One of the most spectacular settings for future state park development is cautiously being opened for limited public use at South Mountains State Park. The Clear Creek Watershed area of the park, at more than 3,000 acres, offers visitors a panorama unparalleled in the foothills and inspiration about possibilities.
On a recent Sunday, 11 visitors joined Ranger Amanda Lasley for a brief canoe hike on the 20-acre lake that is a scenic entryway to the tract. This followed a workday in which volunteers cleared brush from potential trail and public areas and built new visitor benches along the shoreline. There are no official trails on the property, but local visitors are welcome to walk the lakeshore, fish, picnic or carry in canoes and kayaks. Parking is extremely limited, but the park staff hopes to gradually expand a gravel lot.
In 2000, the Department of Agriculture ceded 2,556 acres then known as the Broughton Watershed to the state parks system. The property lies at the western edge of the state park next to public gamelands and has relatively easy access from Interstate 40 and Morganton. The addition made South Mountains State Park the largest in North Carolina at more than 18,000 acres. In 2007, an adjoining 454-acre tract was accepted from the Division of Health and Human Services. The two tracts – now called the Clear Creek Watershed – have been protected since the early 1970s and sweep from a paved state road to the top of a commanding ridge that looks onto the Blue Ridge and the Black Mountains to the west. Recently, the lake’s dam was repaired allowing a 10-foot increase in the water level. Above the lake and gently rolling land, the watershed features rugged outcrops and rare species.
The state park’s master plan envisions this as the setting for the parks system’s western environmental education center – to augment
existing ones at Haw River and Goose Creek state parks. A learning center and group overnight facilities would be built with special attention to design for populations with special needs (considering the site’s history serving these populations). Surrounding the center will be a network of trails, picnic areas, a play field, canoe launch, fishing pier, boathouse and primitive camping opportunities.
Even for inexperienced paddlers, the small lake offers just a mild challenge. But, the landscape revealing itself certainly challenges the imagination.