Hanging Rock State Park, NC
***SUMMER RE-RUNS: Brian and Sylvia are currently off having new adventures. In the meantime, please enjoy this re-post from spring 2018***
**We have added Hanging Rock State Park to our list of the Best Hikes in the Carolinas. It is also a featured notable hike near Raleigh, Winston Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte NC. All things considered, it may be the best state park in North Carolina east of the Appalachians.
Sylvia and I are just back from hiking the Virginia high country on a cold and windy but beautiful March weekend, and we have a great post on the adventure coming soon. Meanwhile…Here’s a warm up outlining some of our past visits to one of our favorite hiking destinations this side of the Blue Ridge…North Carolina’s Hanging Rock State Park.
Located near the town of Danby about two hours from Raleigh…and very close to the cities of Winston Salem and Greensboro, NC…is Hanging Rock State Park. Close, convenient, and loaded with at least two days worth of hiking including many great views, this is our favorite place to go early in season to shake out the legs for the bigger hikes. But it is a great hiking destination any time of year.
Like nearby Pilot Mountain, the formidable ridges of Hanging Rock are not part of the Blue Ridge, but rather belong to a very old group of mountains known as the Sauratown Range, geologically distinct from the Appalachians. Though not especially big, these mountains dominate the flat country around them, and are home to a number of interesting rock ledges.
Here’s a few of our favorite hikes and scenic spots that we have visited in this park, some many times over the years.
What a surprise that in a Park named Hanging Rock, one might find a hanging rock!
Of course, there’s probably a hanging rock of some sort in every state in the union except maybe Florida, where there’s not much to hang a rock from.
Hanging Rock is reachable from a trail a little over a mile in length that leaves from the parking area of the main Visitor Center (it’s left at the big intersection inside the park…NOT the other big parking lot straight ahead where the lake is.) The first quarter mile of it or so is paved (some of which is quite steep…I find steep paved trails to be worse on the knees in some ways than steep dirt ones.) The rock itself is impressive, and the view from it very fine, especially in fall or early spring. It can be windy up here.
Rock climbing is not allowed here (it is elsewhere in the park), but we have seen at least one party of rocket scientists on leave from NASA trying their luck by means of a clothes line purchased at Walmart.
Before scaling the rock, the trail hugs the base of cliffs and gives a fine view upwards. There are some very odd shaped rock formations in this park, but none more curious than Hanging Rock itself. The very tip, which is reached via a scramble, is a popular place for pictures.
Exercise caution on the top ledges in wet on icy conditions. Otherwise, this trail can be done all year long (and the park is open all year, every day except Christmas.) Our favorite time to do it is early spring. The crowds don’t usually show up in force until Summer when the Lake opens.
Wolf Rock/Cooks Wall
Sylvia and I usually turn the short but intense stroll up to the park’s namesake rock with a longer, more challenging hike that combines Hanging Rock, Wolf Rock and Cooks Wall, and then returns to the parking area via the network of short, easy trails around the lake. In addition to being a lot longer, this sprawling loop has four distinct viewpoints and some sections that are relatively little used.
After leaving Hanging Rock en route to the parking area, look for the Wolf Rock Trail that branches left at a clearly marked intersection. The Wolf Rock Trail rises along a ridge line through woods; there are no views on this section, but it is one of the most pleasant, least crowded trails in the park. Most people go directly from blacktop to the views and back.
The first stop, about a mile in, is a clearly marked collection of boulders named Wolf Rock. None of it looks like a Wolf to me, it actually conjures up something scaly and winged and prehistoric. But whatever you call it, it is interesting. There are some fine views here, and the rocks themselves are worth seeing. A pair of trails come in along the next section leading down from the rock and back to the lakefront parking area if you’ve had enough. But if you haven’t…
Next along the ridge (Now on the Cook’s Wall Trail) is House Rock. Again, there’s not much here that recalls to the imagination a house…it probably looks like one from a distance. But it is a very fine viewpoint. It’s got a little wider panorama than Wolf Rock.
Past House Rock the Cook’s Wall Trail narrows, gets brushier and in general sketchier, but is still a fairly straight forward and easily followed trail. I’d watch for snakes along this section if doing it in summer. It arrives eventually at Cooks Wall, which is sort of a…well, shoulder height rock wall. You can boost yourself up on for a view.
It’s a fine vista that includes the Blue Ridge, Pilot Mountain and Sauratown Mountain, whose bare top boasts an impressive collection of telecommunications hardware. There is also a little slab with a great view here for sitting and snacking, but realistically only one group can sit here at a time…I’ve never been here when somebody wasn’t.
The trail ends at the wall. Retrace your steps back to one of the side trails, which lead down to the Lake, and then work your way along these (or the road) back to the Visitor Center. Or, backtrack all the way to the Hanging Rock Trail and head down back along the blacktop.
Moore’s Wall Loop
The best and most strenuous hike in the Park is the Moore’s Wall Loop, which takes you to the highest point (and best view, by far) in the park. It’s a little over four miles long; remarkably, not a lot of folks do this trail. Most seem content to take the much quicker approaches to the admittedly impressive rock formations. Boy, do they miss out. But their loss is our gain as the trail, especially the back side of the loop, is not usually crowded.
The Loop begins at the lake shore area, which in summer will be very crowded. In fall or spring, it’s pretty empty, most of the visitation is up around Hanging Rock itself. Our advice is to do it clockwise, starting from beside the bathhouse (same way you return from Wolf Rock/Cook’s Wall.) The section of trail behind the lake is among the least used in the park, following a stream until an intersection where the Moore’s Wall trail breaks right and sharply uphill through pleasant woods. It’s a good climb, but the trail is generally well graded with no prolonged steep sections. There are, however, a false summit or two with partial views that fool the hiker into thinking they’ve finally arrived at the top – NOT! This is one of many reasons we like to do this as a conditioning hike to get ready for the bigger stuff, like our Peru adventures.
The Trail eventually does reach the summit…an open expanse of granite known as Moore’s Knob, which is the highest point in the Sauratown Mountains. The views are impressive…and even more impressive from the stone tower on the summit. You can easily see Winston Salem, Greensboro and even Charlotte on a clear day. There is an outstanding view of Pilot Mountain which seems to loom very close, and the Blue Ridge just beyond.
Just below the summit is the cliff that gives the trail its name…popular with actual (as opposed to would be) rock climbers. You can’t see much of it from the summit, of course. But after the hike, drive around to the other side of the park for a close look at this intimidating rock face.
The descent is via a fairly steep but very direct trail (most come up and return by this one, since its shorter) that takes you back to the park’s campground. From there it’s a short walk on connecting trails back to the lake.
You could do ALL the trails described here in a single ambitious day, but our advice is to break it in two and do them over the course of a couple weekends and get maximum enjoyment from the experience. There are also some very fine waterfalls and cascades to visit…for example, Hidden Falls, Window Falls and Upper Cascade Falls.
One final word about Hanging Rock state park is to remember that this park is very close to some major cities (less than 30 mins from downtown Winston Salem) so expect this place to be VERY crowded during peak season. The lake and easy viewpoints pack the people in. Though we LOVE the park, some of the rudest, loudest, most selfish people we have ever encountered on the trail in North Carolina (people walking with blasting radios, drunken shouting and screaming, trail hogs who brusquely pass slower moving people, family groups the size of large armies who refuse to restrain dogs and stray children, etc) have been encountered here. Don’t let this deter you…simply go during off peak season, preferably mid-week if you can. There’s a good chance you’ll have the many fine viewpoints mostly to yourself with maybe a few more serious hikers to share the trail with.
As a bonus, finish up a hike in Hanging Rock State Park with a dinner in Winston Salem, our second favorite big city in NC (after Asheville…sorry, Raleigh.)