Taking notice: State parks projects and the staff who bring them to life

What do you remember after you visit a state park? Most people say they recall the peace of nature, seeing a cool plant or animal, or interacting with a park ranger. We ALL know park rangers immediately, with their big hats and all the cool things they know about the park. You often hear kids say they want to be a park ranger when they grow up, and I can definitely see why. But, we’re all missing something. We’re missing a group of people—nearly as many serving our state parks as we have rangers– who do a tremendous amount every day to care for our state parks behind the scenes–and right in front of your nose. I’m talking about our maintenance staff!

Our maintenance staff’s work is SO much more nuanced what their name implies, and it’s time we acknowledge their valuable role in our parks.

Recently, I asked our maintenance staff to start sending me photos and info about their daily work. After some groans (they are quite busy enough, thank you very much), I started receiving messages from several staff members across the state.

Jordan Lake State Recreation Area

Craig Autry, a maintenance and construction supervisor at Jordan Lake, shared with me some major Fourth of July challenges for our maintenance staff.  Check out the trash they collected after the holiday weekend last year!

 

 

Lake Norman State Park

This Little Free Library built and installed by Maintenance and Construction Technician Greg Johnson at Lake Norman State Park was built from repurposed wood from a 100-year-old-barn that once stood on park property.

 

This conference table, built by Maintenance and Construction Technician Greg Johnson at Lake Norman State Park, was repurposed from the park’s original entrance sign. The sign was originally carved at Mount Mitchell and installed at Lake Norman in 1963.

 

 

Fort Macon State Park

Larry, a maintenance and construction technician down east at Fort Macon, ends up fixing a lot of automatic sinks. Below, you can see the inner workings of the sink’s automatic function, which requires fresh batteries regularly.  This time, Larry found that the small electric solenoid that turns the water on and off needed to be cleaned before it would function again.

 

 

Stone Mountain State Park

In the mountain region, Trails Maintenance Manager Jody Reavis has been hard at work leading the construction on new sections of  Stone Mountain trails. Here, a new section of horse trail was carved out near Widows Creek Falls and the main entrance. This section will be part of the Mountains to Sea State Trail. First the dynamite, and then the cleanup:

 

 

 

When many people think of North Carolina’s “Naturally Wonderful” state parks, they think of massive forests, expansive lakes, primitive camping, or pristine beach walking. Our natural resources are certainly part of what makes our parks special. But it’s also the things that differentiate state parks from unmanaged wilderness– bathrooms, trash cans, shower houses, docks, piers, trails, campsites, swim areas– that bring you to your state parks for a safe, comfortable adventure with modern conveniences and easy access to beautiful places. The fact is, all of these things are maintained, improved, repaired, restored and often constructed by our parks’ maintenance staff.

From fixing mowers and sinks to landscaping, trail construction and maintenance, and waste management, our maintenance staff members are truly jack and jills-of-all-trades. Visitors to the parks often mistake them for park rangers because of their similar uniforms, but many leave without ever knowing how important these crews really are to the parks. We want to do a better job conveying the hard work that our maintenance staff do so that we all can give them more credit for their extensive skills, pride in their work, and the critical role the have in our parks. Please keep an eye on our blog and social media accounts for more updates about the work of our maintenance staff.

Spring Hikes in State Parks

by: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

Spring brings the hustle-bustle back to our state parks. The best way to enjoy spring blossoming across our state is to check out the parks that are less likely to be crowded.  Fortunately, some of our most beautiful state parks are also some of the least crowded in the early spring.

Spring is a great time at our parks for all kinds of activities! The thaw settles on our mountain region parks, allowing leaves to bud on branches and the earliest flowers to bloom.  Insects emerge, prompting birds to return to the park for food and suitable temperatures. Icy winds turn to cool breezes, making it a great time for hiking and exploring overlooks and mountaintops.

Elk Knob, Gorges, South Mountains, New River, and Lake James state parks along with Mount Jefferson State Natural Area are great western parks to get your outdoor fix without facing clogged parking lots and crowded trails.

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Elk Knob State Park, summit

Enjoy a challenging hike to the top of Elk Knob for some of the best views in the state. Stretch out at the summit for north or south-facing views with plenty of space to enjoy your time or have a picnic. Paddle down the New River for a different perspective on spring flora and fauna from this National and Scenic River and one of the oldest rivers in North America.

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Lake James State Park

Get your mountain bikes ready and head to Lake James, which offers trails and terrain suitable for all levels of riders. Paddle, camp, bike and hike surrounded by rare and diverse ecosystems, beautiful mountains and a sparkling lake. Visit in March while the trails are still quiet!

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From Luther Rock at Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area has stunning overlooks and views right from the trail, plus cliffside picnic areas and a large picnic shelter that can accommodate a springtime event or simple family picnic. Gorges and South Mountains both offer rugged, sprawling mountain wilderness with waterfalls and biodiversity that make every hike a new experience throughout the year.

Down east, the spring brings ideal conditions for a state park visit. At Lake Waccamaw State Park, enjoy the sunshine on the beautiful new boardwalk by the dam, which for the first time allows a hike all the way around the lake. Boating, fishing and paddling await this spring before the sun gets too hot and the bugs get too plenty.

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Lake Waccamaw State Park
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Lumber River State Park

Lumber River State Park offers a long, scenic paddle that you can enjoy when the water level isn’t too high. The black waters of the river are cool and meandering, and bald cypress trees line the banks and creep into river. Keep an eye out for the beautiful belted kingfisher flying low over the waters as you paddle.

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Belted Kingfisher at Lumber River State Park                                                                                  Photo by Mountain Region Superintendent Sean McElhone
 

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Singletary Lake State Park

Previously a group camp with limited public access, Singletary Lake State Park is now open to drop-in visitors and offers new space for family camping. Explore this rare Carolina bay ecosystem from the park’s 500-foot pier where you can fish and swim. Or, take your kayak or canoe out on the lake to paddle among the cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.

Make it your goal this spring to get out to some state parks that you haven’t visited before! If you have visited them all, challenge yourself to have a new experience at a state park. Please share photos of your spring adventures with us on our Facebook page at facebook.com/northcarolinastateparks. We hope you have a safe, fun, and Naturally Wonderful trip!

First Day Hikes: A day in photos

First Day Hikes 2019 brought 3,859 people to North Carolina’s state parks. Hundreds of dogs, at least two llamas and a goat joined their human companions on various hikes across the state. Here are a few photos of us having fun!

First day hikers at the base of Stone Mountain.
First day hikers follow the ranger’s lead at Stone Mountain State Park.
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Cliffs of the Neuse has a record crowd for first day hike.
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Dismal Swamp welcomes its first goat hiker.
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Grandfather Mountain State Park’s first day hikers head out on the Profile Trail.
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Haw River crowd together before first day hike.
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Lake Norman’s first day hike crew!
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Mount Jefferson first day hikers on Luther Rock.
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Mount Mitchell offers the highest first day hike east of the Mississippi.
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Mount Mitchell first day hikers learn from rangers.
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Pilot Mountain’s first day hikers on the Little Pinnacle

Ranger David Brown Wins Top Science Education Award

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Ranger David Brown at Raven Rock State Park

 

Raven Rock State Park staff are beaming with pride for their colleague, Ranger David Brown. Ranger Brown was awarded the North Carolina Science Teacher Association’s prestigious Distinguished Service in Science Education Award for a non-school setting. This award, presented on Nov. 30, is in honor of his years of service in environmental science education in our state parks system.

A North Carolina native, David served in the Coast Guard before starting out as a seasonal employee at Carolina Beach and Fort Fisher. He graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a bachelor of science degree in marine biology and has served as a park ranger as well as lead interpretation and education ranger and acting superintendent at Raven Rock State Park.

Referred to by school children as the “Rock Man,” David is passionate about helping others understand science in proactive, experiential ways. He focuses on accommodating various dispositions, abilities, and needs of educators and students. In his daily work, he builds curiosity, promotes discovery, and encourages engagement using inquiry-based teaching strategies. This helps accomplish his ultimate goal in environmental education, which is to foster an appreciation of science and the natural world in his participants.

David develops and teaches innovative programs including Project Wild, Rock Raps, and Geo Jeopardy, creating enthusiasm and willing participation in science learning. His extensive work in Harnett County with nearby Campbell University includes 800 pre-service teachers and science majors in the last 15 years. He has worked with educators to develop and adapt activities and instructional materials for the natural world. Notably, he has incorporated creative inclusion practices to address the needs of visually, mobility, and hearing-impaired learners to allow better engagement in both field and in-class science activities.

David is a role model for his co-workers, future teachers, fellow educators, park visitors, and school children. Raven Rock Superintendent John Privette, his colleagues at the park and across the division are so proud of his work. Please join us in congratulating Ranger Brown for this well-deserved recognition!

Carvers Creek Burns Bright

CACR Fire info panel and trailRanger and Burn Boss Colleen Bowers and staff at Carvers Creek State Park were recently awarded the 2018 Prescribed Burning Award from the Division of Parks and Recreation. The award recognizes a team for significant contributions in the implementation and promotion of prescribed fire as a natural resource management tool. In layman’s terms, the team went “all in” on prescribed fire.

One of the newest additions to the state parks system, Carvers Creek opened in 2013 and quickly became a leader in prescribed fire management. Observing several wildfires within the Sandhills region near the park, Carvers Creek staff prioritized prescribed fire as a resource management tool. Under the leadership of Superintendent Jane Conolly, the park heavily invested in fire equipment, personnel training, and dedicated the staff time required to meet the fire management needs of the property.

Soon after getting up and running, the park was featured on a UNC-TV segment about the restorative properties of prescribed fire. Remarkably, the staff have achieved the target burn of 1/3 of the park property, or 1,200 acres of their fire adapted landscape in the past year.

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A prescribed burn underway at Carvers Creek State Park

Ranger Bowers extends her thanks to Thomas Crate, Jimmy Dodson, Michael Taylor and the Carvers Creek maintenance team, Jessica Schliebener, and Superintendent Jane Conolly for their contributions and support of the program.

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Ranger Colleen Bowers during a burn at Carvers Creek State Park

New Mountains-to-Sea Trail segment completes path from Clingmans Dome to Stone Mountain

 

Leadership from state and national parks, volunteers, local officials, and trail enthusiasts gathered at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Oct. 3 to celebrate the completion of a 300-mile connection on the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail (MST).

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Division of Parks and Recreation Director Dwayne Patterson addresses guests at Great Smoky Mountains National Park to celebrate the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.

State trails staff, members of the Carolina Mountain Club and other volunteers and supporters recently completed construction on a linchpin 8-mile section near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Swain County. That segment completes a continuous footpath from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Stone Mountain State Park.

Development and construction of this trail section included negotiating difficult terrain east of the Great Smoky Mountains, working around the tunneled sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and through the Qualla Boundary lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. In 2016, the Eastern Band  agreed to host a section of the trail through reservation lands, enabling the connector trail’s completion. In June of this year, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, the National Park Service’s Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Carolina Mountain Club collaborated to complete the final section of this connection.

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The mountain section of the  Mountains-to-Sea State Trail is now continuous from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Stone Mountain State Park. Connections through and beyond Stone Mountain are in progress.

In 2000, the MST became a state trail and a unit of the state parks system and is the state’s flagship trail. The Division of Parks and Recreation is committed to developing the MST as a continuous, off-road trail across the state. The division develops partnerships with local, state and federal land management agencies, nonprofit organizations, land trusts, and volunteers to advance the development of the MST. The Friends of the MST is a private non-profit organization that provides information on the trail, sponsors task forces to build and maintain sections of trail, and promotes thru-hiking the trail by providing interim routes to connect completed portions of the MST.

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Division of Parks and Recreation Director Dwayne Patterson joins Carolina Mountain Club volunteers, Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent J.D. Lee, Dr. Doris Hammett, and the former Vice Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee to open this important connection on the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail.

 

 

Where the River Meets the Rock

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The Raven Rock

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, Division of Parks and Recreation

In the heart of North Carolina, an ageless landmark rises, steep, dark and jagged, from the banks of the Cape Fear River. Less than an hour’s drive south from Raleigh, Raven Rock State Park hosts a confluence of Piedmont and Mountain region ecology that brings the some of the best of both regions together in one park.

I would call Raven Rock a “hidden gem.” Its ecology and geology are some of the most diverse and varied parks in our state parks system. The park truly has something for everyone. It is a bit farther away than our metropolitan folks are used to driving to say Umstead from Cary and Raleigh or Crowders Mountain from Charlotte, so visitation to Raven Rock is not overwhelming like the busiest parks, allowing for  quiet and peaceful experiences there. This park has a new superintendent, John Privette, who is digging in to bring out the best of the park and ensure North Carolinians know and enjoy the lessons, experiences, and activities it offers.

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Beautiful trails through dense, shady forest

Raven Rock is a great example of a four-season state park. Visit in spring to enjoy the wildflowers, summer to enjoy the Cape Fear river, or winter for a mild mountain-like hike closer to home that will offer quiet trails and spectacular views. Fall, of course, will bring radiant colors and ideal hiking weather.

Salamanders make their home along river bluffs and turtles of all sizes thrive in the Piedmont forest alongside lizards. The park offers a valuable stop-over for migratory birds as well as longer-term homes for others. In the spring when migratory bird visits are at their peak, visitors can observe as many as 20 species of warblers in a single day! Wood ducks nest in hollowed trees along the river and predatory birds like hawks owls soar over the river and forest.

The park’s unique topography is what makes it such an anomaly in the Piedmont . The river bluffs and cool, moist ravines are home to mountain laurel and rhododendron, as well as elm and red maple. Flat, dry uplands are characterized by pine and oak/hickory forests where sourwood, dogwood and blueberry fill out the understory.  The rolling hills of the trails are reminiscent of a mountain region park, while the broad, sandy banks of the Cape Fear River remind you that you’re not far from North Carolina’s Coastal Plain.

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Overlook with views of the Piedmont and Cape Fear River

My visit reminded me of childhood visits to “Little Mountain” in Natchez Trace’s Jeff Busby Park, just down Highway 9 from Eupora, Mississippi, my mother’s hometown. Mostly surrounded by flat areas, Little Mountain was a retreat from surrounding areas. Winding roads, shaded trails, cooler temperatures– the park really allowed us to feel like we were “in the wilderness.” We hiked, played Red Light – Green Light, and ate at the picnic areas there during each summer visit.

Raven Rock provides a similar atmosphere, and I hope it will provide more and more families the same kind of wonderful memories. One of my favorite things about visiting this park is that I grew up just over an hour from it and yet it was my first time not only to this park, but to this area of the state. Exploring our state parks system has provided this gift over and over. I hope you are all able to enjoy these experiences as much as I do.  See you in our parks!

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Butterfly Garden at Raven Rock Visitor Center