Sunday, July 20, 2014

Beach in the Mountains: Another Look at Hanging Rock State Park

At the end of June, I took my three kids, ages 6, 4, and 2, camping for three nights at Hanging Rock State Park, described a few years ago in a Stir Crazy Moms post:  While this state park is well known for its technical climbs and its accessible waterfalls, this trip’s unexpected find was a lake-front beach experience with boating and water play.  Situated in the middle of a great mountain getaway, the water and sand make the park worthy of yet another look.

What it is: Hanging Rock State Park is located a little over two hours from Durham, near the Virginia border just outside Danbury, North Carolina.  The campground features all the typical amenities of a state park:  gravel tent pads, fire pits with grates, solid picnic tables, and plenty of mature tree cover for hanging tarps, clotheslines, or hammocks.  A central bathhouse has hot showers and large, exterior dish-washing sinks, also piped with hot water.  I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively high number of tents, as opposed to just RVs and pop-ups, around the loops, and sites were large enough that some sense of privacy was preserved (but choose carefully as some sites include trash dumpsters).  The campground hosts had firewood for sale, and the facilities personnel kept the bathhouse in decent condition each day. Reservations are a must:  the campground sells out regularly, and the available cabins, extremely popular with those looking for a slightly less rustic stay, are often booked far in advance.  Like many state park campgrounds, gates lock at 9 p.m., so campers can’t waffle on their decision to stay late at night. 

The kids and I hiked to the three waterfalls described in the previous Stir Crazy Moms post, Upper Cascades, Window Falls, and Hidden Falls.  At each of the falls, the kids took off their shoes and waded and splashed around.  All three falls afforded opportunities for the kids to climb and explore, although how much one might want to encourage this depends on the kids’ sure-footedness and experience around waterfalls and cliffs.

We spent quite a bit of time at Hanging Rock’s lake, which features boat rentals, swimming, and a sandy beachfront for playing.  Usage fees are surprisingly reasonable.  Canoes and row boats can be rented by the hour, with life jackets supplied.  That timing works out well, as it took us just about one hour to explore the full perimeter of the lake in a rowboat, with lots of rowing “assistance” from my kids. The beachfront features a large expanse of sand, where visitors decamp with their beach chairs, towels, and toys as if they were on the coast. 

The lake’s swimming area is quite large and roped off, with life guards stationed all along it.  A diving platform (with lifeguard attendant) is anchored near the middle of the lake, which provided terrific fun for my oldest, along with many of the teens and adults who were there.  The lake also boasts a robust salamander population, and many of the kids entertained themselves catching, releasing, and building sandcastle moats for the creatures.  A fishing pier juts out into the lake for both its named purpose and pleasant walking. The lake’s bathhouse has a snack bar, with a menu including ice cream bars, soda, and pre-packaged sandwiches. It also is the only source of bagged ice in the park for campers who need to restock coolers.

Although the sandy beach covered in sunbathing vacationers felt a bit artificial tucked into that particular mountain environ, the cool water and overall entertainment factor outweighed that oddity in my perception, and made it the perfect combination water-play and hiking getaway. 

The park also features several different day-use areas, with literally hundreds of picnic tables, shelters, grills, and more, and on the weekend, most of the areas were booked solid with family parties, reunions, and picnicking friends. 

Hanging Rock’s elevation is not high enough to completely escape the summer heat we face in the Triangle, but it is high enough (the park’s peaks rise to just over 2,500 feet) to drop the temperatures noticeably and provide some pleasant relief.

And, as noted in the previous blog write-up, finding the park is not intuitive. Print out good directions before going, as there is little cell coverage for folks using a phone for directions (my kids actually got to see me navigate with a paper map!). 

All told, we thoroughly enjoyed our camping trip that combined mountain views and kid-friendly hiking with waterfront fun.

What we liked:  Swimming and boat rental, beachfront water play; reasonable prices for facility usage and concessions; kid-accessible hiking trails to scenic waterfalls; user-friendly campground.

What we would change: On the weekend, the park was extremely crowded:  the campground was sold out and the lakefront packed.  The weekday part of our trip, however, was a delight, and I will try to avoid weekends in the future!  Also, the camping experience could be improved with better availability of firewood (the campground ran out after the busy weekend) and more accessible ice purchases for campers.

Website and other important information:

Swimming fee:  $5/day ($4 for kids ages 3-12)
Boat rental:  $5/hour
Concession price samples:  $2 for 8 lb bag of ice; $1-$1.50 for ice cream bars
Firewood bundle:  $5
Campsites:  $20 per night

Address: 1790 Hanging Rock Park Road, Danbury, NC 27016-7417

November - February, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.
March, April, September and October 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.
May - August, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Camping and cabin guests must arrive prior to closing the hour, after which the park gate is closed for the night.
The park is closed Christmas Day.


(campsite in the campground, with our tent and a picnic shelter pitched)

(catching salamanders in the lake)

(the diving platform in the middle of the lake)

(sandy beach at the lake)

(Window Falls)

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