The nice thing about Hanging Rock State Park is its close proximity to the Triangle area. From Durham, it takes about two hours to get there. Although the first part of the drive is on Interstate 40, the last half is through cute, historic towns and on winding roads with little traffic.
I've only been to Hanging Rock State Park in the fall, and I do think it is a lovely time to visit. However, I'm guessing it is also the busiest time. Both times I've been here, the number of people at Hanging Rock itself took away from the experience. It's just impossible to get that magic feeling you can get in nature with 25 kids running around on cliffs they could easily fall off of and plunge to their deaths.
Hanging Rock State Park is in the Sauratown mountain range and Moore's Knob (the first hike I describe) is the highest "peak" in the range at 2,579 feet.
I'm going to describe three of the hikes I have taken at Hanging Rock State Park. One could easily do all three in a day. None of them are mind blowing, but it's a lovely way to spend a fall day.
Parking for this hike is by the lake. Continue on Hanging Rock Park Road past the signs for the Visitor Center and the campground until you reach the parking lot by the lake. The trail begins down by the bathhouse and beach.
Unfortunately, I did this a year ago and don't remember it well enough to recount my every step. I don't recall it being very difficult to follow the trail. We had our Falcon Guide: Hiking North Carolina with us, but I don't think we really needed it.
The hike was nice. I am spoiled and it isn't the West. It isn't even Western North Carolina. But it is lovely to walk in the woods and have some pleasant views in the sunshine while eating lunch. If I were choosing between Stone Mountain and Hanging Rock State Park, I'd go with Stone Mountain. However, both are nice and probably your best day trip options from the Triangle area.
Parking for Hanging Rock Trail is at the visitor center. After entering the park on Hanging Rock Park Road, turn left at the sign for the visitor center. There is a trailhead sign on the opposite side of the parking lot from the visitor center. No way to get lost on this trail. Hike out and up and then hike back. The trail is marked by orange circles, but we didn't really need to pay attention to these markers.
Like I said before, this is a really pleasant 2.6 mile hike. There is some climbing, but it's manageable for even children. I'd keep my kids close to me at the rocks though. There are a lot of people up there, and not a lot of room for error. I kept my distance from people while up there. I would love to be up here without all the people, because I can see it being a very quiet and meditative spot. However, both times I've been here, I've just been worried I was going to watch someone fall to their death.
We couldn't have had a more beautiful fall day both times I visited Hanging Rock State Park. It's a great option for an easy day trip from the Triangle Area.