Hanging Rock

A careless world treats you badly. It dashes your hopes, batters your family. It treads your feelings underfoot. You suffer wounds, and you need succor.

But these times offer none. Anxiety, to be sure, but a safe place to retreat? Even in your basement — even under your bed — you bathe in cell phone signals, media broadcasts, vibrating electrons carrying news of heat, storm, war, and catastrophe. You live in the wrong century. You need to visit another time, a better time.

So you load your car. You cram it full of bags of groceries and single-bed linens and towels and bathing suits and swimming noodles and hiking boots and books and light-cotton clothes. You strap the kids in, between the guitar and the cooler full of hot dogs and cold cuts and the fishing poles. You slam the trunk down enough times that it finally catches and you begin driving.

And you don’t have to drive far, because Hanging Rock State Park cannot be far from you in North Carolina. It lies near the middle of the state — an hour or so north of Winston-Salem. In the Piedmont, it yet is the mountains; a mountain park, it is yet a river park. It has not just spectacular peaks of quartzite from which you can see the world fall away in all directions, but also waterfalls caroming into sheltered grottos in which to splash and even swim.

It is a place where the regular rules do not apply.

It has 10 vacation cabins rentable weekly for a sum not seen since the 1960s, and one of those cabins has your name on it. These cabins have no televisions and they offer no cell phone reception. Hanging Rock State Park is a place from another time.

•••
Explore one of the triad’s natural treasures. Produced by Our State magazine and UNC-TV, with generous support from BB&T.

Segment originally aired on 1/1/2009.

Actually, Hanging Rock State Park is a place from exactly three other times. And you begin going back to those times the moment you turn onto Hanging Rock Park Road from twisting, curving N.C. Highway 89. The time travel begins, when, on that road, you first glimpse the knob of Hanging Rock itself, an outcrop of quartzite 2,150 feet high — and 175 feet above the base of the crag — some hundreds of millions of years old. Exactly how many millions of years old is a matter of scientific discussion, says acting park superintendent Jason Anthony, who’s worked at the park for a decade and lives in a house here.

“As we learn more, the theories change,” he says about the age of the rock. “So I’m not going to set anything in stone.”

So to speak.

Here’s what happened. Around 540 million years ago, Laurentia, which eventually became North America, was separated from Gondwana, which eventually became South America and Africa, by a sea called Iapetus. The sea had sandy beaches made mostly of quartz, which over time became the sedimentary rock we know as sandstone. Then in the subsequent gajillion years or so — say starting around 450 million years ago and ending around 250 million years ago — Gondwana and Laurentia slammed together several times. Pressure and heat metamorphosed that sandstone into quartzite, turning its layers this way and that as the continents ground together, forming the supercontinent Pangaea, pretty much all the land in the world pushed together.

After that, the continents began their genteel departures, sailing slowly apart to their current locations.

The crunched quartzite and similar deposits all along what is now the Atlantic coast became the Appalachian Mountains — and the Sauratown Range, which are a series of monadnocks, or isolated peaks, almost exclusively in Stokes County.

According to Anthony, Stokes was the answer to a “Jeopardy” question: “Which is the only county in the world to contain an entire mountain range?” But it’s wrong: Pilot Mountain, in Surry County, is also part of the Sauratowns. Named, if you’re wondering, for the Saura Indians, who lived nearby until pressure from both Europeans and other American Indians caused them to leave.

The Sauratowns, like the Appalachians, have been weathering away. The durable quartzite weathers very slowly. Those little white rocks you pick up when you’re hiking? Quartz. The surrounding rocks weather more quickly, leaving the quartzite deposits sticking up in formations like Pilot Mountain’s famous cap — and Hanging Rock.

So when you climb the stone steps to the top of Hanging Rock, and you stand among the stunted pines as the wind carries your breath away and you look at the views all around, you’ve traveled back in time: to 500-some million years ago, when the long-gone ocean deposited the sands that the crunching continents turned into quartzite, which the intervening millennia have exposed.

•••

Your second time travel focuses more locally: you travel back to the 1930s, to the creation of Hanging Rock State Park itself.

Like much of the attractive parts of the United States, the Sauratown Range was mostly privately owned in the 1920s and home to several resorts: Piedmont Springs, Moore’s Springs, and Vade Mecum Springs. These resorts, established in the 1800s, catered especially to wealthy travelers who came for the supposedly healthy mineral waters of Stokes County springs, rich in iron oxide and sulfur.

“They were like Chimney Rock is today,” Anthony says. “High-class resorts.”

One hotel had a circus; the head chef of another became the chef at the White House. A combination of fire and the crashing economy ruined the resorts. A Florida developer bought more than 3,000 of the acres, with plans to turn it into housing.

Anthony smiles: “Thank God for the Depression.”

The developer went belly-up, and the citizens of Stokes County, perhaps farseeing because of their lifelong proximity to those mountaintop crags, petitioned the bank to donate the land. In 1936 Wachovia Bank sold the land to the State of North Carolina for a dollar. But with that deal in the works, in 1935 the federal government stepped in, setting up Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp 3422, where 243 young men lived and worked until 1942 as they built the park. The camp itself lay where the group camping site is now, near the park entrance; it left almost no traces.

What they built, though, still stands, radiating that Depression spirit of do-gooderism. They graded roads. They found a flat spot and quarried rocks of that ancient quartzite to make a beautiful dam on Cascade Creek. Across the tiny resulting lake, they built an enormous bathhouse that you identify as a CCC structure at first glance: rock walls, exposed beams supporting a peaked roof, huge fireplaces.

“And that stuff was built to last,” Anthony says, noting that some of the picnic tables they built — with wooden pegs instead of steel nails, which were valuable during wartime — remain, in picnic shelters at the head of the trail leading from the modern visitor’s center to two of the park’s spectacular waterfalls.

And besides their own camp — they had barracks, an infirmary, even a ball field — they cleared areas for visitor camping. Ten vacation cabins were added in the 1960s.

And that, finally, is where you return to in time when you rent one of those cabins. And that’s what saves you.

It’s as though when you drive through the gate to the park, your minivan magically turns into a 1966 Ford Country Squire, with kids rolling around in the back, dad up front, squinting in a T-shirt, his elbow on the window ledge, as you crunch up the road to the cabin. You stop to register, getting pins — actual pins! — for your bathing suits, giving you admission all week to the bathhouse and the lake.

Then down the drive to the cabins, near enough to the tent camping that you can walk over, but far enough away to create a separate kingdom on its own. All arranged along one side of that little drive, each cabin simple: two pine-paneled bedrooms, each with two single beds; one pine-paneled great room with an eating table, a futon, and a couple of chairs. A screened-in porch. A kitchen with a stove, a fridge, and a couple of cupboards. A tiny bath with the usuals, including a stall shower with a plastic curtain that scrapes along the rod with metal rings. It’s bare-minimum stuff. The kinds of things 21st-century vacationers would never stand for.

Which is why you’re here.

•••

While the adults unload the cars, the kids scramble around in the trees, maybe making their way to the gigantic quartzite boulder at the end of the drive that’s called Pirate’s Rock (although Anthony says he’s also heard it called Preacher’s Rock). The parents throw something together, and at dinner, picnic tables full of kids chomp hot dogs and gnaw corn on the cob. They’ll have that dinner at least four times during the week. Neither cook nor customer complains.

Afterward the kids make s’mores over a fire ring and for the first — but hardly the only — time, parents give a shrug and a desultory swipe and let tired kids with sandy feet just go to bed dirty.

And then evening, and that sweetest of all time-travel devices: no cell phone service. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the north by southern Virginia with no large communities, Hanging Rock gives you no bars. You smile. You put away the phone. You read books. You strum an instrument. You talk to your friends.

Then comes another day — and another. Some days you hike, going to Hanging Rock, with its stone steps and stunted pines on top; or Moore’s Knob, with 360-degree views from its old fire tower; or Cooke’s Wall, spectacular for climbing. Other days you go to waterfalls: Window Falls, with its shower-like crevice. Or the Upper Cascades, which flows into a cleft in the rock creating a pool you can wade in: If you’re there alone, the silence apart from the rushing water feels primordial. Or best, the Lower Cascades, which tumbles 40 feet down a slope to a natural basin the size of a neighborhood pool, waist deep. In midday the sun glitters off the surface, illuminating the grotto above with shimmering, wavering reflections. Later, shadows descend, lending the falls an aura of mystery, no matter how many other families are there.

And every day: the lake. A walk down the trail from the cabin, carrying blanket, towels, money for lunch at the concession stand, where the prices are as much from 1966 as the rest of the experience. Sometimes you take out a rowboat; sometimes you fish, and fortunately the kids get bored before they catch any of the bream or panfish that populate the little lake. But every day the kids splash around, the littler ones by the shore, the bigger ones repeating a routine: climb onto the dock; shiver; stand in line; run down and fling themselves off the diving board; paddle back to the dock; and over and over and over.

You? You read a book. You play with the kids. You stare off into the distance. You lie on the blanket and don’t even stare. Early in the week you wonder what day it is. Later in the week you stop.

•••

At some point you run out of something or don’t feel like cooking. That means a trip out of the park to nearby Danbury, with its cinder-block general store that sells bait and milk and Little Debbie cakes to locals, not trinkets to tourists. Or to the Dan River Family Restaurant. You’re back in the park before the gates close at 9 p.m.

The rental week starts Monday, and on Saturday crowds arrive. By then the lake feels like it’s yours, but you’re willing to share. The busy weekend begins to shake off your hard-earned torpor, and Sunday afternoon you banish the kids to one last frolic at Pirate’s Rock while you stuff, pack, and sweep. At some point you have to slam that trunk again, drop off the swim pins, turn the Country Squire back into a minivan. On the way back down the mountain you see in your mirror that quartzite crag, reminding you: 500 million years ago. A few generations ago. A few decades ago. Your bars return, and your phone beeps. And even if Anthony is right — he says he’s heard someone is planning a cell phone tower north of the park — you know. Hanging Rock State Park isn’t going anywhere.

There will always be another time.

Hanging Rock State Park
1790 Hanging Rock Park Road
Danbury, N.C. 27016
(336) 593-8480

This story was published on

Huler is a freelance writer based in Raleigh and a Piedmont Laureate Emeritus. He has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Los Angeles Times and magazines including Backpacker, Fortune, and Child. His award-winning radio work has been heard on "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day" on National Public Radio and on "Marketplace" and "Splendid Table" on American Public Media, and he sometimes serves as guest host on "The State of Things" on WUNC-FM. He is the author of six books, most recently On the Grid.

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