Living in central North Carolina, a day trip to the beach is easily managed – the southern coast is only two hours away, a straight shot across I-40. As much as I love the beach, though, my kids like to change it up a bit with a trip to the mountains, but that’s not as easy an endeavor. To get there, one must travel some five hours west toward the Blue Ridge mountains, gradually climbing the Appalachian mountain range where the elevation rises to over 6,000 feet.
Fortunately, there are plenty of spots in-between that offer mountain-like topography and views and are just as nice if you don’t have a whole weekend to spend or don’t want to travel quite so far. Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County is a nice, quick trip that’s only about two and a half hours north west of Raleigh, in the Sauratown mountain range, which offers plenty of great views from elevations that reach 2,500 feet.
I went with the family in late October, 2016, after having gotten a late start on a random Sunday when we wanted nothing to do with household chores and simply wanted to get away. From Raleigh, you take I-40 west toward Greensboro and Winston-Salem and at some point just past Greensboro, leave the highway to meander northward along winding country roads.
The topography west of Raleigh can best be described as undulating. While the capital city sits right at the edge of the state’s coastal plain and is flatter and, in my opinion, less scenic, the land becomes more mountainous as you head further into the Piedmont region. The area reminds me more of the northern countryside in my native state of Maryland, and it’s not uncommon to see more expansive views of the countryside as you round each corner and houses are nestled on hillsides. It’s a beautiful area that I tend to prefer, but having some sort of GPS is extremely helpful in finding your way once you leave the highway, as there really are no main, straight roads that take you to where you’re going.
I’d also recommend bringing lunch, or eating before you leave I-40, because the only restaurant we came across once we left the highway was a Bojangles about two miles outside of the park, and truly, we were super glad to come across it when we did, as we fully prepared for our trip by pre-packing absolutely no food or water.
The park comprises 24 acres near Danbury, North Carolina, and features 18 miles of hiking trails. We didn’t get there until after noon and the ranger at the information desk recommended we start with the 1.3 mile Hanging Rock trail, since it leads to the park’s namesake – a large rock outcropping that seems to hang precariously over the tree line below. It’s actually a fairly strenuous vertical hike that gets steeper as you go, with plenty of man-made stone steps along narrow pathways that require sure footing and patience on a busy day, as the speed in which you’re able to ascend is directly related to the number of people ahead of you and their particular athletic prowess.
When you finally reach the top, it’s not like you have to climb a rock face to get to the view. It’s just sort of there, but when you make your way out to the rock outcropping, it’s pretty breathtaking. And nerve-wracking. Apparently I have a bad case of acrophobia causing me to nearly dissolved into tears every time anyone got anywhere close to the edge. Seriously – there were a lot of people wandering around and they just did not seem to appreciate the inherent danger that the top presented and though sometimes what seemed to be someone precariously close to the edge was really just an optical illusion, I was certain – CERTAIN – someone was going to go over before the day was out. They didn’t, but a quick Google search reveals that it’s happened in the past. So, be warned – if you go with little ones, or even older kids, keep an eye on them.
We spent a good hour at the top before making our way back down and, once at the bottom, we had enough time to take a quick trail over to the bottom of a waterfall before heading back to our car.
We plan on returning for a longer weekend trip in the future. The park offers 10 cabins, 73 campsites, a 12 acre lake and plenty to do with about 20 trails to explore, as well as rock climbing, swimming, boating, fishing and mountain biking. And if that’s not enough to keep us occupied, there’s also Mt. Airy and Pilot Mountain just to the west, worth noting as the fictional setting of Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show in case we’re feeling particularly nostalgic and folksy.
Either way, we look forward to “hanging around” Hanging Rock again soon!