North Carolina county #17 Hanging Rock State Park
I arrived at Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County just after noon, having visited Mayo River State Park in the morning. Hanging Rock State Park has a much more extensive trail system with many areas to choose from. I didn’t really know much about this site when I arrived but I realize now it is a fairly popular destination. I did remember reading about some people watching the Raptor migration there in the fall, so I knew there was a spot with a rock that was high up – that’s about it.
Looking at the trail list, I chose Hanging Rock Trail. I figured it was the “main trail” since it had the same name as the park, and it didn’t say it was strenuous – only moderate and 1.3 miles. Perfect to check out a view and then see what other trails I could hit.
Well, I don’t know who decided it was moderate, and I will be sure to keep away from any trails that are listed as strenuous. I am not in great shape and this trail turned out to be a bit more than I had expected. Basically, you are walking up a short mountain. I almost turned back a short while in because I got to thinking that I am not going to be able to do much bird watching if I am carrying a 600mm lens and a full pack up a mountain (I bring a pack with me when birding alone because I switch lenses and carry assorted items I may want to use or try). But I was there and didn’t know if or when I would get back, so I decided to go for it.
There are actually many views from the top, as you can walk all around the top of this giant rock. It is really a beautiful spot. What you can’t see in the picture is the constant 30 mph winds, with some gusts much stronger. When not sheltered by rocks or trees, it was somewhat difficult to stay up there due to the cold wind constantly blasting you.
I am not sure if it is always like that, because it was a very windy day in general. Even at the parking lot, it was fairly windy, but it didn’t really get crazy until you reach the main ridge leading to the Hanging Rock.
It takes a good bit of ascent to get to that ridge, but it is all either paved or packed dirt. Once I got there, I thought I was pretty close but it’s really only about half way. The wind here was severe.
Here I had reached the base of the rock and thought, “Is this it? I get to look at the rock? They can’t expect me to climb up there.” But they did.
The path winds around the side of the rock and you begin to ascend what was probably once relatively neat granite stairs (each “step” is about 12-18 inches) but now is interspersed with rubble so it feels almost like you are climbing through rocks at times. You don’t really need to climb of course, and my 20-year-old self would be laughing at me for having trouble with this at all, but he doesn’t even know what a Goldfinch looks like so who cares what he thinks?
Actually, the best part about reaching this spot in the climb is that the wind stopped, completely. It was very calm and I actually took the opportunity to sit down and rest out of the wind. It was very quiet and still, and I felt my heartbeat slow. Then I had one of those excellent moments you sometimes have in nature, when you are just enjoying the serenity and something memorable happens. In this case, it was a Cooper’s Hawk, that silently glided from left to right, as I looked out from the path. The path has a steep drop off and the hawk was below me. It was a nice moment.
Actually, after it flew by, I was troubled by the bird. It had an all dark back, which made me think Merlin at first, but the banding on the tail was very wide, it seemed too big and they are rare at this spot according to ebird. Upon reflection, the back was gray and combined with the wide tail banding meant male adult Accipiter. I have not identified a Sharp-shinned Hawk yet but someone once told me that one could fit in a Pringles can. This seemed too large for that so I defaulted to Cooper’s Hawk. I also noted that the head projected past the wings which is more consistent with Cooper’s. The thing that bothers me though is that I did not notice a lighter color nape which Cooper’s Hawk would have. Perhaps I just didn’t notice it. I definitely don’t want to write down a life bird when I am this shaky on identification, and the view pretty much fit with Cooper’s Hawk.
Anyway, I made it to the top and enjoyed the view for a bit before descending. This must be a fairly busy area since I encountered at least 6 groups of 2-4 people each on my way up and down, and it was a very windy, cold, working day Thursday. Due in large part to the wind and time of year, there were hardly any birds. I did get a quick shot of a Tufted Titmouse on my way out though.
Since I had so few birds on my list, I actually was going to go down another trail, despite being fairly worn out. I chose one that said “easy” and was only 0.4 miles. However, after descending rapidly for the first quarter-mile I decided the path rankers around there are nuts and I turned back, only having seen a few Dark-eyed Juncos.
Overall, a very memorable trip despite the wind and cold. This place definitely warrants more exploration. I might visit again in another season, and bring the family.