I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in Jim Plant when, during my interrogation of his intimate knowledge of Hanging Rock State Park, he said, “But then, I prefer to go off-trail.” Jim and fellow Friends of the Sauratown Mountains members Regina Rollins and Sarah Werner were standing on a rock outcrop with GetHiking!’s Alison Watta and me, surveying a vast stretch of undeveloped land in the 7,000-acre state park north of the Triad.
That we were standing atop a rock outcrop at Hanging Rock wasn’t unusual: Moore’s Knob, Wolf Rock, Cook’s Wall, House Rock, the namesake Hanging Rock — the park is peaked with nubby knobs of stubborn quartzite that have withstood aeons of erosive wear. It’s high point, 2,579-foot Moore’s Knob, stands nearly 1,800 feet above the surrounding Piedmont countryside.
What was unusual was that we were alone on this unnamed summit. There were no hikers, no picnickers, no school groups, and it could be a week or longer before anyone would be here again. One of the reasons Jim likes a good off-trail escape.
Winter Wild adventures
In December, we started our Winter Wild series of off-trail adventures to take hikers to places they know to explore the parts they don’t. In this particular case, I’d long been intrigued by the path not taken atop Hanging Rock ridge. If you’ve even visited Hanging Rock State Park just once, you’ve no doubt taken the 1.3-mile trail to the park’s namesake outcrop. It’s something of a pilgrimage for even the least outdoorsy Piedmont resident: climb Hanging Rock and you’ve got at least one classic adventure you can toss into conversation. Even on a not particularly nice day, you’ll see a steady stream of humanity on this trail making their way to the top.
To reach the section of untamed Hanging Rock that Jim, Regina and Sarah were taking us, we had to start on the very tame (the first part is paved) Hanging Rock Trail. We were on it for a mile, until we reached the ridge and the park-sanctioned trail turned west, to Hanging Rock itself, just three-tenths-of-a-mile away. Hanging Rock anchors the west end of this ridge; to the east of where we stood, the ridge runs more than two-and-a-half miles — two-and-a-half miles of untrammeled terrain that starts with The Keyhole and some moderately challenging scrambling, mellows and drops into a gap, then rises again, passing over the Three Sisters and eventually to Sheep Rock and the end of the line. At this critical junction, Jim pointed to the faintest of footpaths heading east: “This way.”
I’ve taken Hanging Rock Trail a dozen times, and the 280-degree views from Hanging Rock explain its popularity. Moore’s Knob and the Sauratown Mountain range all the way to Pilot Mountain to the west, the Blue Ridge mountains beyond that and arcing north into Virginia. On a clear day, you can see downtown Winston-Salem to the southwest. Sit, gaze, and try not to be distracted by the hordes of selfie enthusiasts more enraptured with a sight they see every morning in the mirror.
Rugged, pristine, quiet
What’s it like headed east? Rugged. Stark. Pristine. Quiet. And with even more expansive views.
We only went as far as the gap (and a little lower down the mountain, to the remains of a two-engine plane that crashed in 1963). Hiking off-trail in winter has a slew of advantages: few bugs, less brush to battle through and obstruct your vision, the cold to keep you moving. The one downside: less sunlight. The Sisters and Sheep Rock would have to wait.
But not this particular hike, at least not for long. We’re returning this Saturday with our GetHiking! Winter Wild hikers to recreate our journey with Jim, Regina and Sarah. Watch the included video from that trip. If you come away feeling like Jim, that you, too, would prefer to go off-trail, you’re welcome to join us.
We have a handful of spots remaining for Saturday’s Winter Wild Hike to Hanging Rock. Learn more about the trip and sign up to join us, here.