Pilot Mountain | North Carolina Travel Photography Tips and Advice

An amazing image captured on an autumn morning at Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina.
A fantastic image captured on an autumn morning at Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina.
  • Exposure: 1/13th second @ f/8
  • Focal Length: 24 mm
  • ISO: 100
  • Flash: No
  • Camera: Nikon D800
  • Lens: Nikon 24-70 mm 2.8
  • Tripod: Yes
  • Captured: October 16, 2016 @ 7:41 a.m.

Visit Pilot Mountain State Park and enjoy stunning photography coupled with great hiking, camping, and more. This unique and breathtaking location is a must-see for any serious photographer or outdoors enthusiast. Additionally, enjoy my travel photography tips and advice while preparing to visit this unique and beautiful vista. 

  • The story of Pilot Mountain.

    Conveniently located and easily accessible from US-52, Pilot Mountain is more than 2400 feet above sea level peaking above its neighbors at approximately 1400 feet, and is visible for miles from Highway 52. This fantastic spectacle has served as a navigational landmark for hundreds of years. Although connected, the Mountain consists of two pinnacles. Visible from the main highway, the first is Big Pinnacle, the highest point with the mountain’s peak exposing bare rock walls with a tree-covered summit. The second is Little Pinnacle, located just below Big Pinnacle providing a large open area for tourists, hikers, and photographers to observe and photograph the mountain. The image above was captured from the perspective of Little Pinnacle. Pilot Mountain is the home of countless trails and endless opportunities to capture a fantastic open vista. Camping is also available in designated areas. Additionally, if so inclined, a skilled climber may opt to scale to the summit of Pilot Mountain to capture a rare and stunning vista. Take a moment and tour my other images of Pilot Mountain. Visit my gallery on Fine Art America. 

The Good

  • Beautiful scene and perspective.

    Due to the remote location and long ascent to the top Pilot Mountain, I feel many photographers tend to steer away from this unique marvel of nature. Remotely located, Pilot Mountain offers a connection with nature far from the typical noisy city. The vantage point on the mountain provides a broad range of perspectives of the surrounding area. On a clear day, one can see miles into the beautiful green hills of North Carolina. Indeed a photographer’s paradise, Pilot Mountain is a great location to get away from the noisy, busy life of a typical city and reconnect with nature. Pilot Mountain is a fantastic place for any landscape photographer and provides an excellent scenic background for a variety of photography goals, such as weddings, family, or other portraits.

  • Many interesting subjects to photograph.

    From an impressive open vista of Pilot Mountain to the many close-up snapshots of a variety of plants and trees, there’s an image for any photographer. One of the most attractive features of Pilot Mountain is the many interesting foregrounds to compliment any composition. Visit my work of Pilot Mountain at scottymanphoto.pixels.com for a few ideas before your stay. Also, in addition to capturing a grand vista of the summit of Pilot Mountain, one can depart Little Pinnacle and move in for a close-up of the mountains rocky edge with a quick hike to Big Pinnacle via a convenient trail that leads entirely around the mountain. The path is not difficult to trek, so grab your camera and enjoy the breathtaking views along the way.

  • Restrooms are open.

    Fortunately, restroom facilities are available at Little Pinnacle near the parking area; however, these are the only restroom on the mountain other than in the camping areas. Unfortunately, Pilot Mountain currently has no food or vending machines. If you plan on staying awhile, you may also want to consider packing a snack.

  • Great hiking.

    Pilot Mountain offers a variety of hiking trails ranging from a short and easy hike to a long and semi-arduous trek. As a passionate travel photographer, nothing beats a brisk morning or evening walk in transit to a new magnificent landscape. In addition to hiking, horseback riding is permissible on specific trails.

  • Camping on the mountain is available!

    From tents to campers, one can enjoy the many views and activities of Pilot Mountain while conveniently camping on location. Bathrooms, showers, drinking water, electricity, and other amenities are available at the campsites. Click the link to check with the park services for specific camping requirements.

  • Hotels

    Other than local camping on the mountain itself, only one or two hotels are available in the immediate vicinity; however, a few RV parks are in proximity to Pilot Mountain. Additionally, a variety of hotels can be booked in the nearby city of Mt. Airy, NC. Approximately 20 minutes away, excluding the transit time to and from the parking area of Pilot Mountain, Mt. Airy also includes several great restaurants and other amenities.

  •  Perfect for any season.

    Barring cold weather and heavy snow in the winter months, Pilot Mountain is ideal for landscape photography any time of year. The autumn months provide breathtaking vistas of the beautiful brown and golden forests surrounding the mountain. Although I prefer the warmer weather in the spring and summer, if you’re willing to brave the cold mountain winds, a snowy scene can render a stunning image.

The Bad

  • The gate opening time.

    Great landscape photography usually involves dedication, especially when attempting to capture a fantastic sunrise. Several visits to the same location are often required to capture the best skies. Unfortunately, Pilot Mountain maintains limited operational hours restricting access to the summit. March to November, the mountain opens at 7 a.m. and closes at sunset, and from December to February, the gate doesn’t open until 8 a.m. The good news is that those camping on the mountain will have access to the mountain well after sunset. But if you’re looking for a colorful sky over the summit, remember that the sun will be at your back when shooting from Little Pinnacle. As for myself, I prefer the fabulous colors offered during the golden hours. I love an early morning sky. Fortunately, when I first visited Pilot Mountain, the gate was open upon my arrival, around 6:20 a.m.; thus, I was able to ascend to the summit and set up my gear and get the shot. Captured at 7:42 a.m. on October 16th, 2016, sunrise was at 7:30 a.m.

  • Weekends and holidays are filled with heavy traffic, large groups, and crowded parking.

    Of course, for many, weekends are the favorite times to visit Pilot Mountain. Like any popular attraction, one must patiently endure lines and busy restrooms. Having been to the mountain on both a weekend and weekday, especially in the spring and summer, expect a full parking lot while waiting in a long line that extends down the mountain. Remember, parking is limited, so keep in mind that once you enter the 2-mile line ascending to the parking area, deciding to abort may not be an option. Once the traffic is backed up, opportunities to turn around are extremely limited, if not impossible.

    An image of the parking area at Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina
    An image of the parking area at Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina
  • It’s a long way to a restaurant.

    Regrettably, if you have a hankering for a tasty mountain breakfast, you’re not going to find it at Pilot Mountain. No vending machines or food of any kind are available on the mountain. Although one can venture out to the surrounding areas for a quick bite; however, the nearest restaurant is a few miles away. Also, don’t forget about the parking dilemma I mentioned earlier.

The Recommendations

  • Wear comfortable shoes.

    Although I usually recommend a good pair of quality hiking shoes, depending on your intentions, one could get away with a pair of flip-flops. That said, if your plan entails hitting a few trails or climbing to the summit, good shoes are a must! I recommend at least a good pair of tennis shoes. Nevertheless, one can never go wrong with a pair of hiking shoes or boots. Remember, trekking with expensive photography gear is the main reason I wear hiking shoes. I have no desire to twist an ankle or take a chance on a fall.

  • Go early morning and beat the crowd.

    Planning for early arrival has its benefits. First, mornings are arguably the best part of the day and, indeed, the most beautiful. Second, it’s cooler in the summer, although it can be a cold mountain morning anytime, so be prepared. Lastly, and probably the most important, you’ll most likely have your choice of parking, and you will not waste time waiting in a long line on the way up the mountain.

  • Plan out your trip.

    I favor having a plan as opposed to chance, although, occasionally, there’s nothing wrong with taking a chance. Nevertheless, I achieved better results with a little forethought and preparation. In my experience, a plan tends to help organize my thoughts, as well as keep me focused on my goals, rather than just snapping away. Click here to read my Philosophy.

  • Pack food and water.

    Although the restroom does have running water, I recommend bringing drinking water, not that there’s anything wrong with the water on the mountain. However, it does take a bit of time to ascend to the top of the mountain, find parking, then discover that the restroom is closed or has an issue with the water. Why leave it to chance? Further, if you plan to stick around awhile, pack snacks, or plan a picnic, descending the mountain to a local restaurant will take quite a bit of time;  depending on the time of day, you could have a long wait to get back up the mountain if you decide to return.

  • Visit during the week if possible.

    If you have any choice in the matter, visit during the week. Not that a weekend is impossible to enjoy, but you can potentially have Pilot Mountain mostly all to yourself. Enjoy the plentiful parking and unobstructed views without the large crowds blocking your chance of capturing a grand vista. Of course, if you prefer more people around for security, a weekend may be a better option.

The Gear

Equipment on hand during the shooting of Pilot Mountain at Pilot Mountain State Park in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina:

  • Nikon D800
  • AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED
  • Think Tank Retrospective 20 camera bag
  • Lens cleaning materials
    • Rocket blower
    • Photographic Solutions
    • Pec Pads and Eclipse Solution
    • Microfiber towel
  • Cellular phone with DOF calculator
  • Manfrotto tripod with ball head quick release
  • Nikon MC-30A remote trigger release
  • Notepad and pen
  • Hand towel
  • Flashlight (one small)
  • Camera rain cover
  • Knee pads
  • Bottled water and coffee

Please take a moment and leave me a comment below. You may also benefit from visiting my Portfolio or Equipment Talk as well.


Michael Scott

Fine Art Photographer on Fine Art of America. My first camera was a Polaroid One Step followed by a variety of point and shot, SLR, and DSLR cameras. I've spent a good portion of my life traveling throughout the world. I've always loved photography and I really enjoy the reward of capturing a great moment in time. Most of my photography is landscape, and my objective is to capture a scene as nature intended it to be viewed without excessive post processing in Photoshop. I do most of my shooting with a Nikon D800 equipped with a 24-70mm f/2.8G and often turn to my 14-24mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8.

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