Repairs at South Mountains after the wildfire will take time

The wildfire at South Mountains State Park still smolders, but rangers, foresters and other officials are quickly making plans to repair trails, remove hazards and return the landscape to its natural state. The goal is to reopen the park as soon as practical, though no date has been set and some areas may be off-limits for quite some time.

Firefighters, with the help of infrared technology, are still searching for hotspots that need attention in the 6,435-acre fire zone. Technically the fire is 90 percent contained.

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Chestnut Knob Trail sustained considerable damage.

Fourteen trails (27.3 miles, nearly 60 percent of the park’s trail system) were affected by the wildfire to varying degrees. Each mile must be carefully inspected for dangerous limbs, trees that might topple, severe erosion and other hazards, as well as trail signs and gates that were damaged or destroyed. After that inspection, rangers must set priorities for restoring the trails and determine the cost and manpower necessary.

The blaze started Nov. 6 near the Chestnut Knob Trail, which sustained considerable damage. It’s likely that when the park reopens, that trail and some others will remain closed until proper repairs can be made. Aside from possible dangers, hikers could further damage trails that are fragile after the fire.

The specific trails that were affected by the wildfire are: Lower CCC, Upper CCC, Horse Ridge, Sawtooth, Little River, Chestnut Knob, Upper Falls, Shinny, Possum, Fox, Headquarters, High Shoals Falls, Turkey Ridge and Benn Knob.

After the fires

As wildfires swept across 7,200 acres at Chimney Rock State Park and 6,400 acres at South Mountains State Park this month, there were plenty of comments on social media lamenting the imagined “devastation” and “loss” of these two much-beloved landscapes

That simply didn’t happen. Our rangers, foresters and natural resource managers – who spent many long days working to contain the blazes that continue to smolder – are quick to point out that in the end, the fires will benefit the two parks.

From childhood, many people still hold that incorrect mental image of a forest fire that leaves in its wake charred hillsides and thousands of trees transformed into matchsticks. In the southeastern U.S. particularly, that almost never happens to forests that have shrugged off wildfires throughout history.

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A back burning operation at South Mountains State Park wildfire looks very much the same as a prescribed burn.

“Fire is a natural process anyway. It’s going to happen sooner or later,” South Mountains Park Superintendent Jonathan Griffith explained in a recent video. “In fact, we do prescribed burns from time to time in the park. It’s not like it’s going to completely destroy everything. Everything will grow back over…The fire itself, when it’s low intensity, will get rid of the understory and open it up and make it available for the larger trees to grow bigger.”

State parks, with the help of the North Carolina Forest Service and other partners, frequently stage prescribed burns designed to remove dead wood and leaf litter on the forest floor that fuels exactly the type of wildfires fought at these two state parks. In recent years, the prescribed fire program has been expanded into western state parks – where controlled burns can be more complex and demanding than those in the flatland forests of eastern North Carolina. Within a few months after a blaze – whether a wildfire or prescribed burn – greenery reappears on the forest floor. With fire having removed brushy understory, more sensitive plants have a chance to flourish again, often providing a more diverse diet for wildlife.

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Area of Pilot Mountain State Park two years after it was swept by a wildfire.

The Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park – never directly threatened by fire – has reopened to visitors. That park’s Rumbling Bald Climbing Access and South Mountains will eventually reopen, but it will be a gradual process. Rangers and other staff must examine the trails for trees and limbs that might yet fall and other hazards. Already, parks and forestry officials are making plans to remove traces of fire containment lines and bulldozer tracks where possible to return the landscape to its natural state. The forest itself will do the rest.

Trust fund authority approves park projects

Land acquisition projects at six state parks and seven significant capital projects were funded in whole or in part by the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority Friday at a meeting at Crowders Mountain State Park. The projects will be supported with an $8.9 million share of the trust fund designated for state parks.

The land acquisition projects totaling $2.2 million include $800,000 to expand New River State Park with the purchase of a former private campground at the Kings Creek Access and $1.7 million toward the total cost of an expected addition of 114 acres at Lake James State Park. Other funding will be directed to projects at Chimney Rock, South Mountains, Lumber River and Elk Knob state parks.

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Funding was approved for additional trail structures at Chimney Rock State Park.

The capital funding of $6.7 million includes support for such projects as trail structures at Chimney Rock State Park, a campground bathhouse at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and a trail bridge at Lake James State Park that will link visitor areas at Paddy’s Creek and Longarm Peninsula. Also, $300,000 was set aside to begin repairs at Carvers Creek State Park where heavy flooding in October damaged a dam and nearby structures.

The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund is the principal source of funding for land acquisition and capital projects in the state parks, with 65 percent of trust fund revenue directed to those types of projects. The remainder is set aside for local government grants for parks and recreation projects and for coastal beach access.

North Carolina State Parks Director Mike Murphy briefed the authority about recent division activities, including 14 centennial-related events held since August and the popular state parks presence at the North Carolina State Fair. He also noted that the state parks system has begun planning to host the 2017 Association of Southeast State Park Directors conference in Winston-Salem.

‘Candid Critters’ project enlists volunteers to photograph wildlife

North Carolina State Parks and their visitors have been invited to be part of a statewide citizen science project to photograph wild animals with trail cameras to compile data over several years about the animals’ movements and habits.

candid-creaturesThe Candid Critters project will enlist trained volunteers to borrow the cameras from public libraries and help place and maintain the cameras in state parks and other public lands. The motion-activated camera traps allow scientists (and citizen scientists) to collect photos of animals without disturbing them. The cameras can capture thousands of digital photos, which are then stored online to gauge how the state’s mammal populations change over time and interact with humans and other species. Citizen scientists who own or purchase cameras can also contribute with photos from private property. Details of the program can be found here.

Candid Critters was created by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. The museum’s biodiversity lab has already worked with state parks operating wildlife cameras at Stone Mountain, South Mountains, Morrow Mountain and William B. Umstead state parks and Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve.

Some of the details of how volunteers and will set up and maintain the cameras in state parks are still being determined. That includes compiling a list of designated camera sites – where cameras can be located safely for visitors and to protect a park’s natural resources. Researchers hope to have a list of approved camera sites ready by March.

Arielle Parsons of the museum’s biodiversity lab said a goal is to have up to 30,000 sites established across the state over the next three years, making it the largest camera trap survey ever. “Before we can answer all these questions about mammals, we need to collect massive amounts of data,” Parsons said. “In this case, we’re using camera trap images from across all 100 counties in the state. We really need the public’s help to accomplish this. The more people that participate, the more we can learn about North Carolina’s critters.”

‘Augmented reality sandbox’ explores Crowders Mountain geography

Crowders Mountain State Park will get a dynamic new exhibit in its visitor center, thanks to a $4,500 grant from the Gaston Community Foundation to The Friends of Crowders Mountain.

crmo-exhibit-2The park’s exhibit hall will be outfitted with an “augmented reality sandbox,” a computer-aided display that’ll allow visitors to experience and experiment with the unusual geography of the park and its surrounding terrain. (Here’s a video of a similar exhibit.)

The sandbox will be built specifically to demonstrate the unique geology of the region and how forces of erosion created the park’s unique landforms. It will be a hands-on connection to the terrain experienced by more than 700,000 hikers each year. The exhibit should be especially fulfilling to visitors with physical challenges and visual impairments.

crmo-exhibit-1The grant will be matched by exhibit repair funds already allocated. The Friends of Crowders Mountain is greatly appreciative for the support of the Community Foundation for its support.

Get outdoors this year with the 100-Mile Challenge and HikeNC!

100milechallenge_logo_color_2In the 100th year of North Carolina State Parks, we’re issuing a 100-Mile Challenge: Can you walk, hike, run, paddle, ride a horse or roll a wheelchair 100 miles in a year?

This health and wellness challenge should motivate North Carolinians to get outdoors, explore state parks and other natural areas and personally get involved in our Centennial – and earn commemorative pins, digital badges and bragging rights. But you won’t be tackling this challenge alone. Your support team will be North Carolina State Parks, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Friends of State Parks and fellow travelers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst, North Carolina State Parks has launched its 100-Mile Challenge website. There, you can create an online account to keep track of your progress by logging your mileage, even from a mobile device. It also lists locations and mileage of the more than 600 miles of state park trails. And, it explains how participants can create groups to meet the challenge as a team, or log “buddy miles” for family members (and even pets).

Need more motivation? Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina steps in with its new HikeNC! initiative. The HikeNC! website describes 60 hikes scheduled during the fall to take advantage of cool weather and North Carolina’s impressive network of trails. The hikes range from kid-friendly strolls to more adventurous outings. Each organized hike will be led by a state park ranger or hiking expert. This initiative is supported, in turn, by Friends of State Parks, GetGoingNC, the North Carolina Recreation and Park Association and Great Outdoor Provision Co.

One more thing: remember your North Carolina State Parks Passport. Grab a free passport at a state park and get it stamped at every park visited. Collect the commemorative stamps for every state park to earn a prize pack.

Hiking all 618.6 miles of North Carolina State Parks trails

(The following was submitted by Brian Bockhahn, a former park ranger and now an interpretation and education specialist with North Carolina State Parks, who hiked every trail in the system, mostly during his free time.)

Saturday Aug 26 was a foggy morning on Mount Mitchell. The 0.4-mile campground spur trail to the summit stood between me and a goal 20 years in the making. After about 20 minutes of hiking through some of the most beautiful and picturesque boreal forest, I took my last steps in the completion of hiking EVERY mile of trail in EVERY NC state park, a total of 618.6 miles. I pulled a sign out of my backpack that I made for the occasion and celebrated with photos alongside my father and my wife who joined me on many hiking adventures.

bockhahn-hike-1The 618.6 miles includes every trail in the 41 traditional state park units, Deep River state natural area, and those portions of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail on state land. Basically if it’s a state park trail that is marked, on park maps, website, or on the parks’ master list, I hiked it. Several parks have satellite areas or state natural areas that fall under them, and in all cases I hiked those too. I even hiked some fishing paths or social trails, off-trail areas, and even some boundary.

This quest started 20 years ago when I first moved to North Carolina and began visiting state parks. At each park I would collect a park map and check off the trails I had completed, and pretty soon I had a good portion complete. (I still have park maps for Waynesborough and Boone’s Cave – parks that have since been given over to county management.) This past year I increased my efforts in attempt to finish at the Mount Mitchell Centennial event, and with my regular work duties I ended up with 354 miles hiked thus far in 2016 in NC state parks. As I was going over my master list of trails, I decided to save the 0.4-mile Mount Mitchell spur for my grand finale! And timing happened perfectly to complete it during the centennial event.

The toughest trails? I tend to agree with most other hikers and hiking guides that the toughest is the Mount Mitchell Trail. It’s only six miles, but with an elevation gain of 3,600 feet, it’s a 4-5 hour outdoor Stairmaster! Only the top 0.8 miles is within the state park however, so the second toughest which is entirely on state park land would have to be the Profile Trail at Grandfather Mountain. Combine this steep ascent with a loop of the Grandfather Mountain Trail and with several ladders/cables and you have one of the steepest, scariest and most rewarding views in the state.

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Medallion on the observation tower of Mount Mitchell’s summit

In some cases I backpacked to rack up miles. My longest day of hiking was an unforgettable series of loops around South Mountains State Park totaling 28.8 miles. Even with hardened feet I still developed blisters, knee pain, and sweat rashes under my hiking socks; it was a lot of up and down! And on top of that I was stung by a European hornet in the last half mile. Ouch!

South Mountains holds the distinction of having the most trails of any state park at 48.75 miles, that’s 12 percent of the whole parks system and they are adding more! The park with the least trails is Deep River with just a 0.86-mile trail, but more will be added there as well, a statewide trend!

I have no horse so I hiked all the bridle trails with the Stone Mountain trails being my favorite. And, since our parks have many great mountain biking trails I either hiked or biked them too. In the case of Hanging Rock, the trails were so steep I mostly pushed my bike! Lake Norman had my longest day of miles as I biked all 30.5 miles of the Itusi Trail. The most rewarding bike ride was the Wimba Loop at Lake James, which was fast and fun with only a moderate effort.

Thinking about what could be next is almost as exciting as celebrating the accomplishment. The parks will keep adding trails so I’ll get to return again and again, but hiking the entire Mountains-to-Sea State Trail is definitely on my radar. It takes a couple months so that may have to wait until retirement. I have paddled most of the rivers, streams, and even entire lakes in our state parks system so maybe I will look to complete that next. I’ve also camped at nearly every state park with only a few missing. Ooh, maybe I could do every activity at every state park….but then I would have to by a horse and go to hang gliding school at Jockeys Ridge!