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!

Have a grand time in state parks on Grandparents Day

Join North Carolina State Parks in celebrating Grandparents Day. We’ll have special programs at each park during the weekend Sept. 9-11 designed to help grandparents and grandchildren enjoy the great outdoors together. Here’s a list of them. Below are three stories how the successful careers of many state parks employees have been inspired and encouraged by grandparents.

Jennifer Fenwick has been an interpretation and education assistant with state parks since February 2015. Part of her role has involved taking kids camping for the first time…

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12-year-old Jennifer (right) and Papa Bear (center)

“When I was 12 years old, Papa Bear (grandfather) was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. This diagnosis reasonably led him to contemplate his own mortality in a way he never had before. But rather than let it get the best of him, Papa Bear declared that the whole family was going to join him on a week-long backpacking trip in the remote mountains of Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest. It was on this trip that I became captivated by the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains and enthralled by the possibility of suddenly spotting wildlife such as moose, bears, and elk. It was this trip that filled me with a thirst for the natural world. So when I pause to consider how I got here, how it is that I became an educator for North Carolina State Parks, the credit lies primarily with my grandparents. They passed down to me their adventurous spirit and a love for wild spaces and the creatures inhabiting them. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Katie Sanford has been a park ranger at Dismal Swamp State Park since 2013.   Katie leads educational programs on snakes, insects and identifying animal droppings…

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Ranger Katie Sanford leads an educational program on snakes.

Ranger Katie Sanford leads an educational program on snakes.

“My paternal grandmother raised three boys, so when I was born she was really hoping for a “girly girl” to wear dresses and play with dolls and such. Unfortunately running around outside, building “snail hotels,” and riding bikes and horses were always more appealing to me. For many years when I was young, I received a new porcelain doll come my birthday or Christmas. By the time I was heading into middle school and still hopelessly interested in the outdoors, she finally gave up and my gifts started to include model horses and other things that were not dolls! She came to visit NC (from PA!!) last fall, and I persuaded her to come to Dismal Swamp and even to walk the entire boardwalk. That was a pretty big deal, although she was a little distressed when I found a rough green snake and went into “park ranger mode.” To her credit, she didn’t get close, but she didn’t run off either!” 

Sean Higgins has been an interpretation and education manager with state parks since 2007. Part of his role has involved writing curriculum and museum exhibits on wildlife observation and birds…

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Great Aunt Jeanne

“When I was eight years old, I was sent off alone to spend a week on the New Jersey shore with my grandmother. I have fond memories of watching MTV for the first time with my grandmother. But it was actually my Great Aunt Jeanne who encouraged my love for nature. Great Aunt Jeanne took me to the beach each day with my little Kodak camera.   Each day I would fill a film role with 24 pictures of common seagulls. Aunt Jeanne paid for the photo developing and even encouraged me by buying more film. I’m not sure my father would not have encouraged ‘wasting money on seagull pictures’ the same way Great Aunt Jeanne did. While I am more likely today to develop educational exhibits on bald eagles, sea turtles or alligators, I still have a soft spot for seagulls.”

Conservancy adds scenic land to Lake James State Park

The conservation community and North Carolina State Parks officials Friday celebrated the addition of 41 acres of a scenic farm to Lake James State Park, property that will help protect water quality in Paddy’s Creek and buffer the park’s growing trail system.

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Old farm structures will be used by brewery; land in background will be added to Lake James State Park.

The Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina hosted the dedication ceremony at the Whippoorwill Dairy Farm, a Burke County landmark. The conservancy announced in March that it had partnered with Morganton-based Fonta Flora Brewery to acquire the property, and will donate the bulk of the farm to the state park. Fonta Flora will use the remaining eight acres and its stacked stone buildings to create a farmhouse brewery.

“Foothills Conservancy has long been an effective partner in conservation and the development of North Carolina State Parks in this region,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “This project at the Whippoorwill Farm is another example of its tenacity and professionalism, and will enhance land protection, water quality and recreation opportunities at Lake James State Park.”

Funding for the acquisition included a challenge gift of $172,000 from conservationists Fred and Alice Stanback of Salisbury requiring a two-to-one match. That was met with a $210,475 N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant, a leadership gift from George and Ann Costello of Nebo, and other private donations. A grant from Conservation Trust for North Carolina’s Mountain Mini-Grant Program completed the project’s matching funding.

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Susie Hamrick Jones, executive director of The Foothills Conservancy.

“Permanent protection of the Whippoorwill Farm is a wonderful success story made possible by our state’s commitment to clean water and by visionary private donors who understand the value of protecting our waters and beloved scenic and historic heritage places for generations to come,” said Susie Hamrick Jones, Foothills Conservancy’s executive director.

The farm’s backdrop is the beautiful scenery of Shortoff Mountain, the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and Pisgah National Forest. The land added to the state park also contains an important piece of American history: a segment of the National Park Service’s Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail.

Mount Mitchell’s spirited celebration of 100-years of North Carolina State Parks

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The spirits of Dr. Elisha Mitchell and Big Tom Wilson seemed to be present in the light fog that shrouded Mount Mitchell State Park this weekend and its signature Centennial event that celebrated 100 years of the park and the entire state parks system.

Every state park is holding a special event during 2016 as part of the Centennial of North Carolina State Parks. But this one seemed special as park rangers and guests from across the state made their way to the 6,684-foot summit where it all began. The world-famous Bailey Mountain Cloggers provided a celebratory mood and mountain musicians provided a soundtrack for this once-in-a-lifetime event. Craftsmen demonstrated traditional mountain skills, and historians and naturalists interpreted the mountain’s singular history.

David Boone, a celebrated woodcarver and direct descendent of Big Tom Wilson, presented the park with busts of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who measured the mountain and became its namesake, and Big Tom, Dr. Mitchell’s guide who found the geologist’s body at the base of a waterfall in 1857. Dr. Mitchell’s watch – which presumably stopped at the time of his fatal fall – was displayed, on loan from the UNC Chapel Hill Wilson Library.

Park Superintendent Bryan Wilder laid a wreath on Mitchell’s mountaintop grave attended by Boone and descendants of Dr. Mitchell. North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson recited original verse that explored the mountain’s untamed nature. And, the North Carolina State Parks Ranger Honor Guard lent dignity to an opening ceremony suitable for such an historic occasion and the mountain that is a North Carolina icon.

Here is a photo gallery of the event. Click any image to begin.

LandTrust for Central North Carolina transfers high-value property to Morrow Mountain

The LandTrust for Central North Carolina has transferred a unique five-acre property to Morrow Mountain State Park for the perpetual protection of a unique and nationally significant hillside seepage bog. This globally rare habitat is home to a rare plant and a variety of wildlife.

momo land1“The LandTrust is thrilled to transfer this small but important property to Morrow Mountain State Park,” said Executive Director Travis Morehead. “The unique natural area, wildlife habitat, and scenic views from atop this property are special features that merit permanent protection.”

Wildlife such as deer and turkey are found in the mature hardwood forest on the property, and it is home to a rare plant, the crested coralroot. The large rocks and boulders are habitat for timber rattlesnake, a state endangered species. The property will also add to the recreation, research, and education opportunities at the state park.

“We first began working to save this special piece of property more than eight years ago,” said Crystal Cockman land protection director. “It is very rewarding to see this naturally significant property finally become a part of Morrow Mountain State Park.”

“This five acres on Biles Mountain in northeast Stanly County is within a registered Significant Natural Heritage Area and is considered nationally significant due to its natural communities, rare plant and animal populations, and because its geologic features are among the highest quality in the nation,” said Park Superintendent Jeff Davidson. “Morrow Mountain State Park is fortunate to have such great support from The LandTrust for Central NC, the Friends of Morrow Mountain, and many others in the local community who stepped up and got involved to help purchase and transfer this land to the park to ensure it is now permanently protected.”

In addition to the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, The Cannon Foundation and the Stanly County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau contributed financially to the project.

momo land2The Friends of Morrow Mountain State Park were supportive of this transfer as well. “It is very important to protect and expand the boundaries of Morrow Mountain State Park so that the long range viewshed from atop Morrow Mountain remains natural and scenic,” says John Young of Friends of Morrow Mountain State Park.

“This property transfer echoes the same community support that established Morrow Mountain as North Carolina’s third state park in 1935 following an initial 1,800 acres of land donations made by local citizens, land protection groups, and community supporters,” Davidson said. “This new property will bring the park to 4,747 acres, with the majority of the land being donated throughout the park’s 81 year history.”

Piedmont Land Conservancy secures critical property for Mayo River State Park

Mayo River State Park will be expanded by 354 acres – including 3.6 miles of river frontage – thanks to a land acquisition arranged by Piedmont Land Conservancy and Duke Energy that was announced Thursday. The property is critical for development of the state park and offers much-needed river access for paddling and fishing.

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The property acquisition will allow more opportunities for paddling and fishing.

Piedmont Land Conservancy has pledged to make the property near the Town of Mayodan part of the 2,187-acre park in Rockingham County. Duke Energy provided $1.1 million to help the non-profit conservancy acquire the land as part of Duke Energy’s efforts to mitigate recreational losses in the Dan River basin following a coal ash spill near Eden two years ago. Locally known as the Trust Property, the land is in two parcels.

Created in 2003, Mayo River State Park was envisioned as a riverine park in the style of New River, Eno River and Lumber River state parks. The ultimate goal is to allow visitors to experience the entire length of the river from the Virginia state line to its confluence with the Dan River. The park is headquartered at the site of the former Mayo Park near Mayodan, built as a recreation site by Washington Mills in the 1940s. The park also has a presence on the river at the Virginia state line.

 

This new acquisition will allow for river access and recreation facilities between those two anchor points within a 12-mile river corridor. At Highway NC 770’s bridge across the Mayo River, the property offers frontage on both riverbanks.

The acquisition was announced at a small ceremony at the NC 770 bridge by officials from North Carolina State Parks, the conservancy and Duke Energy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“In 2015, Piedmont Land Conservancy celebrated our 25th anniversary, and this property is one that we’ve hoped to acquire from the very beginning,” said Kevin Redding, the conservancy’s executive director. “Given the property’s fascinating history and the miles of river frontage along the Mayo, this acquisition will provide a major boost to the growing recreational opportunities at Mayo River State Park.”

The conservancy has been active in the development of both Mayo River and Haw River state parks, identifying potential acquisitions and negotiating with landowners. It provided the first property acquired for Haw River State Park soon after that park was authorized in 2001.

Mike Murphy, state parks director, said. “To develop any great state park, we need partners and friends connected by a common vision and a commitment to protect a region’s special places. Piedmont Land Conservancy has stepped up as a critical partner in this region, and its dedication and tenacity are to be applauded.”

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Hanging Rock opens new accessible picnic shelter

Hanging Rock State Park has opened a new 1,440-square-foot picnic shelter near its swimming lake and bathhouse that’s accessible to visitors with disabilities.

The shelter complex is a result of a partnership with ACCESS North Carolina, a state program established to provide funding for accessibility projects at tourism-related venues. The $290,000 project also includes an accessible, paved walkway from the parking area and shelter to the lake and bathhouse and eventually will include four outdoor, accessible picnic sites.

haro_shelterThe shelter offers 10 picnic tables, four of which are specially built to allow accessibility to persons with disabilities. Its design by architect Edwin Bouldin of Winston-Salem, using massive timbers and stonework, complements the park’s older shelters and other structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

“This shelter complex is a tremendous addition to one of our oldest and most popular state parks,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “We are grateful to ACCESS North Carolina and the state’s accessibility community, not only for helping with projects such as this in our state parks system, but also for keeping us informed of accessibility issues.”

“Picnicking is a popular activity at Hanging Rock State Park, and this will give visitors with mobility disabilities, their family members and travel companions accessible picnic opportunities and a chance to experience a beautiful lake view surrounded by nature,” said Philip Woodward, former ACCESS specialist currently with the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Hanging Rock State Park was created in 1935 and now encompasses 7,869 acres. It recorded visitation of 596,819 in 2015.