Step into the new year in 2015 with First Day Hikes

Visitors share the first-ever First Day Hike at the new Carvers Creek State Park last year.

Visitors share the first-ever First Day Hike at the new Carvers Creek State Park last year.

Prepare to lace up your hiking boots in 2015. A North Carolina tradition continues on New Year’s Day with opportunities to exercise and reconnect with nature on First Day Hikes at every state park and recreation area.

In the past three years, hikers in North Carolina have joined rangers and volunteers to walk more than 10,000 miles on state park trails Jan. 1. There will be more than 40 scheduled hikes ranging from short “leg-stretchers” to six-mile treks, many of them offering interpretive programs along the way. All seasonal state park facilities will remain open on the holiday.

“The relatively new tradition of First Day Hikes has been embraced by people in North Carolina as an opportunity to begin the new year with a healthy activity, to shed the stress of the holidays and to reconnect with the outdoors and the rich natural resources that distinguish North Carolina,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “It also serves as a reminder that state parks are always available for exercise, family activities and education for more than 14 million visitors each year.”

Each state park and state recreation area puts its own stamp on its First Day Hike. At Haw River State Park in Guilford County, hikers will preview a new 3.2-mile trail that will open for general use in coming months. Crowders Mountain State Park will make use of a six-mile trail that links parklands in North Carolina and South Carolina. Hikers often see fresh snow at Elk Knob and Mount Mitchell state parks, while Pettigrew State Park is a seasonal home to flocks of wintering waterfowl. And, the Eno River Association will offer both long and short hikes as part of a decades-old tradition at Eno River State Park.

Details about all First Day Hikes in North Carolina can be found here.

Trust fund authority allocates $7.6 million for key projects

The N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority approved $4.5 million for maintenance and construction projects and $3.1 million for land acquisitions in the North Carolina state parks system at its Dec. 5 meeting at William B. Umstead State Park.

Board members approved $1.06 million to be used in combination with other funds to acquire mainland property at Hammocks Beach State Park in Onslow County. The expansion of the mainland property has been a critical need for over 30 years to provide visitor facilities for additional environmental education and recreational opportunities.

Two serving members of the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority began new terms Dec. 5. Neal Lewis, left, of New Hanover County and Edward W. Wood of Chowan County are sworn by Rachel Gooding of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation staff.

Two serving members of the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority began new terms Dec. 5. Neal Lewis, left, of New Hanover County and Edward W. Wood of Chowan County are sworn by Rachel Gooding of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation staff.

The authority allocated $494,400 to be used in the purchase of 335 acres at Chimney Rock State Park to provide public access to the World’s Edge section of the park and several tracts to protect the Bat Cave area on the park’s west side. It also approved $155,500 in partial funding for a critical tract on Buckquarter Creek at Eno River State Park.

An additional $1.4 million was approved for acquiring critical properties at Mount Jefferson State Natural Area and South Mountains State Park.

Construction and maintenance funds approved by the board will be used for building, infrastructure, trail and exhibit repairs, dredging of the channel allowing access to Bear Island at Hammocks Beach State Park, sewer improvements at Pilot Mountain, development of a high-hazard dam emergency action plan and construction of tent-trailer camping at Lake James State Park.

The North Carolina General Assembly established the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) in 1994 to fund improvements in the state’s park system, to fund grants for local governments and to increase the public’s access to the state’s beaches. The Parks and Recreation Authority, a nine-member appointed board, was also created to allocate funds from PARTF to the state parks and to the grants program for local governments. PARTF is the primary source of funding to build and renovate facilities in the state parks as well as to buy land for new and existing parks.

Holiday reflections at Cliffs of the Neuse

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt a state park, Christmas float means an entirely different thing.

The annual canoe flotilla at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park has become a cherished tradition, with more than 1,000 visitors gathering to watch the stately procession circling a tree of lights in the center of the park’s small swimming lake.

Canoes loaned by the park and small jon boats are decked out just before sunset by crews wielding boat batteries, wads of duct tape and hopelessly tangled strings of holiday lights. Some decorative themes are carefully planned in advance; others just seem to evolve from whatever decorations will fit in the back of a vehicle. The lead canoe last week was piloted by Ranger Candace Rose, with precise instructions on route and paddling speed that would’ve done the Tournament of Roses proud.

Outdoor showings of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” small bonfires and hot chocolate preceded the big event. Visits with Santa – who paddled his own canoe – were welcome afterwards.

At 11 acres, it’s a very small lake but dear to the hearts of the communities around Cliffs of the Neuse. Many people watching the flotilla had learned to swim there as youngsters, or as teenagers worked there as lifeguards or at the concession stand. It just seems right that the place be properly decorated for the holidays.

Here’s a photo gallery of the event. Click any photo to begin.

 

Ideas from public will contribute to Mountains-to-Sea State Trail master plan

The state parks system will be seeking ideas from partners, stakeholders and the public as part of a master planning process underway to guide completion of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.

In western N.C., the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail follows the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor.

In western N.C., the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail makes use of the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor.

The 1,000-mile trail corridor will ultimately link Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the coast. Nearly two thirds of the cross-state route has been completed as a continuous, off-road trail experience, offering opportunities for hiking, biking and horseback riding through some of North Carolina’s most scenic landscapes. Where the trail has not yet been completed, detours along secondary roads allow ambitious hikers to complete the trek.

A completed master plan will lead toward official designation of remaining portions by setting priorities for completing trail sub-sections. It will also unify regional planning efforts, identify potential new partners and funding strategies, and establish guidelines for signs and publicity. The state parks system has hired Planning Communities, LLC to prepare a detailed master plan by late 2015 at a contract price of $120,000 supported through the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

A Planning Communities Website found here offers a route to get involved in the planning effort, with updates on planned regional stakeholder meetings to be held in early 2015 and a survey to gather planning resources.

“As we move toward completion of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail, it’s important to have a guiding document that will focus our efforts for a project that has captured the public’s imagination since it was proposed in the 1970s,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “The master planning process will attract partners and volunteers to the concept, and we’re eager to gather ideas from local governments and citizens.”

A unit of the state parks system, the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail is envisioned as the backbone of a network of regional hiking, paddling and multi-use trails across the state, which could be easily connected to local trail and greenway efforts. Eventually, the trail will link 33 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and offer local access to 40 percent of the state’s population. The state parks system, other state agencies, federal agencies, local governments and volunteers organized by Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail have built sections of the trail, representing a partnership that includes hundreds of citizens and every level of government

O’Neal promoted to chief of operations for state parks

James Adrian O’Neal, a 21-year veteran park ranger, park superintendent and district superintendent, has been promoted to chief of operations for the state parks system. He succeeds Mike Lambert, who resigned earlier this year to assume a similar position in Connecticut.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAO’Neal will be responsible for park operations, resource management, environmental education programming, law enforcement, safety and facility maintenance for the state’s system of 36 state parks, four state recreation areas and 20 state natural areas, as well as other system units covering more than 218,000 acres.

“As a ranger and administrator, Adrian has demonstrated leadership and enthusiasm that reflects the commitment he has to the mission of North Carolina’s state parks,” said Michael Murphy, state parks director. “The state parks system and its field staff will rely on his experience and skills as it continues to develop conservation initiatives, innovative recreation opportunities and environmental education for our 14 million visitors each year.”

O’Neal is a native of Dunn and graduated from North Carolina State University in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in parks, recreation and tourism management. He began his career with the state parks system in 1993 as a ranger a Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and later served at Carolina Beach State Park.

In 2003, O’Neal was promoted to superintendent of Lake Waccamaw State Park, and in 2004, became east district superintendent responsible for operations at nine state parks in that region. He is a certified environmental educator and served in leadership roles in law enforcement training, the division awards program and interpretation and education programming.

Wayside exhibit gives visitors a different view of Grandfather

A rare flat stretch on the trail offers a place to rest and learn.

A rare flat stretch on the trail offers a place to rest and learn.

Scaling a mountain or crossing a swamp certainly brings a sense of satisfaction. But learning a little bit along the way can only make the experience better.

Those small “signs” that just seem to sprout in unlikely places in state parks (we call them wayside exhibits) are designed to give visitors a better sense of place and call attention to a state park’s unique stories. Installing them is usually a routine matter – unless they’re to be perched several thousand feet up one of the state’s most rugged mountains.

Installing the first wayside exhibit in Grandfather Mountain State Park in October very nearly took on expedition status. Maintenance Mechanic Jason Jarrell led seasonal employees Derek Huss and Dallas Skeele and a BRIDGE program youth crew up the strenuous Profile Trail with the exhibit in pieces and all the tools they could carry. The operation involved others. Friends of High Country State Parks donated funds for the exhibit fame and pedestal. And, Eagle Scout Larkin Hawkins earlier had built a bench at a rare flat sretch on the trail that overlooks the valley community of Foscoe and the mountains beyond.

Exhibit names peaks in view and describes the Dutchman's pipeline.

Exhibit names peaks in view and describes the Dutchman’s pipevine seen in the vicinity.

To some degree, wayside exhibits are the descendants of wooden signs that park rangers might have carved by hand decades ago (usually in bad weather months). Now, they’re often written and designed by rangers and the parks system’s interpretive and education specialists. The goal has always been to use knowledge to make visitors feel connected to a special place. The new Grandfather Mountain exhibit names the peaks that can be seen from the vantage point and teaches a bit about the Dutchman’s pipevine growing within the view and the pipevine swallowtail, whose caterpillar eats the leaves of the vine – truly quite a bit of knowledge packed into a small metal frame.

BRIDGE crew member completes installation of the exhibit.

BRIDGE crew member completes installation of the exhibit.

Horne Creek at Pilot Mountain State Park will get a makeover

A segment of Horne Creek in Pilot Mountain State Park is getting a major makeover, the result of state grants and some hard work by park staff and park supporters.

pimo stream_blogAbout 3,200 linear feet of the Yadkin River tributary will be restored to improve the Yadkin River watershed by reducing sediment delivered from the creek. Over the years, stormwater runoff and erosion have scoured Horne Creek’s banks and deepened its stream channel, removing the stream’s connection to its natural floodplain.

Heavy equipment will be used to reconfigure and stabilize the stream channel with timber, rock and native vegetation. The project is supported by a $375,000 grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund and a matching $25,000 grant from the N.C. Division of Water Resources.

Park Superintendent Matt Windsor said a team of supporters made the project happen, including Dick Everhart of the park’s advisory committee, Charles Anderson of Pilot View Resource Conservation and Development, Tony Davis of the Surry Soil and Water Conservation District and Bern Schumak of the trust fund.

The project involves temporarily closing the Bean Shoals Access at the northern side of the park’s Yadkin River section. The closure is expected to last until April, although as the work progresses, rangers could reopen some trails for hike-in and equestrian access on weekends. The Corridor Trail that connects the Yadkin River section to the main component of Pilot Mountain State Park will remain open.

Staff at the state park and volunteers contributed to the project by inventorying aquatic species in the stream and floodplain, restoring warm season grasses in surrounding fields and installing interpretive signs as well as trail and picnic area construction and relocation. The park’s group camps at the river section will be relocated father from the creek floodplain.

State park’s new waste system keeps Haw River cleaner…and smells better

(Submitted by Park Superintendent Kelley King)

At the end of March, Haw River State Park sent its old wastewater treatment plant packing and replaced it with a “subsurface field treatment” system. The new system reduces environmental impacts and operating costs.

A 2010 plan was to renovate the 25-year-old plant. But, concerns about proposed water quality rules for the Jordan Lake watershed led to the decision to keep the park’s treated wastewater out of the Haw River altogether.

Haw River wetlands benefit from cleaner water.

Haw River wetlands benefit from cleaner water.

As the parks system’s first residential environmental education center, it’s vitally important that the park operates with a commitment to environmental protection. Having a failing treatment plant that fed indirectly into the Haw River (and ultimately Jordan Lake) simply was not acceptable. In addition, the amount of water and energy needed to operate the aging plant was substantial.

Water consumption is somewhat challenging to calculate since the park is served by well water. But, there is a very clear picture of energy use and cost savings. Comparing 2013 to 2014, energy costs are now 1/13th the amount for the old system.

Haw River State Park strives to be green, but it’s also good to save some green. The park is saving over $450 a month on its power bill, but the savings do not stop there. County and state regulations require daily inspections of a wastewater treatment plant by a certified technician. That had cost the state park $1,700 a month. The plant’s advanced age and seasonal fluctuations in the number of guests were significant factors affecting compliance.

Decades-old wastewater treatment plant was retired and will be removed.

Decades-old wastewater treatment plant was retired and will be removed.

Old farm field for subsurface system will be replanted, but trees aren't allowed.

Old farm field for subsurface system will be replanted, but trees aren’t allowed.

Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty (and somewhat smelly) side of running a wastewater treatment plant, bacteria living in the plant serve to break down everything that flows through. During low-visitation periods, such as mid-winter, the bacteria could die off because they aren’t being fed enough. In order to maintain the bacteria, staff would purchase large bags of dog food to keep them alive or introduce sludge brought to the park. Neither option was inexpensive. When the park was at capacity, staff would have to hire another company to pump out what the plant couldn’t handle, costing up to $3,000 a year.

The bottom-line savings considering power bills, technicians and additional costs is nearly $30,000 a year using the new subsurface system.

The subsurface system requires very little maintenance, since an old farm field is perfectly suited for spray application. The field must be kept clear of trees, but staff was already regularly clearing it with a bush-hog, so that hasn’t added to the workload.

The last benefit of the new subsurface system isn’t monetary or physical, but one of aesthetics. The old plant was not only an eyesore, but considering the noise and foul smells, passing it while walking along one of the park’s main trails to the lake was sometimes not as serene as one would like. That experience has been improved tremendously.

Vade Mecum Springs property at Hanging Rock gets a little love

The lodge at Vade Mecum  Springs dates to the 1890s.

The lodge at Vade Mecum Springs dates to the 1890s.

Armed with dustpans, mops and enthusiasm, volunteers descended on the Vade Mecum Springs property at Hanging Rock State Park Saturday, the first of several workdays organized by Friends of Sauratown Mountains.

Students from East Forsyth High School clean the lodge interior.

Students from East Forsyth High School clean the lodge interior.

The goal was “to remove at least the top layer of dust” in the central lodge and begin upgrading rough trails on the 716-acre property,” said Ranger Austin Paul, who guided the volunteers. They also began the tedious job of hauling away more than 100 old mattresses from the lodge and nearby cabins.

The Vade Mecum Springs property – operated until last year as the Camp Sertoma 4-H Education Center – was transferred to the state parks system from North Carolina State University through legislation. Its operations will be integrated into those of the state park. Along with the lodge and cabins, facilities included a campground complex and access to the Dan River, nine miles of mountain biking trails, a recreation hall, swimming pool, chapel, athletic fields and equestrian barn and trails.

Friends of Sauratown Mountains – which supports both Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks – lobbied hard for the property transfer after the 4-H center was closed in 2013, and immediately began recruiting volunteers. More than 30 signed up, including students from East Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem.

Along with old mattresses, miscellaneous furniture and dust, the volunteers found an old network of hiking trails which never had been accurately blazed or mapped. In early October, park maintenance staff and rangers worked to reopen the popular network of mountain biking trails near the campground.

Volunteers begin clearing rough trails on the property.

Volunteers begin clearing trails on the property.

State parks administrators will complete a detailed assessment of the property and its facilities along with a long-range management plan for reopening those facilities that can contribute to the state park’s mission.

The Stokes County landmark has a long history. Entrepreneurs John Sparks and J. Cicero Tise developed Vade Mecum Springs at the turn of the 20th Century as a reort revolving around the healthful Moore Springs. It was operated as a retreat and summer camp by the Episcopal Diocese and Easter Seals until the acquisition by North Carolina State University for its 4-H program.

South Mountains expands, improves streamside campground

The Jacob Fork River with its trout population flows just past the campground.

The Jacob Fork River with its trout population flows just past the campground.

Just in time for some of the best camping weather, South Mountains State Park has upgraded one of the parks system’s most scenic campgrounds.

The family campground is within babbling distance of Jacob Fork River, revered not only for its stunning beauty but its congenial trout population. It’s one of the best spots in North Carolina for fishing, casual hiking and being lulled to sleep.

The campground was expanded from 11 to 18 sites and all the sites were refurbished. Two of the sites are RV-compatible with electricity hookups. The best part may be a new bathhouse (with a family restroom/shower). The renovation is a $660,000 investment by the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, the principal funding source for state park capital projects and land acquisition. The family campground sites (as well as backcountry campsites) are now listed on the parks’ Central Reservations System and reservations are suggested, particularly this time of year.

South Mountains in southern Burke County is North Carolina’s largest state park at more than 18,000 acres. The park also offers 15 campsites reserved for equestrians surrounding a 33-stall barn. The park’s master plan calls for still more family camping opportunities eventually to be added.

New bathhouse is a welcome addition.

New bathhouse is a welcome addition.

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