(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.
The 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.
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!