Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory

Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Union, West Virginia.

When I first heard about Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, I had no clue what people were talking about. I’ve never heard the term “raptor” referencing anything other than the little dinosaurs that Chris Pratt trains.

It turns out “raptor” is just another term for a bird of prey like eagles, hawks, buzzards and falcons, and Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory is where thousands of these birds can be watched, counted and identified. I took a little hike up to the observatory so that I could see what the hype over these deadly birds is about.

The observatory sits in the mountains of Union, West Virginia, about an hour north of Blacksburg. The drive involves steep grades up and down rolling hills, tight dirt roads and small towns with nothing but a barn, church and firehouse.

I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to see anything at the lookout because I went right as the effects of Hurricane Florence were hitting the area. I was even more worried when I got to the trailhead because the fog was so thick through the forest.

The ground was damp with rain that arrived before I did, and the thick, humid smell of earth filled the air as if the dirt evaporated into the mist I breathed. I could see through the trees despite the fog, and it was truly a spooky experience. Stories of Bigfoot filled my mind and I thought, “If I’m ever going to see a ‘squatch, it’ll be today.”

The trek up to the observatory is only about a mile long and very accessible for novice and amateur hikers. There is a slight uphill incline, but nothing that will leave you gasping for air. The view at the top is what steals that very breath that the trail granted you.

Fortunately, the fog did not go far past the crest at 3,812 feet. The observatory, a humble wooden shed, waits at the summit for hikers and bird-watchers alike to enjoy the view of the entire valley below.

I entered the shed where I found a binder filled with signatures and memoirs of past visitors. Most comments are just the date of the visit, but some of my favorite were of a man complaining about his hurting knee, and another of a visitor that has been coming to this spot since 1976.

I picked up a pamphlet that gives information about the observatory and the related trails system in the area. It turns out that my short hike was just 1 of the 330 miles that make up the Allegheny Trail. This trail runs through “four state parks, two state forests and three national forests,” according to the pamphlet.

The trail was built and maintained by the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association (WVSTA). The WVSTA is a volunteer, nonprofit organization that raises funds and organizes group hikes and maintenance projects along the Allegheny Trail. It is also building a new trail called the Mary Draper Ingles Trail that will run from northern Kentucky through West Virginia and into Blacksburg.

Even though it is the beginning of the raptor migratory season, I wasn’t lucky enough to see any birds due to the weather, but the views alone made my time spent there worthwhile. I’ll definitely go back when more observers are packed into that tiny hut counting the hundreds of bald eagles that can fly through each day.

Whether you’re a casual hiker, hardcore backpacker or avid bird-watcher, Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory and the connected Allegheny Trail make a fun and relaxing weekend trip away from the stressful collegiate life.

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Lifestyles staff writer with insatiable curiosity.

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