If you want to see golden eagles, bald eagles, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks practically at eye level, soaring on mountain winds to their southern, winter roosts, Hanging Rock Observatory in West Virginia is the place to go.
The view from the western side of the observatory tower, looking north.
Birders from all over the region make pilgrimages there every fall (migratory bird numbers peak in late September and October) to get their fill of raptors (birds of prey). The bird spotters who volunteer at the tower identifying and counting birds record huge numbers; check out their season totals and maximum daily counts for 2015:
I’m kicking myself for not making it out to Hanging Rock before this last weekend. Migration peak has definitely passed.
Then again, migrating raptors may be the headliner, but they aren’t the only story in this clear, crisp autumn day.
It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get from Blacksburg, VA to the trail head. The directions consist of three roads:
- Take Route 460 past Pembroke.
- Turn right onto Route 635 (Big Stony Creek Road), enjoy excellent winding country drive for almost an hour, when you’ll reach Waiteville, WV.
- Turn left onto Limestone Hill Road and drive four switchback miles up the mountain till you reach the gravel parking lot with the Hanging Rock sign.
The scenery on the drive is heaven for a mountain-lover like me, and the curves on the road are pure exhilaration. (This is why there are no pictures of the journey; I was having too much fun driving.)
Fair warning, though, there aren’t places to stop for liquid intake or, um, output, so take provisions and make sure everybody hits the head before you leave.
Second fair warning: as you may have guessed from the name of Rt. 635, it follows Big Stony Creek for miles and miles. There are places to pull off and park, and any kid (or middle aged nature nerd, come to think of it) will want to climb down and play in the creek for a while. Plan some extra time for it; that’s easier than finding child-sized blinders.
Once you’ve arrived in the parking lot, you’re a little more than half way there.
The .9 mile hike is no joke. Remember how I described the Gateway Trail in Blacksburg as “a lot of up“? Yeah, this one may be worse. The website claims that the hike takes 20 to 40 minutes depending on ability. Let me translate: 20 minutes for extremely fit mountain goats, at least 40 minutes for the rest of us, who end up feeling like mountain cows.
You can see that someone has scratched out the .9 distance to the lookout. I have no doubt that this was done by a bitter, exhausted hiker who wanted the signpost to reflect the “feels like” miles trail, which would be more in the neighborhood of 2.5.
This trail is actually a section of the Allegheny Trail. It rises about 350 feet to the ridge where the tower sits at 3,800 feet. Unfortunately, it’s not a steady climb like the Gateway trail. The first 100 yards are straight-up murder. Then they throw a fairly flat stretch in.
A chipmunk I spotted on the trail is sitting smack dab in the center of this photo. Can you see it? Try blowing the photo up to full size by clicking on it. The chipmunk’s brown fur with black stripes provides excellent camouflage in the dead leaves on the forest floor.
Then some more murder. Then a flat stretch to give you hope. At the end of that stretch you see the sign “Hanging Rock Observatory .5 miles” and your hope dies like an ingenue in a soap opera.
This is a huge sandstone outcrop that you’ll pass on the trail. Taking a photo of it is a great excuse to stop for a minute and catch your breath.
Then the trail gets really rocky, so you can use the (completely valid) excuse of watching your step in order to survive the next murderous incline, which seems to go on forever. Finally, oh, joy, you see the sign that says turn left for the observatory. And then you look left and see one last insane incline. You stifle tears, really creative curses, and maniacal laughter and head up.
Joy of joys, I’m almost there! Just one more quadricep-killing uphill.
You reach the sandstone ridge of massive, overhanging boulders, for which Hanging Rock was named (but, more importantly, which are excellent for leaning against as you attempt to catch the breath that left you a quarter mile ago) then walk the last 30 flat-ish yards to the clearing. You can see promising blue sky and the observatory building and they inspire you to pick up your pace. You reach the building, and see at last: you have another two flights of steps to climb to get to the observation platform. You briefly consider burning the whole damn thing down, but you’ve come this far, so you make the climb.
And it is so, so, so worth it!
The view from the observatory building facing northeast. The setting November sun cast the shadow of the tower over the ridge line. Pictures can’t do it justice.
You are now standing atop Peters Mountain, the longest continuous mountain in the Appalachians, stretching over 50 miles between river gaps.
Facing northeast, you have Spring Creek valley on your left and Potts Mill Creek valley on your right.
Potts Mill Creek Valley and the valley and ridge stretching out to the east/southeast into Virginia.
This is the geographic and geologic transition point from the Valley and Ridge area of Virginia to the Appalachian Plateau of West Virginia. The roller coaster of ridge and valley stretches out past Potts Mill valley to the east and the high peaks of the plateau make the land to the west look like the bumpy skin of a mountainous gourd.
Spring Creek Valley and the bumpy Appalachian plateau stretching out to the north and west.
It looks exactly like one of those plastic raised relief maps come to life. Which it exactly what it is, of course, but seeing it in person sooooo cool.
And then, once the little lights stop swimming in front of your eyes from the hike, you see them: the raptors are soaring on mountain updrafts, headed south, and coming straight toward you!
In my short time in the tower (about an hour, I think), I saw four red-tailed hawks making the trip south. One of the volunteer birders (and Allegheny Highlands Chapter Virginia Master Naturalist) loaned me his binoculars (I’ve stopped taking my set hiking; they’re old and really heavy) so that I could witness the hawks “kiting” for the first time.
I’m used to seeing hawks waiting patiently on a tree branch or fence post next to an open field, as still as statues until they spot prey, then making a quick swoop in for the kill. Kiting is very different.
Migrating hawks don’t have the leisure of landing and waiting for the chance of a meal. It takes too much energy, which they’re trying to conserve. They hunt on the wing by acting like a kite. When kiting, a hawk faces into the wind (in this case, the wind moving up the mountain) and makes tiny adjustments in its wing posture to keep its position steady while the wind holds it up – no energetic wing flapping required. Holding still in mid-air, like a kite tethered to the ground, the hawk is able to get a good view of the open valley and spot prey from the air . (Their vision is 8 times better than ours – think 20/160; they can see something 160 feet away as well as we see it at 20 feet away.) It only swoops down, then, when the meal is guaranteed, and the energy from the food in its belly will pay for the energy it takes to flap back up and into the steady winds aloft that will allow it to soar south.
Between red-winged hawk sightings, the ravens kept my eyes and brain plenty busy. They flitted and frisked all over the mountaintop, seemingly playing in the turbulent winds at the top of the ridge. I got to watch one making its low, gravelly babble call while it flew. Twice.
Though next year I’ll try to get to one of these migration funnel points – places where the geography tends to gather migrating birds in big numbers, such as long mountain ridges they can soar or bits of land between open waters – earlier in the season to see more birds, I’m delighted with what I saw from Hanging Rock even this late in November. And, had I been able to stay longer, I might have seen even more. The total counts my birder/Master Naturalist friend made that day were:
- 1 Bald Eagle
- 5 Golden Eagles
- 29 Red-tailed Hawks
- 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks
My bird count for the day may have been just 4 red-taileds, but I also count 70 minutes of good hiking exercise (yes, the trail back took me 30 minutes – my legs felt like leaden rubber bands), innumerable lungfuls of fresh, cold mountain air, two pretty pink cheeks from the brisk wind, and one mind as empty of stress as the bright blue autumn sky.
PS – I also spotted a cairn on the trail. Another stop-for-breath photo opportunity.
These stacked rocks are called a cairn; a bit of nature art/architecture left by a previous hiker. They’re cool to look at and fun to build, but naturalists will tell you that they’re not so good for wildlife. Animals need those rocks to hide under to escape predators in the summer and escape killing cold winds in the winter. There’s nowhere to hide in a cairn. If you feel inspired to build one, do, but then put the rocks back where you found them before you leave. Take only pictures, leave only footprints.