One of my favorite hikes in North Carolina is the Five Peaks Loop which takes you on the grand tour of Hanging Rock State Park. If I have friends who want advice on a good day hike not too far from the Triangle, usually this is my first suggestion. Hanging Rock State Park encompasses the bulk of the Sauratown Mountains – a small, ancient range running east-west in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Although the tallest of the Sauratown Mountains, Moore’s Knob, only reaches 2,579 feet these mountains rise over 1,000 feet above the surrounding countryside. This hike is nicknamed the Five Peaks Loop because it crosses all five named rocks and mountains with fantastic views in the central district of the park. Starting from the visitor center, you can take this hike clockwise or counterclockwise. I chose to head to Hanging Rock first, the most popular view in the park. From there the trail heads west towards Wolf Rock and then a short out-and-back to House Rock and Cook’s Wall. The loop continues north ascending steeply up Huckleberry Ridge to the phenomenal views from the Moore’s Knob observation tower, before the finish wrapping around Hanging Rock Lake on your return to the visitor center.
Max elevation: 2579 ft
Min elevation: 1562 ft
Total Time: 05:06:00
From Danbury, NC take NC-8/NC-89 northwest for 1.6-mi and turn left onto Hanging Rock Park Rd. Drive 3.3-mi into the state park and turn left at the visitor center. The Hanging Rock Trail begins on the far left side of the parking lot. You can also start this hike at the upper parking lot beside Hanging Rock Lake. We decided to start at the visitor center to take advantage of their nice bathrooms and pick up a map. Normally I would advise to park at the lake and hike this loop counterclockwise because the lighting will be better earlier in the day at Moore’s Knob and Cook’s Wall for photographs. However, it was a beautiful and sunny Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the parking lot was already buzzing. I thought going clockwise towards Hanging Rock would be best because the crowds would worsen later in the afternoon. We started up the Hanging Rock Trail (orange circle blaze) which is a wide paved path for a few hundred yards, then it transitions to a gravel road. This trail gets a lot of traffic so the trail design is necessary to combat erosion. This path is surprisingly steep because it climbs straight up the ridge instead of switchbacking. Many a casual tourist are spotted here huffing and puffing and taking occasional breaks on benches. At mile 0.6 you will pass an intersection with the Wolf Rock Trail and continue east on a 1.5 mile out-and-back to Hanging Rock. From here you’ll attain a small hill with views through the trees of Hanging Rock.
The trail emerges from the trees below Hanging Rock and you’ll be treated to impressive views of the outcrop sticking out like a finger high above the path. You can’t see people at the top but you can certainly hear them. As the trail passes below the rock it climbs the south side of the cliff earnestly on many stairs – both rock and wood. The trail on the state park map is shown incorrectly – the trail climbs the east side of Hanging Rock Mountain beyond the namesake outcrop before looping back around west on the top of the ridge. The ridge narrows as you head further west, with inviting side paths to cliffs on the north side. The trail ends at Hanging Rock, a vast series of outcrops arching high above the surroundings. You can see the visitor center and Hanging Rock Lake 400 feet below. These almost white quartzite cliffs are jagged and provide great photo opportunities as long as you are careful. The occasional stunted pine sprinkles the tops of the rocks. Arguably the most impressive view is due west where you can see the Sauratown Mountains circling the park’s interior, a ring which you will hike in the next few hours. The observation tower on Moore’s Knob is visible in the distance.
Turn around and head back down the trail towards the intersection with the Wolf Rock Trail (blue triangle blaze). This trail is a pleasant change since it is a single-file dirt path through the forest. It is also much quieter in this area since most people visit the park to see Hanging Rock and some of the waterfalls. The Wolf Rock Trail gradually climbs a ridge that connects Hanging Rock Mountain to Cook’s Wall Mountain. At mile you’ll see a sign indicating Wolf Rock on a short side trail to the left. While unassuming at first glance from the trail, Wolf Rock is a large series of rocks with expansive views to the south. Looking west you can see a small cliff on the side of Cook’s Wall Mountain, this is House Rock, the next destination. Wolf Rock seems almost as big as Hanging Rock but the true vastness of these outcrops is partially obscured by trees.
Shortly after Wolf Rock the trail drops into Wolf Gap and meets the Cook’s Wall Trail (white diamond blaze) coming in from the right. Continue straight on the Cook’s Wall Trail towards House Rock. At mile 3.6 you reach the Magnolia Springs Trail on the right, this will be your trail to continue the loop after visiting Cook’s Wall. The out-and-back to the end of the Cook’s Wall Trail is 2 miles total. Start climbing through a denser forest and pass by House Rock 0.3-mi after the Magnolia Springs junction. We skipped House Rock initially since we were planning on lunch at Cook’s Wall. The trail turns north and begins climbing towards the summit of Cook’s Wall Mountain. As you reach the crest you’ll notice the views open up on the left side, but these cliffs are not heavily visited and are not the main attraction. You will drop briefly into Cool Gap, take notice of the climber’s path on the left leading to an impressive cleft between two cliffs. This area is fun to explore but potentially dangerous as there is not much room to walk along the rocks which boast 100+ foot drops. Beyond Cool Gap the trail begins climbing through an unusual forest with little to no brush. Instead the ground is carpeted with grass, this is an inviting picnic or nap spot. At the far end of this meadow the trail ends at Devil’s Chimney, the northern point on Cook’s Wall Mountain. In front of you is a big rock with views of Huckleberry Ridge leading to Moore’s Knob. This isn’t the best viewpoint however since trees block views on 3 sides. On the left side of the trail is a cliff overlooking Sauratown Mountain and Pilot Mountain in the west. It was a great spot for lunch as we sat down and enjoyed the panoramic views of the ancient Sauratown Mountains.
On our way back we stopped by House Rock, which is another expansive outcrop but differs immensely because this series of rocks are almost flat. This is one of the best spots to bring your family and enjoy views while eating lunch. There are a lot more pine trees on House Rock compared to the other peaks in the park. I love small pines gnarled by abusive weather, and House Rock contains an exceptional amount of interesting trees. It also has an excellent view Hanging Rock’s tall and wide cliffs. When you reach the Magnolia Springs Trail (blue square blaze), turn left heading steeply downhill. You’ll come across a spur trail on the right to Magnolia Springs, although I’ve never taken this spur so I’m not confident what it is for. I assume it leads to a natural spring. At the bottom of the saddle between Cook’s Wall and Moore’s Knob you’ll intersect with the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail (red circle blaze). Go left to begin the long climb to Moore’s Knob or go right towards Hanging Rock Lake to shorten the hike.
At Huckleberry Gap the loop trail intersects with the Tory’s Den Trail (blue circle blaze) and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) (white circle blaze). Go right following the MST in combination with the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail which climbs steeply up Huckleberry Ridge. The Moore’s Wall Loop Trail is one of the longest and most difficult trails in the park. Usually hikers only take the northern section of the loop trail to Moore’s Knob because it is shorter, so this section of the trail is more remote. It climbs directly up the ridge over many rocks and roots, and you’ll enter hardwood and rhododendron forests that feel more at home in the taller Blue Ridge Mountains. You may think the climbing is over once you reach the top of the ridge, but it is only a false summit and the tower is visible through the trees mile away. During the final push to the top you’ll pass through a thick rhododendron patch which blooms brilliantly in May, much earlier than Catawba rhododendron blooms in the mountains. There are also some wonderful rock formations on each side of the trail worth exploring, some are very popular with climbers.
The summit of Moore’s Knob (2,579 feet) is adorned with a stone observation tower approximately 18 feet high. This tower was originally built in 1938 and remodeled in its current form in 1951. You can get excellent 180º views from the cliffs on the northwest side of the summit but the tower affords incredible 360º views. From here you can roughly trace your loop hike starting at the visitor center almost 900 feet below. Moore’s Knob is the tallest peak in the Sauratown Mountains, so everything in the state park plus Sauratown Mountain and Pilot Mountain in the west are dwarfed from the tower vantage point. The cliffs on the northwest side are nearly 500 feet high and Moore’s Knob rises more than 1,500 feet above the countryside. The dropoff is startling, it truly provides that top-of-the-world feeling. On clear days such as this one you can see the dominant Blue Ridge escarpment approximately 40-50 miles away as a line across the west-to-north horizon. We had already eaten lunch so we spent about 20 minutes taking pictures and enjoying the views before heading down. The summit was surprisingly crowded. I’ve been here all alone in the past so the crowds of people in January seemed unusual.
The northern section of the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail turns south heading down the east side of the mountain. This part of the trail is steep and frequently used and thus is a wide, well-maintained trail of primarily gravel. Most of the descent is aided by large man-made steps. One of the reasons I prefer going this direction is because I’d much rather go down these steps than up, and it is easy to hike or even run down quickly. At the bottom of the descent the trail rock hops across West Fork Cascade Creek and enters the family campgrounds area. Briefly follow the road before turning left and descend towards Hanging Rock Lake. This drainage basin is cloaked in thick rhododendron, it feels like a temperate jungle. The loop trail crosses East Fork Cascade Creek and intersects with multiple trails all coming in from the right. Continue on the trail closely following the lake and you’ll be fine. As you approach the boat house the Moore’s Wall Loop Trail officially ends and peters out into many walkways, stay left between the lake and the parking lot. Soon you’ll approach a fishing pier which provides a nice spot to enjoy the views of Hanging Rock Lake, although the sun was shining directly over Huckleberry Gap into our faces. You can spot the Moore’s Knob observation tower rising 890 feet over the lake.
Continue following the MST beyond the pier. It will cross the state park road and take you back to the visitor center parking lot. Even though this loop is just over 10 miles long it doesn’t take a full day or a ton of energy to complete. Despite the crowds, it is a great hike at any time of the year. There are endless opportunities to explore the cliffs, you can pick and choose which peaks are the most enticing. After our hike we decided to stop by Lower Cascade Falls on the way out, by far the prettiest waterfall in the state park. At the visitor center you also have the option of taking an easy stroll to Upper Cascade Falls or a longer hike to Window Falls. Both waterfalls are better when there’s been a lot of precipitation. If you live in the Piedmont of North Carolina I highly recommend visiting Hanging Rock State Park for all of its amazing attractions.
Afterwards we stopped by Lower Cascade Falls, the best waterfall in the state park. Click the link to read more about the short and easy hike to the falls.