That awesome close-to-home hike that beginner and experienced hikers both love
Apparently if you write about hiking enough times eventually someone will ask if they can come along on a hike. I had received a few requests from friends and co-workers over the years - usually just expressing interest without any real commitment - and so, as part of my New Years resolutions to be more sociable with my outdoors adventures, I started approaching friends to actually do a few easy hikes together. Eric, a co-worker of mine and a great soccer player, had also been going on hiking and backpacking trips and at some point I casually mentioned that we should go hiking together and maybe invite a few other people we knew who had expressed interest in hiking.
"Liz!" Eric said, "We should start a group!"
"A hiking group! Yeah, like a weekend adventures sort of group for the office or something and organize regular meet-ups with co-workers. We can do outdoorsy things like hiking and backpacking - it'll be great!"
And the next thing I knew Eric and I were organizing our first group adventure for our co-workers. We sent out a poll for interest and waited for the responses.
The responses poured in! Beginner hikers, experienced hikers, and all levels in between expressed interest, and I realized I was in for a challenge.
How do I organize a hike that is both interesting for experienced hikers and isn't overwhelming to new hikers? That's a hard balance; I remember being a new hiker when 2-3 miles felt like quite a hike, and I also remembered thinking recently how now my definition of a "hike" is vastly different than what it was a few years ago. How do I reconcile the two and find something that would appeal to everyone?
There was one obvious answer: Hanging Rock.
Hanging Rock State Park is located north of Winston-Salem, NC in the Sauratown mountains. These mountains are an isolated chain, lying east and separate from the Blue Ridge mountains, earning the nickname "the mountains away from the mountains." The small mountain chain is named after the Saura Native Americans (sometimes called "Saraw" or "Cheraw") who originally lived in the area, but who were gone - a combination of being driven out, killed, and assimilated into other tribes - by the time European settlers pushed into the area. The Sauratown mountains are modest in terms of elevation: the highest peak, Moore's Knob in Hanging Rock State Park, reaches just 2,579 feet, but the mountains of Hanging Rock State Park and its sister park Pilot Mountain have some impressive quartzite formations and are known for being some of the best climbing in North Carolina (and happens to be where I first tried climbing outdoors this spring).
I had hiked at Hanging Rock before - mostly a few years ago when I was first getting into hiking - but it had been a while so I started doing some research to brush up on my knowledge of the park. As I researched, I was reminded of how perfect the spot is for beginners and experienced hikers alike. It was just under two hours to the park from Durham, a reasonable distance for a day hike. With the soaring rock walls and the surrounding Piedmont it offers great views of the area. The boulders along the trail offer interesting hiking conditions, the parking is reasonable (though frequently crowded on busy weekends), and numerous trails create variety in mileage and scenery with a few waterfalls accessible via some trails. Plus it's close to some cute small towns (including Mt. Airy, the real-life Mayberry) and Winston-Salem, so there were plenty of options for post-hiking merriment.
It's possible to summit all five peaks in the park in one day, though at a little over 10 miles this can be quite a challenge. I proposed a more palatable route for our excursion: exploring the iconic summit of Hanging Rock and then skirting over to Wolf Rock and possibly other summits based on time and interest. With a location finalized, a route planned, details sent out to hikers, and armed with a packet of waivers (hey, CYA!) I headed out Friday night to spend the night at McCrae's dad's house in Winston-Salem so I could get an early start to the park on Saturday morning.
McCrae, Ryder, and I were at the park shortly after it opened at 7am on Saturday. I wanted to get there as early as possible to beat the crowds and get some sunrise photos, though with the park gates opening at 7am I missed sunrise at the summit by a long shot. It was still a magical experience to be up there, perched alone on the edge of the world, feet dangling over the sheer cliff as I watched the sun burn off fog in the Piedmont below.
The hiking group was set to meet up at 10am in the parking lot, and we milled around for a while, greeting friends as they arrived and putting names to faces seen around the office but with whom we'd never otherwise interacted. And then soon enough we heading down the trail together towards our first summit: the iconic Hanging Rock and its tall rock cliffs rising above the horizon.
The stairs up to Hanging Rock can be brutal, especially if you do the trail back-to-back. I've encountered more than a couple first-time hikers having an emotional moment on the stairs. It's a tough climb and if you're not familiar with hiking up elevation change it can be a shock, especially since you don't realize how close you are to the summit until it suddenly opens up to a panoramic view. As a group we tackled the climb leisurely, taking time to pause if we needed, to grab water or chit-chat or even just to play around some of the rocks leading up to the summit.
But that feeling you get when suddenly you emerge from the trees at the top of the cliffs and the whole world lies at your feet? Now that's an experience that beginners and experienced hikers alike can appreciate. Whether by effort to get there or by pleasure at the sight, the views will take your breath away.
We lingered a while at the top of Hanging Rock. It's always nice to stay and enjoy the fruits of your hike. Our group fanned out, exploring their own pockets of the summit, calling to one another as they crawled or picked or jumped over rocks. It had already started to get crowded and I knew it would get even busier as the day wore on, and so once we drank our fill of the views and shimmied over enough rocks, we turned and headed back down the trail.
Before heading all the way back to the parking lot a few of us cut over to Wolf Rock Trail and the summit of Wolf Rock. While still pretty, the other summits can be underwhelming compared to the grandeur of Hanging Rock. I'm still unsure of a definitive recommended route: do you hit up Hanging Rock first to enjoy the views with less of a crowd and then feel underwhelmed by the other summits (though they'd be pretty enough on their own)? Or do you start with the other summits - Moore's Knob, House Rock, Cook's Wall, and Wolf Rock - and then fight crowds at the summit of Hanging Rock? It's a tough call, but if you're short on time or you don't want to cover a lot of miles and it's your first visit to the park then certainly Hanging Rock Trail needs to be at the top of your list.
We hadn't quite run out of steam by the time we returned to the parking lot, so we headed down Indian Creek Trail in the search of waterfalls, but when we made it 0.4 miles to Hidden Falls we all started getting tired and hangry, so we enjoyed the small cascades for a minute and then headed back to our cars and onwards to Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem for some hearty snacks and libations.
I haven't hiked all the trails at Hanging Rock State Park, but it's certainly on my list of things to do. Our hike that day covered about 6 miles or so of trail, but there are plenty more trails in the park to explore and a few good waterfalls I haven't seen. No matter the season this is a beloved place to hike, and based on the smiles and the nods as people enthusiastically talked about the next hike, I think this first excursion was a home run.
Get there: Hanging Rock State Park is in Danbury, NC, north of Winston-Salem.
Distance: There are a variety of trails in the park ranging from 0.2 miles to over 7 miles, but you can loop together several trails to add up the mileage.
The most popular and iconic trail is Hanging Rock Trail which is 1.3 miles one-way (so 2.6 round-trip out-and-back).
Our route was about 6 miles. We hiked up Hanging Rock Trail to the summit, then back down to Wolf Rock Trail to the Wolf Rock summit. Then we connected to Cook Wall Trail and turned right to head back to the parking lot. (See highlighted trail map earlier in the post for our route.)
Note: If you take Cook Wall Trail then you'll get to a boathouse and swimming area before you get back to your parking lot. This is a good spot for a break and bathrooms. You can follow a trail along the road back to where you parked your car at the Hanging Rock Trail trailhead.
If you want to add on mileage and views, then after Wolf Rock turn left onto Cook Wall Trail to head out to House Rock and Cook's Wall. Retrace your steps back Cook Wall Trail to the boathouse and then parking lot.
If you really want to get ambitious you can add on Moore's Wall Loop Trail and hit all five summits in the park. Or choose your own adventure and explore the trails that interest you the most!
Difficulty: Strenuous. The elevation isn't as high as you might find in the Appalachian Mountains, but those stairs up to the Hanging Rock summit are no joke. (Note: If you do Moore's Wall Loop Trail there's also quite a climb up stairs to Moore's Wall.)
If you get out there, don't say I didn't warn you about the stairs. I'm not kidding when I say I've seen people crying on the trail. The views are totally worth it though. Just pace yourself, allow plenty of walk breaks, and you'll soon enjoy the panoramic views at the top.
Dog friendly? Yes, but dogs must be leashed.
Kid friendly? Ehhhhh yes and no. It depends on the kids, as in how old they are, their stamina, and how well they listen. The stairs are no joke. Be prepared to take a long time to get up to Hanging Rock with young children, or even be prepared to carry them. BE VERY CAREFUL AROUND CLIFF EDGES! I think you can definitely do this with older kids or responsible kids, but you need to exercise caution and pay attention. The kids will absolutely love the chance to play on some rocks and enjoy the views. It's a popular hike for kids grade school and up, but it might be tough for toddlers. If you're anxious about taking kids to the summits then some of the waterfall hikes might be better ways to introduce the kids to the park.
Tips: CLIFFS! Be safe around them. Get there early on busy weekends to find a parking spot. Bring snacks and/or lunch. There are plenty of gems in this park and you'll want water and food to fuel those adventures. If you visit during the summer then you can cool off with a bit of swimming in the lake.
Highlights: Panoramic views! Cliff edges! Rock scrambles! You can experience a tough mountain hike even without driving hours from central NC cities like Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro. There are some fun challenging trails here (though keep in mind there are several sections of stairs). Oh, and there are waterfalls and swimming!
What else can you do in the area?
Downtown Winston-Salem isn't far from the park and there are plenty of cool spots in that city to explore, including Foothills Brewing. (Pro tip: Go to the Foothills brew pub - not the brewery - for food and drinks.)
Winston-Salem is home to Wake Forest University and the nearby Reynolda Village has some fun shops and restaurants.
There's also the NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem so check community calendars for great performances in the area.
If you prefer more of a small-town feel then there are several cute towns in the area. Mt. Airy is the real-life Mayberry. If you don't want to travel far then check out Walnut Cove (where the park entrance is). Sam's Pizza and River Rock Cafe in Walnut Cove are both recommended by locals. Otherwise check out Bethania and the Muddy Creek Cafe (the pimento sandwich is the best!) On some nights there's live music at the Muddy Creek Cafe, and there are also some art galleries in the attached historic mill.
While you're in the area don't miss the chance to hit up some old country stores! Just Plain Country Store in Walnut Cove is popular and Priddy's General Store is my favorite historic country store with great local produce including honey and jams.
Park website: https://www.ncparks.gov/hanging-rock-state-park