The book was a critical and financial success, selling more than 37,000 copies within two months of publication. It went through eight separate printings in the first two years, and the paperback rights were quickly purchased. Dillard was unnerved by the crush of attention; shortly after the book was published, she wrote, "I'm starting to have dreams about Tinker Creek. Lying face down in it, all muddy and dried up and I'm drowning in it." She feared she had "shot my lifetime wad. Pilgrim is not only the wisdom of my 28 years but I think it's the wisdom of my whole life."
The initial consensus among reviewers was that it was "an unusual treatise on nature". The book was published soon after her poetry collection Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974, University of Missouri Press). Reviewing both volumes for America, John Breslin noted the similarities between the two: "Even if her first book of poems had not been published simultaneously, the language she uses in Pilgrim would have given her away." The Saturday Evening Post also praised Dillard's poetic ability in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, noting that "the poet in her is everywhere evident in this prose-poem of hers: the reader's attention is caught not only by the freshness of her insights, but by the beauty of her descriptions as well." Melvin Maddocks, a reviewer for Time, noted Dillard's intention of subtle influence: "Reader, beware of this deceptive girl, mouthing her piety about 'the secret of seeing' being 'the pearl of great price,' modestly insisting, 'I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood.' Here is no gentle romantic twirling a buttercup, no graceful inscriber of 365 inspirational prose poems. As she guides the attention to a muskrat, to a monarch butterfly, a heron or a coot, Miss Dillard is stalking the reader as surely as any predator stalks its game."
Despite being a bestseller, Pilgrim received little academic attention until more than five years after its publication. Early reviewers Charles Nicol and J. C. Peirce linked Dillard with the Transcendentalism movement, comparing her to Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Author and environmentalist Edward Abbey, known as the "Thoreau of the American West", stated that Dillard was the "true heir of the Master". He wrote, "she alone has been able to compose, successfully, in Thoreau's extravagant and transcendental manner." In his 1992 book critic Scott Slovic wrote that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek eventually "catapulted [Dillard] to prominence among contemporary American nonfiction writers—particularly among nature writers—and stimulated a wealth of reviews and a steadily accumulating body of criticism." Gary McIlroy believed that Dillard's work is distinctive for its "vibrant rediscovery of the woods. [She] studies the wildest remnants of the Virginia woodlands, stirring all the dark and promising mysteries of the American frontier.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1975, when Dillard was 29 years old. The jury noted in its nomination that "Miss Dillard is an expert observer in whom science has not etiolated a sense of awe ... Her book is a blend of observation and introspection, mystery and knowledge. We unanimously recommend it for the prize." Since its initial publication, portions of the book have been anthologized in over thirty collections. Subsequent editions included those published by Bantam Books (1975) and Harper Colophon (1985; 1988). The Harper Perennial 25th-Anniversary edition, which included an afterword by the author, was released in 1999. The first UK edition was released in 1976. The book has been translated into many languages throughout the years, including Swedish, Japanese, French, and German. In 1998 it was listed in Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books, both on the board's and the reader's lists.