Nature Conservancy helps hiking project at Grandfather Mountain

An effort to improve the hiking experience at Grandfather Mountain State Park was rescued this month by The Nature Conservancy, which donated a modest, but critical, parcel of land to the park.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe donation of 33 acres at the northwestern base of Grandfather Mountain will allow the park to relocate and expand its parking for the popular Profile Trail leading to the mountain’s crest. It’s the only access to the mountain managed by the park – others are from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the private Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. The existing parking area is quite small and regularly fills by mid-morning. The new parking area will include restrooms and could be completed within about one year.

Park Superintendent Sue McBean said, “We will be able to conduct interpretive programs inside our park, even on busy weekends. Currently, we can’t because there is nowhere for participants to park. We will even be able to accommodate school buses for field trips.”

The park earlier had purchased property along NC 105 for this parking area. But, connecting a new parking area to the Profile Trail seemed impossible because of extremely steep terrain and stream crossings. The Nature Conservancy’s gift – part of a larger tract held by the nonprofit organization – will allow a suitable connector trail to be built. It will still be steep but manageable for average hikers. The more gradual grade for the trail will also protect sensitive slopes adjacent to the Watauga River headwaters.

grmo property 2

Parcel in yellow was purchased earlier for new Profile Trail parking area. Parcel outlined in red was donated by The Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy has held property for conservation on the northern and western slopes of Grandfather Mountain for many years. The organization is a longtime partner of the state parks system and helped to create a number of North Carolina’s state parks, most recently at Chimney Rock and Carvers Creek.

Trust fund authority awards $3.9 million for local parks projects

RALEIGH – The N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority awarded $3.9 million for local parks and recreation projects at its meeting Friday in the Nature Research Center. Local governments submitted 67 applications requesting $12.6 million.

The authority also allocated $1.5 million to purchase properties for addition to Lake James, Raven Rock, Pettigrew and Grandfather Mountain state parks.

Mike Murphy, director of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, gives an update on division news to authority members and guests.

Mike Murphy, director of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, gives an update on division news to authority members and guests.

The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund provides dollar-for-dollar matching grants to local governments for parks and recreation projects to serve the public. The trust fund is also the primary source of funding to build and renovate facilities in the state parks and to buy land for new and existing parks.

At the meeting, Division Director Mike Murphy provided a summary of the recently completed session of the General Assembly and provided updates on recent activities and events in the division, the agency’s move to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the upcoming bond referendum, which includes $75 million for state parks.

“The goal of the transfer is to synergistically maximize the investment in state attractions, which includes the state parks, state museums, state historic sites and arts agencies,” Murphy said. “We expect a few bumps and challenges, but the concept is sound and we are excited about being part of a new department in which all of North Carolina’s treasures are under one roof.”

Murphy also provided details about the breakdown of the $75 million identified for state parks in the Connect NC Bond Act of 2015, which will be put before voters March 15, 2016.

The Connect NC projects for state parks identified in the package include:

  • $20.9 million for new/improved visitor centers and community buildings in 11 parks;
  • $18.8 million for new/expanded campgrounds and cabins in 12 parks;
  • $21.3 million for parkwide and day-use improvements in 12 parks, and
  • $14.1 million for land acquisition in 10 parks.

Pilot Mountain’s newest trail circles the landmark’s lower slopes

Pilot Mountain State Park’s newest trail – a 4.5-mile loop near the base of the mountain – was inspired by a firebreak hastily constructed with a bulldozer in 2012 and recently completed by park staff and volunteers from Friends of Sauratown Mountains.

Mountain Trail loop touches the Grassy Ridge Trail near the visitor center.

Mountain Trail loop touches the Grassy Ridge Trail near the visitor center.

The Mountain Trail rambles around the slopes at about 1,500 feet elevation, at one point connecting with the Grindstone Trail near the park’s campground and also accessible from near the visitor center and from a remote parking area on Pinnacle Hotel Road (aka Surry Line Road) that serves as a trailhead for the Corridor Trail. Park Superintendent Matt Windsor said that remote trailhead is the best way to get onto the trail when the park is crowded.

Windsor said the composition of the surrounding forest subtly changes as a hiker makes the circuit, and in winter, the trail offers impressive views of the summit knob.

Windsor estimated the contribution of the Friends of Sauratown Mountains, which cleared the route, and park staff that cut larger trees at about $23,000. Benchmark Trails Inc. built the trail tread that averages a mild five percent grade.

Forest composition subtly changes as the trail circles the mountain.

Forest composition subtly changes as the trail circles the mountain.

A 2012 prescribed burn that briefly escaped control prompted the N.C. Forest Service to construct a firebreak around the mountain’s base. Although the firebreak was never really tested by the blaze, parks system officials considered it as a potential trail. Though much of the bulldozed route was found to be too rocky and unstable for a trail, the idea persisted. Most of the new Mountain Trail was routed slightly farther uphill, though a few sections of the bulldozed path were used.

Mountain music on the mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStrains of “Pretty Little Dog” and “Cumberland Gap” were bouncing across the rock ledges of Pilot Mountain State Park for a few hours this weekend. It was a small crowd but a very big stage that greeted the Southern String Band, which traveled from Raleigh.

There are a few surprises and some special things being planned for the 2016 centennial of the state parks system. One of those is a video being prepared by Tom Earnhardt, a regular contributor to UNC-TV and a long-time friend and supporter of the state parks. Earnhardt decided an al fresco performance by the Southern String Band might be the perfect thing to get video viewers in the mood.

So, fiddles, banjos, guitars, a mandolin and bass were carefully carted down the Sassafras Trail to the sunny side of the iconic mountain. The musicians warmed to the task as the sun rose and the tunes were as brisk as the October air.

There also is a series of videos being prepared that celebrate the splendors and history of individual state parks. Much of the footage for those was captured by our rangers. Sights, sounds activities and music will combine throughout next year as we commemorate one of the nation’s oldest state parks systems.

The fiddle section bends to a tune.

The fiddle section bends to a tune.

Tom Earnhardt, left, gives directions to the Southern String Band.

Tom Earnhardt, left, gives directions to the Southern String Band.

Fort Macon State Park opens new hiking trail

Open marsh borders Fort Macon's trail along the route..

Open marsh borders Fort Macon’s trail along the route..

Although it’s the second oldest state park in the system, Fort Macon has never had a proper hiking trail until now.

Using maintenance staff, rangers and private donations, the park has opened the first half of what will eventually be a three-mile loop through maritime forest and alongside its lush marsh. The trail stretches from the historic fort west to the park’s picnic area and primary swim beach. The staff’s goal is to complete the trail loop in time for the park’s centennial celebration in April.

Superintendent Randy Newman said the trail ultimately will be dedicated to Dr. Elliott Coues, a military surgeon and naturalist stationed at the fort during the Civil War. The park’s visitor center offers a display about Coues’ work, which focused on coastal bird species.

Friends of Fort Macon and an anonymous donor provided funds for the project, most of it used for equipment and lumber to build seven small boardwalks totaling nearly 800 feet over sensitive wetland areas. Although primarily built for pedestrians, the trail will be open to cyclists on a trial basis. Newman said visitors have been requesting a trail for many years. The park, which serves more than a million visitors each year, is a favored destination for joggers, walkers and cyclists, especially during tourist season.

The trail opens the park's maritime forest for closer inspection.

The trail introduces visitors to the park’s maritime forest.

State parks gearing up for ‘Science in the Great Outdoors’

The NC Science Festival started in 2010 as the nation’s first statewide science celebration with more than a million people discovering science at a school, museum or park during three weeks in April. In 2016, parks become even bigger partners with the theme, “Science in the Great Outdoors.”

Kelvin visits the summit of Mount Mitchell.

Kelvin visits the summit of Mount Mitchell with his bag of chips.

Kelvin, the NC Science Festival robot mascot, is high on science and parks. He’s just back from Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S. and the first North Carolina state park in anticipation of the 2016 state parks centennial year.

The mountain is named after former UNC geology professor Elisha Mitchell, who first measured its elevation in 1835 using a mercury barometer. Dr. Mitchell’s calculations were surprisingly accurate, just 12 feet shy of the true 6,684 feet. His former student Thomas Clingman famously disputed his discoveries. Dr. Mitchell slipped off a waterfall to his death in 1857 while on expedition to prove his claim. Thankfully, Kelvin kept safe by staying on park trails.

Physics allows us to see the low atmospheric pressure or “thin air” atop Mount Mitchell. Here’s a simple experiment: take an unopened bag of potato chips or dried fruit from the valley and drive it up to the summit. Decreasing pressure causes air molecules to expand, inflating or even popping your bag. This change in atmospheric pressure also accounts for the mountain’s weather wonders. Average summer high temperatures are only near 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average annual snowfall is a whopping 120 inches.

The fate of high-elevation trees is an important topic for investigation.

The fate of high-elevation trees is an important topic for scientific study.

One environmental challenge clearly visible at the park are the dead Fraser fir trees. Scientists link this die-off with air pollution and an exotic-invasive insect, the balsam wooly adelgid. Thankfully, young fir trees are regenerating, likely with the help of modern technology that reduces air pollution. And, scientists are actively working on new ways to combat the invasive bugs.

With more young scientists interested in STEM, Mount Mitchell State Park has a bright future. We hope you join Kelvin in NC Science Festival activities at 41 state parks from April 8-24, 2016.

Pilot Mountain tries new method to improve forest

Sassafras Ridge at Pilot Mountain State Park had become so overgrown that only a single sun-loving sassafras tree could be found recently in the immediate vicinity, which features a TRACKS trail for kids’ exploration and education.

Wild berry plants appear on the forest floor after mulch treatment.

Wild berry plants appear on the forest floor after mulch treatment.

Decades of fire suppression on the mountain is largely to blame, having created an understory of flammable thicket and leaf litter susceptible to wildfires. The park set a goal of reducing this wildfire fuel to preserve canopy trees, remove smaller diameter trees and create conditions to favor native grasses, wildflowers and young pines and oaks. In the past few years, prescribed burns have been introduced in the park, but natural resource managers found another tool for their forestry toolbox.

With the help of Friends of State Parks and Friends of Suratown Mountains, the park purchased a forestry mulcher – a rubber-tracked machine on a mini excavator that turns the small-diameter, mid-story plants into mulch in winter months. This leaves canopy trees intact but allows sunshine to reach the forest floor. After a single growing season, low-growing black huckleberry and blueberry plants appeared – an important food source for wildlife.

Before mulching, the ridge had a tangle of underbrush and leaf litter.

Before mulching, the ridge had a tangle of underbrush and leaf litter.

Alongside the natural benefit to the forest, the program becomes a teaching tool on the Sassafras TRACK Trail.

Seven park rangers receive law enforcement commissions

Seven new state park rangers received commissions as law enforcement officers Tuesday at a special ceremony at William B. Umstead State Park.

Before the swearing-in ceremony, Superior Court Senior Resident Judge Nathaniel J. Poovey, told the rangers they have one of the best jobs in North Carolina, but those jobs come with high expectations. “You are the innkeeper, you are the steward of what is undeniably our state’s greatest assets,” he said.

Superior Court Senior Resident Judge Nathaniel J. Poovey speaks to the rangers and their families.

Superior Court Senior Resident Judge Nathaniel J. Poovey speaks before the swearing-in ceremony.

Receiving a commission as a Special Peace Officer at the end of 17-week basic law enforcement training is generally regarded as the last formal step before a ranger takes on full duties in a unit of the state parks system. During the training period prior to commissioning, a ranger is assimilated into the park and begins assuming duties in resource management and visitor service.

Noting that 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of the parks system, Mike Murphy, state parks director, said, “Our visitors have been making memories in state parks for 100 years, so you’re starting your career here as park rangers at a very auspicious time.”

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, added that a ranger’s face is often the one that visitors will remember. “The kind of memories I’ve come away with are largely due to your work,” he said. “You are the teachers; you are the protectors; you’re the knowledge base here.”

The rangers who received commissions are: Charlotte Elizabeth Davis, Pettigrew State Park; Dylan Martin Joyce, Pilot Mountain State Park; Ian Phillip Magill, South Mountains State Park; Joseph Austin Paul, Hanging Rock State Park; Darius Lindsey Pollard, Hanging Rock State Park; William Darrell Stanley II, Kerr Lake State Recreation Area; and, Zackary Lynn Stephenson, Falls Lake State Recreation Area.

Also recognized at the ceremony were rangers who’ve received commissions in the past few months at small ceremonies across the state. They are: Patrick Joseph Amico, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area; Jesse Alexander Anderson, Pilot Mountain State Park; Malcom Scott Avis, Falls Lake State Recreation Area; Nicholas Paul Dioguardi, William B. Umstead State Park; Wade Stephen Engels, Crowders Mountain State Park; Leigh Ann Fox, South Mountain State Park; Kimberly Jean Radewicz, Falls Lake State Recreation Area; Mark David Sain, South Mountains State Park; Katharine Lynne Sanford, Dismal Swamp State Park; Amy Renee Shepherd, Lake Norman State Park; Alyssa Christine Taylor, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area.

State parks website friendlier to smartphones and tablets

An improved state parks system website at was introduced this month after a major redesign. Aside from refining many of the site’s most popular features, the upgrade results in a site friendlier to smartphones and tablets.

The website was one of state government’s first and remains among its most sprawling sites, with each of 41 state parks, state recreation areas and state natural areas having a substantial presence, alongside details of the other myriad programs of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. This marks the third major revision of the site since it was launched in 1996, and the complexity of the upgrade necessitated a two-year project that involved dozens of division employees and state park friends under the guidance of website manager Marla Laubisch.

The ways that people use the Internet constantly evolve. One of the most significant changes in recent years is that more people now use mobile devices to reach favored websites rather than desktop or laptop computers. And, social media plays a larger role than ever. The site is designed to allow the system’s 15 million annual visitors to find information to make decisions about visits quickly and efficiently.

Visitors to the site can now search for parks by favorite activities or features and further search those by cultural or historical relevance. A new “Things To Do” menu helps with this. Here are more new or enhanced features:

  • An “Events” calendar searches by park or by date; and upcoming events are highlighted on a park’s main page.
  • Users will find close integration with Facebook, Twitter, blog and other social media links, as well as support for the system’s reservations system and its mobile app.
  • A new “Park News” feature informs neighbors and close friends of individual parks of special events and happenings. Each park can post real-time alerts about closings and park emergencies.
  • Hiking remains the favorite activity for most visitors, and each park’s section includes trail descriptions, points of interest, photos and other information about its trail networks.

Because the website now is such a vital part of serving visitors and state park friends, it will always be a work in progress. So, feedback and suggestions on improvements are always welcome.

Rangers charge four people for poaching plants

State park rangers in western North Carolina apprehended four people recently for plant poaching at the Yellow Mountain State Natural Area in Mitchell County. It was the first such incident in state parks in recent years, though officials say poaching of galax, gensing and other plants is becoming more of an issue.

Yellow Mountain State Natural Area

Yellow Mountain State Natural Area

Four people were given citations Aug. 28 by Ranger Luke Appling and Superintendent Susan McBean of Grandfather Mountain State Park, which manages the nearby state natural area. McBean said the poachers were caught leaving the area with about 27,000 galax leaves in small bundles.

McBean said, “A big problem is that they were pulling it out by the root with the leaves attached, and this plant takes seven years from seed to producing seed.” She said that while patrolling the 3,111-acre state natural area, Ranger Appling regularly talks with neighbors about strangers in the vicinity and recently noticed a bushwhacked trail and disturbed areas on the mountain. “It was his due diligence in knowing where to go, when to go and what to expect,” she said.

Galax leaves are used in Europe's floral industry.

Galax leaves are used in Europe’s floral industry.

A ground-hugging plant, galax is used in Europe’s floral industry and can occasionally be legally collected by permit on national forest land, McBean said. Collecting galax is not as serious an offence as collecting ginseng, which is a felony, but state parks prohibit any collection of plants or minerals. On a recent hike, McBean found about a dozen Fraser fir and spruce seedlings that had been pulled and then dropped along a trail on Grandfather Mountain.

McBean said state and federal rangers have begun meeting regularly to discuss poaching issues and to share information.


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