Friends of State Parks energizes for centennial

On the eve of the state parks system’s centennial, the nonprofit Friends of State Parks has developed a strategic plan that will help it become a more effective advocate for state parks in North Carolina.

“We need to grow up, mature and celebrate this birthday,” Mary Penny Kelley, president of the organization, told members during its annual conference in Raleigh Tuesday. The strategic plan, she said, concentrates on developing “superpowers” to reach its goals.

David Pearson, left, executive director of Friends of State Parks and Jim Richardson, board member, are recognized during the annual meeting.

David Pearson, left, executive director of Friends of State Parks, and Jim Richardson, board member, are recognized during the annual meeting.

The statewide Friends of State Parks has been actively involved in centennial planning and will lead an effort to gather corporate and citizen support of the year-long celebration in 2016.

Mike Murphy, director of the state parks, said the centennial is a premier opportunity to leverage publicity for support of state parks as well as its varied friends groups. The opportunity, he said, “gives us a way to speak to leadership about the value of parks and the need to fund them.”

Murphy detailed centennial plans, which include special events at every state park and signature events at Mount Mitchell and Fort Macon. More detail came from Sean Higgins, head of the parks system’s education program who is coordinating those events, and from MSA, a Raleigh-based firm developing a marketing strategy for the centennial.

In recent years, Friends of State Parks has nurtured its role as an umbrella organization, helping local friends groups organize to support individual parks. It has also increased funding for education programs such as the Junior Rangers and school field trips. In 2014, it hired former president Dave Pearson as an executive director.

Click here to find out more about Friends of State Parks and how to become a member.

It’s the Year of the Amphibian in NC state parks

If you’re a true tarheel you should be able to name our two state amphibians. No?

The fifth specially designed bandana celebrating an annual nature theme.

The fifth specially designed bandana celebrating an annual nature theme.

Among the reasons that we have two state amphibians is that North Carolina is a hot spot for those critters. The state’s mountain region boasts the highest salamander diversity in the world (including the impressively large hellbender), and the southeastern U.S. has the highest frog diversity in the country.

So, it’s time to “Dance in the Rain” in 2015, the Year of the Salamander in North Carolina state parks.

State parks will continue the tradition of celebrating an annual theme with fun activities, excursions and another specially designed bandana. The Year of the Amphibian marks our fifth year of celebration. Parks will offer a variety of frog and salamander related programs, hikes and family events. Also, we will build new partnerships with other natural resource agencies and universities to promote research and conservation of amphibians across the state. Click here to find some of the events near you.

It won’t be long before cold winter days begin to soften with the sound of frog calls signaling the coming of spring. Let this change in season be an invitation to get out into the parks and celebrate with us.

Oh yes, our state amphibians are the marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) and pine barrens tree frog (Hyla andersonii).

Hit the trails for the Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge

Here’s a great reason to get out into the state parks with your camera (or smartphone): the NC State Parks Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge.

photoscavengerFirst prize is a $50 gift card and a tent from outfitter REI and a free night’s camping in a state park. There are other great prizes, too, in this contest that’ll end on Earth Day April 22.

Entering the challenge is easy. Simply visit a state park and photograph 12 of 15 items on our list – such as a beautiful view, a historic feature, plant life, etc. – and send the images to us. Your name will be entered into a drawing for prizes. Visit a different state park and complete the challenge and your name will be entered again.

Click here to find details and the complete rules.

The Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge was created by seasonal state parks employees who attended the Outdoor Nation Summit last year at Jordan Lake. The group won a $1,000 grant for the concept to get more people outside and engaged in nature. Outdoor Nation connects millennials (generally ages 18-28) from across the country to promote the outdoors to their generation. The statewide Friends of State Parks and REI thought enough of the idea to volunteer as sponsors.

You’ll soon see posters in the state parks promoting the Photo Scavenger Hunt Challenge to remind you to get onto the trails with that camera.

North Carolina state parks report record attendance of 15.6 million visitors in 2014

North Carolina’s state parks and state recreation areas had record attendance in 2014, with 15.6 million visitors, a 10 percent increase over 14.2 million the previous year.

William B. Umstead State Park reported record attendance of 1.29 million in 2014, one of six parks with more than one million visitors.

William B. Umstead State Park reported record attendance of 1.29 million in 2014, one of six parks with more than one million visitors.

Among 39 state parks and state recreation areas, 27 reported increases in attendance in 2014. William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County reported the highest attendance at 1.29 million visits, and was among six state park units logging more than a million visitors. The others were Fort Macon and Jockey’s Ridge state parks and Falls Lake, Jordan Lake and Kerr Lake state recreation areas.

“Record visitation in 2014 dramatically reflects the value North Carolinians place on our state parks, especially for the communities where they’re located and their economies,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “The state parks system will hold its centennial in 2016 and planning is underway for special events and opportunities to celebrate a system that has become an institution for recreation, conservation and connection with nature in our state”

Over the past 25 years, attendance at state parks has nearly doubled. In 1989, eight million people visited state parks and state recreation areas.

A number of factors likely contributed to the record visitation, among them a long list of special events at the parks, beginning with First Day Hikes on Jan. 1. More than two dozen events were scheduled for National Trails Day in June and every park held special interpretive programs during Take a Child Outside Week in September. And, newly created events began to gain traction, including a paddle festival at Hammocks Beach State Park and a long-distance hiking challenge at Hanging Rock State Park. Additionally, no parks were closed for extended periods due to weather emergencies or construction.

The new Carvers Creek State Park in Cumberland County logged its first full year of operation, reporting 74,220 visitors. Parks reporting the largest increases in visitation included Crowders Mountain in Gaston County (65 percent), Hammocks Beach in Onslow County (32 percent), Lake Norman in Iredell County (70 percent), Lake Waccamaw in Columbus County (26 percent) and Morrow Mountain in Stanly County (64 percent).

The state parks system manages more than 223,000 acres within state parks, state recreation areas and a system of state natural areas dedicated to the conservation of rare resources. Through its New Parks for a New Century initiative, six new state parks have been added to the system since 2003.

Raven Rock steers toward mountain biking

Volunteers, directed by seasonal employee Joe Franks begin clearing a biking trail corridor.

Volunteers, directed by seasonal employee Joe Franks, begin clearing a biking trail corridor.

Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County will join our group of mountain biking destinations, with plans to build up to 20 miles of bike trails over the next several years. With a group of volunteers, the park launched the project Monday with a modest start at clearing brush from the first trail corridor.

“There is a lot of excitement from park visitors, volunteers and the local community about adding new mountain bicycle trails to the region,” said Superintendent Jeffrey Davidson. “It is proposed to have the first of three loops bike-ready in mid- to late 2015.”

The more people who get excited about the new trails and volunteer to help, the quicker the project will advance. The park plans a series of workdays. (The next is Sunday Jan. 25; click here for details.)

The park received two grants totaling $200,000 from the federal Recreational Trails Program to create a network of beginner, intermediate and advanced trail loops. The first step is to build the beginner loop, expected to cover about six miles. Hikers will be welcome on the new trails, as well. The trail network will be in the southeastern section of the park (Moccasin Branch area) with a trailhead near the picnic shelter.

Mountain biking trails are being added to several state parks in the system.

Mountain biking trails are being added to several state parks in the system.

Mountain biking is a booming outdoor sport, and the state parks system is adding trail networks in parks that can accommodate them. The largest network in the system is at Lake Norman State Park, where volunteers have created more than 30 miles of trails. Lake James State Park opened a 15-mile network in 2014.

First Day Hikes cover 7,010 miles on state park trails

Park Superintendent Kelley King leads hikers along a new trial at Haw River State Park.

Park Superintendent Kelley King leads hikers along a new trial at Haw River State Park.

In crisp, clear winter weather, the fourth annual First Day Hikes in North Carolina’s state parks set a record that will be hard to top in coming years; 2,980 hikers covered a combined 7,010 miles on park trails in just a few hours of winter daylight.

The 49 guided hikes ranged from modest “leg-stretchers” on easy interpretive trails to a six-mile trek from Crowders Mountain State Park into South Carolina on the Ridgeline Trail. High-elevation hikers at Elk Knob and Mount Mitchell were undeterred by wind chills in the 20’s, while many on the coast were blessed with shirtsleeve weather in the afternoon.

At Haw River State Park, 62 visitors were the first ever to walk a new, 3.2-mile trail to be opened for regular public use later in 2015. It meanders through a 692-acre tract acquired from real estate development company Bluegreen in 2008 that lies just west of the park’s Summit Environmental Education Center. The interim development on the property will introduce traditional state park facilities at Haw River.

At Pettigrew State Park, visitors watched wintering tundra swans, while at Lake James they explored an old homestead. A selection of companion dogs was common on most of the hikes, but at Pilot Mountain, hikers shared the trail with a pair of llamas brought by their owners from a local farm.

Of course, attendance was highest at Eno River State Park, where a popular New Year’s Day hike staged by the Eno River Association has long been a tradition. The park had 702 visitors enjoying two leisurely hikes and fellowship. Elsewhere, attendance was highest at Raven Rock State Park (243), Haw River State Park (123), Dismal Swamp State Park (105) and Fort Macon State Park (101).

Rangers at many parks reported full parking lots throughout the day, suggesting that visitors registered for First Day Hikes were just a slice of total attendance on the first day of 2015. At Medoc Mountain, Ranger Ryan Newsome suggested his 33 hikers make it a New Year’s resolution to get out and hike in a state park at least once a month, and several families agreed to take on that challenge.

Here’s a photo gallery of First Day Hikes 2015. Click on any photo to begin.

Lake James State Park is the North Carolina 2014 State Park of the Year

Bridge over Paddy's Creek has become a signature landmark at Lake James State Park.

Bridge over Paddy’s Creek has become a signature landmark at Lake James State Park.

Lake James State Park in Burke and McDowell counties has been named the North Carolina 2014 State Park of the Year by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

The park was chosen for its “exemplary contribution to the North Carolina state parks mission of stewardship, public service and education,” and specifically recognized for initiatives in managing natural resource, recruiting volunteers  and expanding recreation opportunities.

“Lake James State Park is fulfilling the promise it has held since 2004 when it was expanded with 2,900 acres of property acquired from Crescent Resources Inc. Its staff has been adept at balancing exciting new recreation opportunities with careful protection of natural resources on that property,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “This exemplary performance led to its selection as State Park of the Year.”

Lake James State Park opened a 15-mile network of mountain biking trails in 2015.

Lake James State Park opened a 15-mile network of mountain biking trails in 2015.

During the year, Lake James State Park opened a 15-mile network of mountain biking trails, began offering kayak and canoe rentals and staged multiple special events including an ultra-marathon and the popular Catawba Riverfest. The park’s rangers reached more than 4,000 visitors with special interpretive programs, and guided volunteers for more than 1,100 hours, a 400 percent increase over the previous year. The maintenance staff continued trail construction and launched a project to build canoe-in campsites. The division’s natural resource staff and park rangers initiated a prescribed burn program and a kudzu management program, and staged a 24-hour “bioblitz” to inventory hundreds of plant and animal species in the park.

The state parks system began choosing a State Park of the Year in 2010 with nominations from each of four districts. Each of 40 state parks and recreation areas submits an annual report that is objectively scored on progress in recreation, natural resource protection, sustainability, public safety and environmental education. Final judging is by senior and peer administrators. To honor the State Park of the Year, a medallion is attached to a hiking staff that is passed to the current award recipient each year. Crowders Mountain State Park in Gaston County was honored in 2013.

Lake James State Park was authorized in 1987 and is under the direction of Superintendent Nora Coffey. The park encompasses 3,515 acres and reported 398,148 visitors in 2013.

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.

 

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