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Western North Carolina is home to a countless number of unique and incredible mountains, but it’s hard to imagine a more recognizable or unique landform than Surry County’s Pilot Mountain.
Comprised almost entirely of metamorphic quartzite, the oddly shaped pinnacle was formed thanks to the eroding away of less durable rocks surrounding the pinnacle. The result: an unmistakable land feature that now stands 1,400 feet above the immediate landscape and a millennia old beacon for wandering travelers.
An age old landmark
Long before Europeans ever arrived in the New World, the Saura Indians (also known as the Cheraw people) called the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina home. With tribal territory stretching from present-day Galax, Virginia, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the Saura were accustomed to traveling great distances and the easily distinguishable knob of Pilot Mountain helped guide them along their journeys. It is for this reason that the Saura Indians named the mountain “Jomeokee”, meaning “great guide”.
Sadly, the Saura Nation suffered many attacks throughout the late-1600s at the hands of the Iroquois Confederacy. In the decades ahead, encroachments by other Native American tribes as well as colonial settlers would eventually lead to the once great people’s total extinction.
In the century that followed, white settlers found the unmistakable pinnacle to be a “great guide” and chose to name the mountain peak “Pilot Mountain”, as the landmass served as a vital navigational reference point for westbound travelers.
In the early days of aviation, long before standardized navigational practices were implemented, airplane pilots used the highly visible mountain in the same manner traveling Indians had done five centuries earlier – making Pilot Mountain really live up to its name!
Deforestation Revealed a Second Pinnacle Rock
Few travelers passing below Pilot Mountain ever realize that there is actually a second pinnacle standing alongside the unmissable mountain.
Like so many other portions of Appalachia, the mid-1800s introduced a period of widespread deforestation, scarring the land for decades and leaving a panorama of barren land in its wake.
One unimaginable consequence of destroying North Carolina’s virgin timber, however, was the revealing of a second “Little Pinnacle Rock”.
Today, the State of North Carolina manages a trail and overlook at Little Pinnacle offering an incredible eye-level glimpse of Pilot Mountain’s Big Pinnacle as well as a bird’s eye view of Mount Airy, Fancy Gap Mountain and miles of Virginia farmland some 20 miles to the north.
Thomas Jefferson’s Father Mapped the Area
According to North Carolina Parks, “The mountain was mapped in 1751 by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, father of President Thomas Jefferson.”
Their mapping paved the way for private land ownership of the area and in just six years’ time, the large peak was purchased by a private individual and remained in private hands until the late-1960s.
“Mrs. J. W. Beasley, the owner of Pilot in the 1960s, and The Pilot Mountain Preservation and Park Committee worked together to make the land a public park. In 1976, the park became a National Natural Landmark,” wrote Jonathan Martin.
Thanks to the generosity of Beasley, Pilot Mountain became North Carolina’s fourteenth state park.
Andy Griffith Borrowed the Name for his New Show
Chances are if you grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, you probably already knew this one, but it’s still fun to tell!
On October 3, 1960, CBS aired the first of what would eventually grow to 249 episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show”.
Starring legendary Hollywood actor Andy Griffith, a native of nearby Mount Airy, North Carolina, the show borrowed many characters and places of Griffith’s childhood – with slight changes in the geographic names: Mount Airy became Mayberry and Pilot Mountain became Mount Pilot. Character Orville Hendricks, the butter and egg man, was said to live at Mount Pilot. In one episode of the show, Barney Fife refers to himself and Sheriff Andy Taylor as “the law west of Mount Pilot.”
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