour's jaunt from the Blue Ridge Parkway, ranking with such classic quickies as Craggy Pinnacle and Black Balsam. But on Blue Ridge Pinnacle, you'll have it all to yourself.
Being a high peak right on the Blue Ridge escarpment, this mountain has an unusually large base-to-summit rise for the Appalachians. It rises from Graphite in McDowell County, N.C., almost 4000 feet below. It's the high point of McDowell County.
This mountain appears on USGS maps simply as "Pinnacle." That name derived from the older "Blue Ridge Pinnacle" (and, before that, Arnold Guyot's "High Pinnacle of the Blue Ridge"). People often go back to the "Blue Ridge Pinnacle" moniker today just to distinguish it from all the other pinnacles, including Craggy Pinnacle right across the valley.
The main access to Pinnacle is from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The reference point for this access is Black Mountain Gap, at Mile 355.3 of the Parkway, where NC Highway 128 leaves the Parkway for the summit of Mt. Mitchell. Going "northbound" on the parkway from here (toward Virginia), drive a little more than half a mile. On your right you will see a gated dirt road, so small it looks like a driveway. Park near the gate (don't block the road). This little road is the Old Mitchell Toll Road, and your hike starts here.
Trail AccessPinnacle Trail: From the Parkway, walk down the Old Mitchell Toll Road a few yards until you see a trail climbing onto the ridgecrest to your right. This unmarked but distinct trail leads through mixed hardwood and fir forest to the summit in less than a mile, never departing from the main ridgeline. The total vertical climb is 500 feet.
From Montreat: Climbing Pinnacle from the Upper Swannanoa Valley in Montreat makes a great full-day outing. Go to the main trailhead for Graybeard Mountain, described here. Follow the Graybeard Trail (mapped on that page) about four miles to the point near Walkers Knob where the trail diverges from the Trestle Road switchbacks; from there, by staying on the Trestle Road instead of continuing up Graybeard, you can link to the Old Mitchell Toll Road, which is followed about five miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway junction where the Pinnacle Trail starts. Apart from the final ridge climb on the Pinnacle Trail, the grade on this route is easy and the traveling is fast.
Swannanoa Rim Trail: Pinnacle can be climbed from the south by means of a little-used path along the crest of the Blue Ridge from Rocky Knob to Pinnacle. The path is overgrown and sometimes hard to follow, and should be attempted only by experience backwoods travelers. You can get on on it where the Old Mitchell Toll Road first reaches the Blue Ridge crest, at the gap between Pinnacle and Rocky Knob. Scramble up the bank from the road onto the crest and look for a path.
From Graphite: Disused logging roads and trails link Graphite, N.C. with the Old Mitchell Toll Road, making it possible to climb Pinnacle from "the bottom" and achieve a continuous elevation gain of almost 4000 feet. A route I was once familiar with went via Acorn Bottoms and Pot Cove. I last did this in about 1978, so I can't speak to current access or trail conditions--I'd be pleased if readers could fill me in. For a description of a different, more arduous route "from the bottom" that has been done recently, see this link.
Old Mitchell Toll RoadA key feature on Pinnacle is the Old Mitchell Toll Road that girdles its east flank just above the 5000-foot contour. This route got its start in 1913 as a narrow-gauge logging and tourist railroad from near the town of Black Mountain to Camp Alice just below the summit of Mt. Mitchell. After the fir forests on these high mountains were just about logged out, it was replaced in the early twenties by a private toll road for automobiles, which in this area followed the old railroad bed. The road was just one lane wide, and Model T's would chug one way up the mountain in the morning, one way down in the afternoon. The cinder-surface road fell into disuse about 1940. Today it's a fast, pretty hiking and mountain bike route that links the Montreat trail system with the Blue Ridge Parkway and the trails of the Black Mountains.
Ownership and Red Tape
The watershed of the North Fork (Burnett) Reservoir, representing the whole western flank of Pinnacle, is Asheville Watershed land off limits to hiking of any kind. Hiking the crest, along the boundary of this restricted region, is permissible.
The majority of the west flank of Pinnacle belongs to Pisgah National Forest, administered by the Grandfather Ranger District. There are at least two major private inholdings between the four and five thousand foot level on this side, so don't assume you are on public land.
CampingCamping isn't really practical on Pinnacle.
Links and SourcesUSGS Map
Blue Ridge Parkway
P. Wright, “Geographic Place Names In and Around Montreat, N.C." (2003).
J. Lovelace, "Mount Mitchell: Its Railroad and Toll Road" (1994).