Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hanging Rock State Park - The Tepui of the Piedmont

Actually, I've never been to the high, cliff-bound mesas of Venezuela, and it is incorrect and a gross exaggeration to present the Sauratown Mountains of the North Carolina Piedmont in the same light as those otherworldly sky-islands known as tepuis. But there are indeed some similar traits between those Lost Worlds that are home to the world's highest waterfall and bizarre karst formations, and these more modest, better known heights.

Like those isolated tablelands in South America, the Sauratowns rise up out of the gently rolling Piedmont as disconnected, free-standing mountains known as monadnocks. They are also composed of quartzite, the same type of rock. And while they are far, far lower than the tepui's soaring walls, they have some of the highest cliffs in the Southeast. The best known, most conspicuous of these is Pilot Mountain. Its cliff-bound summit nipple is easily the most famous landmark in the region around Mount Airy, and perhaps in all of North Carolina's Piedmont. But from a hiking point of view, Hanging Rock is even more interesting. The cliffs are higher, some of them around 300'. There are at least five waterfalls, many miles of trails, and several peaks and viewpoints. And Moores Knob has an observation tower. From a peakbagger's perspective, Moores Knob is of particular interest, as it is the Stokes County highpoint at 2,579', a P1K with 1,449' of prominence, and on the Carolina Mountain Club's Lookout Tower Challenge.

I decided to skip the waterfalls this time because I wanted to explore around a bit for some more viewpoints, as well as spend extra time at a couple of favorite hidden spots on the cliffs. It was a frosty morning, so I set a fast pace toward the park's namesake to warm up. Soon enough it was indeed hanging over the trail. On my early visits here, the trail went up a gully with a couple of fun little scrambles. Nothing dangerous or exposed - you just needed your hands in a couple of spots. The remnants of that route are still there, obscured, while a new, less interesting trail sidehills around and switchbacks to gain the top. The Hanging Rock itself is a spectacular, airy spot with great views of much of the park, including Moores Knob and its almost equally impressive outcrop of Indian Rock. The true summit is about 1/4 mile away and off-trail but it too has many clifflines and outcrops with more views. I even found a nice open ledge a few hundred feet down the north side of the mountain that was new to me and probably visited by very few people.

Hanging Rock juts out over the trail.
Moores Knob from ledges just north of the true summit of the Hanging Rock peak. The Hanging Rock itself is just beyond the top of the ridge on the left.
 Continuing on, the trail leads over the summit of Wolf Rock, with nearby views, and then up to House Rock. This is another great spot with a wonderful view back to Hanging Rock. Higher still though, and what I consider the connoisseur's part of the park, are Cooks Wall and Devils Chimney. Fewer people come here but it is every bit as dramatic as anywhere else in the park. Aside from the obvious views, there are other hidden ledges and grottos where you won't likely encounter another soul except the often nearby ravens playing on the thermals. My favorite spot in the whole park is one of these ledges, only about a hundred yards off the trail but hidden by a slightly exposed scramble around the corner of a deep slot in the cliff face. The views of Pilot Mountain and Sauratown Mountain are simply superb! And I'm not telling where it is. The trail ends at a view atop Devils Chimney but, nevertheless, there is an even better view a couple hundred feet west on the ridgeline.

Admiring the view from House Rock.
Awesome views from a hidden off-trail ledge on Cooks Wall include Pilot Mountain and Sauratown Mountain.
 After backtracking about a mile, I dropped down into the valley forming the headwaters of Cascade Creek, then headed up Moore's Knob. The cliffs on the north side are easily the highest and most spectacular in the region but they are not apparent from the trail. Even the summit only gives a hint of how impressive they are. You really need to see them from the lowlands just to the north to truly appreciate them. Very popular with climbers, they contain some of the best routes in North Carolina. There are a few climbers paths along the base of the cliffs and a couple on top as well. One of these faint, inconspicuous paths cuts through the otherwise bloody tangle of greenbrier and leads to a narrow perch with a dramatic view of Pilot Mountain and the nearby Blue Ridge. There isn't much wiggle room though and wrangling around for a better view would be ill advised unless you can fly.There are safer and more expansive views from the observation tower on the summit, as well as the open rock around it.

Indian Rock is a short distance off the main trail but has a great view of Hanging Rock.
 I was feeling pretty satisfied with the day by now, but I had more more spot to check out. In all my visits here, I had never gone to Indian Rock. Seemingly always in a hurry to get back to the vehicle by now, and never quite certain of how to get there or willing to poke around long enough, today it was a goal. After a couple of false starts, I found myself on a faint path that seemed like it was going right to it. It then appeared to dead end on a clifftop within site of my goal. I backtracked a few yards and found an even fainter path that continued the right direction but abruptly ended at an unpleasant looking wall of rhododendron. No doubt I could have crawled and forced my way through it but I wasn't really in the mood for it at this hour. So I went back to the previous overlook for a closer look. Sure enough, a narrow path continued between the edge of the cliff and the rhodos. Then it got a little better and moved away from the edge - though it did become somewhat exposed at one more spot! Half a dozen careful steps and I was past that and on top of the day's new prize with a final rewarding view of Hanging Rock and the day's beginning.

The route of this hike. To see this map larger go here.

Hike Stats:
11.6 miles
3,300' cumulative elevation gain
(including off-trail exploring)

More pictures from this hike

Pictures from other hikes in Hanging Rock State Park:
January 2010
January 2009
September 2008
April 2007

Resources and Contacts:
Hanging Rock State Park Info
Hanging Rock State Park Maps & Directions
gpx file and topo maps 

Trailhead Coordinates:

Google map for trailhead:

Scan QR code to navigate to trailhead with Google maps on your smartphone:

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