How's it Hangin'?
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
I got my love of the outdoors from my mom. She was the biggest encourager of my journey to Eagle Scout, which included prepping me for numerous summer camps and overnights, and from her I inherited my thirst for adventure along with the emotional renewal I receive when spending time in nature. With my parents recent move to Hillsborough, their proximity meant that we could enjoy activities together with a lot less advance planning, including the occasional day hike. So when Mother's Day rolled around last year, I suggested an outing to a North Carolina icon that I had visited twice before but would be a first for her: Hanging Rock.
The Sauratown Mountains are the coolest mountains you've never heard of. They span Stokes and Surry Counties north of Winston-Salem and are named after the Saura Indians, a Native American tribe that lived in and left the area before European settlers arrived in the 1700s. The popular Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock are two of Sauratown's twelve peaks, which range from just over 1,300 feet to just under 2,600 feet in elevation. And in case you're wondering how that compares to North Carolina's largest mountain town, that's 500 feet higher than Asheville (a local bragging right), which sits at around 2,100 feet.
The exposed rocks in the Sauratown are formed primarily of the extremely hard and erosion resistant quartzite, which makes the fact that the Civilian Conservation Corps built most of Hanging Rock State Park's infrastructure in the 1930s even more impressive. Remnants of CCC camps can be found near the dam they built here as well as in many other parks around the state. Basically, this park was built to last, and with a lake beachfront, a boathouse, 10 cabins, over 70 campsites and numerous miles of biking and hiking trails, it's no wonder it can average well over 600,000 visitors a year. I've been on a day that certainly helped the park reach that number, when there were literally busloads of kids on the trail. It's something to be aware of if you're thinking of visiting in the summertime peak season. Thankfully, Mother's Day 2020 was not one of those days. The parking lot was barely half full, and the weather was just chilly enough to require a long sleeve layer in the morning you could shed by the time it reached 70 around noon. In other words, this day had the makings of a perfect springtime hike.
Mom and I arrived mid-morning and made a beeline for the trail's namesake. Although Hanging Rock is the defining rock formation of the park, it is not its highest. That claim rests with Moore's Knob, which has an old fire tower you can climb for a 360 degree view of the area. It's worth the hike, but it's a a nearly 5-mile loop in the opposite direction and is much more strenuous. I've done it with my good friends Chris and Melody (and Jackson, of course), but on a subsequent trip we discovered the coolest lesser known trail in the park: Wolf Rock. For this adventure, I planned to take Mom there, too.
The first mile of Hanging Rock Trail was a microcosm of my experience at several state parks. This popular trail starts out paved for the first several hundred yards, and some visitors jump out of their car ill-prepared for a miles-long, uphill hike. We passed a number of slower families without water and checked on a few elderly individuals who found a bench to catch their breath. I'm a big believer that everyone should enjoy the great outdoors as they are able, but it's important to always prepare before any adventure. It's also vital to know one's limits, so I told mom part of my Mother's Day gift was to test hers!
The trail is a fairly steady climb the entire way, but it increases dramatically as you approach the last 500 feet before the summit. It can also narrow in some areas, and with two-way traffic, you'll have to step off the path more than once to avoid the early birds already heading downhill. This hike also has a bit of shock value in terms of change of landscape if you're visiting from the south or east. It doesn't feel like you drove far enough to reach the mountains, but there's no doubt you're there, as deep breaths are harder to come by and the terrain is noticeably rocky. Although the distance from the parking lot is under two miles, prepare for an hour to get there because of the decently high grade of the slope.
Just about the time you start to think this hike is longer than you planned, you'll reach the summit. The top of Hanging Rock is divided into three areas: an open rock face where the trail ends, a lower area to the left where you can actually walk out onto the famous rock, and an area to the right that invites exploration as you move around and slightly down from the north side.
- Map Link
- Distance: 8.14 miles
- Rating: Moderate
- Time: 4 hours
From the top you'll want to take in the terrific view of Moore's Knob as well as much of the tree-filled landscape you can see below by carefully creeping toward the edges of the rockface. After our obligatory pictures on the peak, Mom and I started exploring the area to the north, which took us away from the crowds but also was definitely not an official path. That meant we had to get a bit creative by climbing on top of a couple of boulders to make it back to the trail before starting our descent, and a few picnickers received a surprise when we crawled over the edge of their supposedly remote view. Once back on the trail, however, we were soon at the point where the Hanging Rock and Wolf Rock paths diverged, and as expected, the vast majority of hikers turned right to head back to their cars. We, of course, took the Robert Frost approach, which I almost always recommend. Just make sure that "road" is marked.
Wolf Rock Trail follows the Cole Mountain Ridge through the woods for about 3/4 of a mile before it starts opening up, and wow does it ever. Chimney-like rock formations dot the ridge to the south, and many are ripe for exploration, both at their base and on their pinnacle. But although the up close geography (and careful bouldering if you're up for it) is enough to get your adrenaline pumping, it's Wolf Rock that is the real prize. Not only can you approach the southern edge/vertical drop-off of the Sauratown Mountains, but on a clear day you can also a see a magnificent view of the Greensboro and Winston-Salem skylines, along with the Uwharrie Mountains some 60+ miles away. It's a rare combination of the wild and and the tame, the urban and the rural, and we soaked it all in, along with the warm rays of the midday sun, while enjoying our lunch.
Mom and I made sure we were renourished and hydrated, but I didn't let us get too comfortable, as we needed enough energy for the next 1.5 mile leg of the hike on our way to Cook's Wall and eventually Devil's Chimney. This marks the southwestern edge of the park, and from here you can look west to see the smaller, double peaked and privately owned Sauratown Mountain, the iconic Pilot Mountain 10 miles farther and over 50 miles away the beginning of the noticeably "Blue" Ridge Mountains, including Stone Mountain State Park. It's a sight to behold and usually an intimate one with the hiker and nature, as here at the trail's end you have almost always wandered away from the pack.
By this point in the hike, you're realizing this was a commitment, just like you're feeling if you made it this far in the blog post. However, you'll be back to your car in just under 3 miles and on to your next webpage in just under 30 seconds. The trail to the parking lot will take you alongside a stream for a good portion of the remainder of the hike, through a surprisingly dense tree canopy, as well as a slightly (and annoyingly) short uphill trek past the manmade lake, boathouse and old CCC camp. You'll cross a portion of the famous Mountains-to-Sea Trail, too, which is always fun and reminds you that you're experiencing such a small part of an incredible network of exploration.
When we reached the parking lot, Mom felt a deserved sense of accomplishment, and I was thrilled to have shared such a unique experience with a person who truly shared in the soulful joy it brings. This is a hike and park that will never get old, and you can take your friends or kids (or parents) here again and again. Just be sure to pack enough food and water!
Want to fully experience the Sauratown Mountains? Sign up for the Trailblaze Challenge, a one-day, 26.5 mile hike from Hanging Rock to Pilot Mountain that supports the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Pick up some grits made the old fashioned way at The Old Mill of Guilford. Located just north of Greensboro, this mill has produced stone-ground corn since 1767. Personally, I opt for the buttermilk pancake mix.