Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory is an incredibly beautiful house in the sky where you can see for miles in every direction. It’s well worth a visit even if you aren’t a bird watcher. We’re sharing everything you need to know about this short family-friendly hike including how to get there, what to bring, and the unexpected things to see and do along the way.
Normally we stick to hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but every now and then we sneak over the Alleghenies. On our most recent trip we headed to Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Union, West Virginia.
The hike is about an hour and a half from Roanoke, an hour from Blacksburg, and 45 minutes from Lewisburg, West Virginia. The Hanging Rock area is near the Virginia, West Virginia line.
It’s amazing! I wish that I had known about this years ago so I could have visited more already. I am excited to share this place because it is an incredible hike with spectacular views. And to make it even better, the drive to the hike is also amazing.
Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory Hike
Length: 2 miles (out and back) Elevation Gain: 450 feet Difficulty: Moderate
Great For: Families, photography, bird watching
Location: Union, West Virginia
When to Visit: It’s always beautiful, but the best bird watching is in fall or early winter
How We Rate it: 5/5, This is an awesome experience all the way around.
Don’t feel bad if this hike hasn’t ever appeared on your radar. We constantly look for new places to visit and it wasn’t until recently that we heard about the observatory.
What to Expect on the hike
First, when you are navigating to the trailhead, make sure you put Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory Trailhead into your GPS. If you leave off “Trailhead” you may be navigated to a very rough, rutted fire road. Or you can just use this link to Google Maps.
The observatory is off a short spur on the Allegheny Trail. Your hike will only be 2 miles and just a couple sections are difficult.
At the beginning, the trail climbs steeply for about 1000 feet and then becomes much more level. It isn’t hard after that and the only other steep section is just before you reach the observatory.
The hike is along the ridgeline so there isn’t much of a canopy. That isn’t a negative though, most of the surrounding area is at a lower elevation so you have great views through the thin forest.
The entire trail is well marked and you will be following yellow blazes until you get to the spur trail. There blue blazes that direct to the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory as well as wooden signs.
When you reach the spur trail, you have two options. You can go straight or turn left and head up a short steep path. The path to the left will bring you to the observatory more quickly and it is only slightly more difficult than going straight.
Once you reach the observatory, you will want to spend some time.
There is a porch that surrounds observatory and the views are stunning. It is 360 degrees of serious beauty.
If you have done any hiking in Southwest Virginia you likely have been to McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth or have them on your list of places to hike. The views at these two places are amazing. The view from Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory is just as incredible.
There is so much to take in. You can enjoy the views from the porch or from inside the observatory or from the jutting rocks the observatory is built on.
It’s a lot of beauty and you probably won’t want to leave. Luckily, there is a port-o-potty a few hundred feet away so I guess you don’t have to?
While we were at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory we only saw a turkey vulture but it wasn’t the ideal time of year. I am not a great resource for bird watching. I can recognize a few species but only enough to embarrass myself.
If that sounds like you, there is a helpful laminated chart in the observatory for identifying birds of prey that you are likely to see from the observatory. You should bring binoculars if you really want to watch for raptors.
When I was doing some research about the raptors common to the area I stumbled across a helpful site written by someone much more qualified to help you learn about birds.
Another resource you might want to check out is Bird Cast. The website tracks the migration of birds across the United States over night. You may or may not already know that birds primarily migrate at night.
Just a little bit of history
If history isn’t your thing, you can skip this section.
Learning about places and people is something I can’t get enough of. The Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory has it’s own short interesting history.
The spot the observatory now occupies was originally the site of a fire tower. Before the 1960s a combination of lookouts and aerial observers kept sentry over the forests of America to prevent wild fires.
In the early 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps built the fire tower and it remained largely unchanged until 1956 when a new watch tower was built with more interior space.
Bird watching didn’t become a common practice at the fire tower until the early 1950s. The site was still used as a fire tower until 1972 when it was abandoned. The fire tower deteriorated until 1984 when a grant was issued to renovate the structure and reallocate it for research.
Since then new windows and a radio antenna have been added to assist with monitoring bird migration patterns.
This site is yet another example of how much this region has benefitted from the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Drive to Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory
We loved our visit to the Raptor Observatory, including the drive there. We traveled from Virginia along Route 311 and Route 600. Along this route, there are several other interesting spots worth stopping to see.
The Hanging Rock Wayside – On Route 311 between New Castle and Paint Bank, Virginia there is a small wayside with a single picnic area. The view is awesome and this would make a great spot for a picnic lunch or a snack break.
Paint Bank – Paint Bank is a teeny tiny town and has some old Appalachia charm to it. There is a phenomenal restaurant called the Swinging Bridge in the middle of town. This is a great spot to sit down to a yummy meal. They are generous with their portions so it’s the perfect spot to fuel up after a hike.
Seeing Bison – Along Route 600 you’ll also pass a farm that raises bison. There aren’t many at the farm but we saw three hanging out near the road. We’ve seen bison in Yellowstone and in Custer State Park in South Dakota and the bison on the farm are just as impressive as the ones out west.
The Drive – I love driving on winding roads over mountains. There is some of that on the trip from Virginia. There were points where I felt like I was driving in a national park. It took us about and hour and 20 minutes to reach the trailhead from when we got on Route 311 and it was pure enjoyment.
There are laminated documents in the observation tower you can review when you visit that have this information and more that you might like looking over.
This is such a cool spot. I hope you have a chance to visit even if you aren’t a bird watcher. I am not and I had an incredible time gazing out into the far distance at the staggering beauty and driving the winding roads into the Allegheny Mountains.
If you are like me and love mountain views these are the hikes we would recommend you check out:
All of these have awesome views that I’m sure you’ll love.