Off the Beaten Path in the Northern Piedmont

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Hanging Rock State Park

When summertime travelers contemplate an excursion to North Carolina, they often feel bound by two choices: the coast or the mountains.

But a beautifully untapped portion of the Old North State, neither east nor west, offers a variety of options for the adventure seeker – from hiking to waterfall-seeking to vineyard-hopping to floating down a river.

“Adventure lovers who know North Carolina for the western mountains and untamed coast are always thrilled when they discover the middle,” says Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina. “In the northern Piedmont, they find stunning landforms that are remnants of the ancient Sauratown Mountains – specifically Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock. With the Dan River, the Yadkin and the Haw, there are boundless opportunities to get the adrenaline pumping.”

Why not plan a weekend getaway to the northern Piedmont filled with hiking, time on the water, a little ziplining and a touch of quaint shopping?

Hanging Rock State Park

Take a Hike

Visitors in the mood for hiking unspoiled trails with plenty of waterfalls and mountain views should put a trip to Hanging Rock State Park and Pilot Mountain at the top of their to-do list.

Joe Miller is the author of many guidebooks, including Adventure Carolinas. A Colorado native who has lived in the Triangle region since 1992, he explains that Hanging Rock State Park and Pilot Mountain are both anchored by the ancient Sauratown Mountain range, which was used as a lookout by its earliest inhabitants.

“The two mountains are linked by the 25-mile Sauratown Trail, part of the statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail,” he says. “Though the weathered Sauratowns only top out today at around 2,600 feet, that’s still 1,700 feet above the surrounding countryside, offering hikers an Appalachian experience in the Piedmont.”

Hanging Rock State Park

Asheville native Sheley Revis works as a general internist in Charlotte and has been hiking voraciously since she rescued an energetic Australian shepherd during her internal medicine residency some 20-odd years ago. She enjoys exploring Hanging Rock State Park and competed in the Reach The Peaks Hiking Challenge in the fall of 2014.

“Hiking serves many purposes for me,” Revis says. “It’s a great way to exercise and spend time with my dogs. It’s a great way to satisfy my wanderlust to learn about/see new places, and a way to put into practice my love of photography. It’s also a great way to decompress from the demands of my chosen profession, and slow down and truly see the world around me.”
Revis describes the area as “gorgeous, untouched nature in all her glory.”

She adds, “The immediate area around the park remains mostly undeveloped or minimally developed, so many of the views from the peaks are quite bucolic. I’m a history buff, and one thing I loved about this park was knowing just how many of its beautiful features were made by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s by men of my grandfather’s generation.”

Hanging Rock State Park

Test the Waters

If you are looking for an excursion on the water, consider the 6.5-mile Preserve and Park Run Trip offered by the Dan River Company, in Danbury. Miller describes it as “the perfect river paddle [that] combines idyllic scenery with a dash of friskiness.”

According to Miller, the remote float includes a 6-mile stretch through the 1,000-acre Hammer-Stern Wilderness Preserve, complete with rock outcrops and pristine views that feel reminiscent of higher elevation climbs.

“When you’ve paddled through the preserve, you won’t even notice because you’ll be floating the equally pristine northern boundary of Hanging Rock State Park, which also offers further protection from development,” Miller says.

Hanging Rock State Park

Miller suggests beginning the trip at the Dan River Company’s remote facility off Flinchum Road. The Dan River Company says that they are 70-plus miles upstream of the Duke Energy ash spill, and the waters are unaffected by the spill.

Graphic designer Dora Bee recalls a peaceful afternoon spent tubing along the Dan River with a handful of friends. “It was for a friend’s bachelorette party, and it was a very relaxing, fun way to chill out on a summer day,” she says.

Carolina Balloon AdVentures

Find a Thrill

Looking for an adrenaline rush? Get your thrill on by trying the Big Woods Zipline, located in Boonville, tucked within the picturesque Yadkin Valley. Open year round, the zipline offers 14 platforms with 12 cables. Cap off your day with a glass of wine at Sanders Ridge Winery or dinner on site at the Hearth Restaurant.

While in Yadkin Valley, also consider a visit to Carolina Balloon AdVentures, in East Bend. Carolina Balloon AdVentures is a full-service hot air balloon company that offers balloon rides year round at dawn or dusk, when the weather is calmest. For something truly daring, consider taking a flight lesson.

Regardless of which adventure you decide to try, the northern Piedmont has plenty to offer summertime travelers, with a variety of destinations for day or weekend trips.

“One of the special appeals of the northern Piedmont is that you can set the bar within your comfort zone or challenge yourself to raise it,” Tuttell says.

Miller agrees. “Give yourself a week when you come to North Carolina’s northern Piedmont, and you won’t have to worry about making hard choices – you can do it all,” he says. “Best of all, it’s a big adventure vacation that can be done on a small budget.”

– Karsen Price

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