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.
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).

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

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.

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.

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!

Butterfly Garden at Raven Rock Visitor Center

Colossal Canoes for Little Learners…and YOU!

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The “Hellbender” (L) and Loggerhead (R) are “Big Canoes” recently donated by the Friends of State Parks for educational programming across the state park system.

Some of North Carolina’s most breathtaking natural resources are best reached on the water. Interpretation and Education Manager Sean Higgins wanted to make sure the youth of our state can see, explore, and learn in these places.

Thanks to the Friends of State Parks, we now have two 29-foot-long Big Canoes that each hold 14 paddlers. The 28-person capacity of the two canoes will allow parks to offer educational programming that entire classes can experience together.

The Loggerhead
Interpretation and Education Manager Sean Higgins prepares to take The Loggerhead on a safety test voyage
The Friends also funded a trailer to haul the new canoes from park to park, plus life vests, paddles and other safety gear. Thanks to these new tools, guided canoe trips will be available from the mountains to the coast to provide new and exciting experiences for all North Carolinians.

Big Canoes are safe and stable and they will provide novel, memorable experiences for young learners and adults alike.

On guided Big Canoe tours, state park visitors and students will hear stories about North Carolina’s natural and cultural history, see new parts of the most beautiful places in our state, and learn about what makes these places extraordinary.

See you in our parks!








Hiking for the Health of It

By: Kris Anne Bonifacio, Special Programs Coordinator, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

While hiking on the Equestrian Trail at Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, Drae Wright took in the surrounding longleaf pine forest and the blue sky above and an idea came to her: “I should do more of this. I really need the exercise and the outdoors. Why not pick a bigger goal and make it an adventure? How about all the trails in all the state parks?”

She accepted the challenge she posed to herself just as quickly as the idea came to her.

Drae Wright

Drae is 68 years old and she began her state parks Passport adventure in March. But really, her journey to her new lofty goal began last December, when she was reading the book The End of Alzheimer’s by Dr. Dale Bredesen. The doctor, who earned his medical degree at Duke University, has earned praise for what he calls “the first program to prevent and reverse cognitive decline” — a series of lifestyle changes to protect brains from “downsizing.”

Reading the book was a wake-up call for Drae who is in the age group, 65 to 85 years old, of those most at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Even more alarming for Drae, she found that she had about “80 percent of the known precursors and about 80 percent of the early symptoms of late onset Alzheimer’s.” She became determined to fight these symptoms to prevent a diagnosis.

She started by walking 15 minutes a day. She felt that changing her sedentary lifestyle was the first step in getting healthy. As she increased the duration of her walks, she found herself wanting to go back to a hobby from decades ago: hiking.

Morrow Mountain, Mountain Loop Trail
Photo by Drae Wright- Mountain Loop Trail at Morrow Mountain State Park

“[In] April 1998, at age 48, my first hiking goal was to hike at least some of the Appalachian Trail that year,” she said. “The AT had been my dream since 15, but I was sick a lot, my physical stamina was poor and I never learned to hike or backpack.”

She persevered, though, hiking at state parks within a short drive from her home, and using the section of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail at Falls Lake State Recreation Area as her practice run for short day hikes. She moved on to a first backpacking overnight trial at Raven Rock State Park. In August 1998, she completed a three-day hike on the Appalachian Trail.

But eventually, the hiking stopped.

Two decades later, she applied the same determination she had for her AT goal, and in three months, she is hiking 5 to 7 miles a day and working through her state parks Passport book. She even started wearing a purple cap in her hikes, from the organization Alzheimer’s North Carolina, to help spread awareness about the effects lifestyle changes like exercise can have on the disease.

“The purple cap is a conversation starter,” she said. “Some people get tears in their eyes and ask to hear more. They tell me who in their family has had the disease or who is struggling with symptoms and has no hope. My thought was to let people know that I believe Alzheimer’s is reversible and preventable.”

Many 100-Mile Challenge participants cite losing weight and developing a healthier lifestyle as their motivation for signing up. About 5 percent of our participants are over the age of 65, and according to the AARP, that is the time for increased risks for heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, several types of cancers and, as Drae noted, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The good news, Drae says, is that staying active — regardless of your age — could help prevent many of these health issues. And for those already diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or depression, exercise is a powerful tool in managing your symptoms.

Photo by Drae Wright- Robin’s Nest at Haw River State Park

“My outlook and cognitive training scores have improved greatly,” Drae said, adding that since she began her regular walks, she has lost weight, slept better and had more energy than most of her life. “I expect to fully recover from all symptoms and never go through the losses of dementia.”

One of the biggest hurdles in a healthy lifestyle is maintaining it. As Drae experienced earlier in her life, a sedentary lifestyle can creep up on anyone, even if you are fit enough to hike the Appalachian Trail.

So, joining programs like the 100-Mile Challenge can be a good motivator. Year after year, participants set a goal of at least 100 miles of outdoor activity, and they are rewarded with digital badges and prizes. Last year, more than 5,000 participants logged nearly 300,000 miles of hiking, biking, running, paddling, walking, horseback riding and geocaching. The miles do not have to be completed in state parks. Walking around your neighborhood, biking on the greenways or hiking on the AT count toward your challenge miles.

For Drae, she is on her 13thstate park in the Passport and has completed 30 miles of state parks trails. Within the 41 state parks, there are 618 miles of trail. When Drae reaches her goal, she will likely far exceed that, given that she repeats a few trails just to get some more exercise.

Winter Sky at Raven Rock State Park

But your own health goals don’t have to be as big as Drae’s. If you haven’t signed up for 100-Mile Challenge account, do so now and set the goal of 100 miles by the end of the year. When you meet it, you can shoot for the next one at 250 miles. Or you can make that your goal for the following year.

That is one of the best parts about our 100-Mile Challenge: you can customize it so that it works for you. You can even add the Passport goal as part of your challenge by hiking one trail at each park and collecting the stamps along the way.

So sign up today, and as we say in state parks, take a hike! Who knows, you might even run into Drae in her purple cap.


Kris Anne Bonifacio manages the North Carolina State Parks 100-Mile Challenge and Passport programs. She has a journalism degree from Northwestern University. In 2016, she moved to North Carolina from New York City, trading in tall buildings for tall mountains, smoggy air for salty sea air and cramped subway trains for beautiful state parks.

Learn more about the Passport program hereand about the 100-Mile Challenge here.

Do you have your own healthy lifestyle goals as part of the 100-Mile Challenge? Email us at nc100miles@ncparks.govand you may be featured in our next blog!