By: Catherine Locke, Marketing Director, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation
This summer my co-worker and North Carolina State Parks Public Information Officer, Katie Hall, wrote about her trip to Elk Knob State Park. It was one of her first official trips after assuming the role in May. She experienced the park during the spring when the air was warm, the trees were green, and she had plenty of company on the trial.
My experience over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in mid-January was just as spectacular but totally different. For me, my visit to Elk Knob State Park was the final stamp in my North Carolina State Parks Passport not to mention more miles to log into the NC 100 Mile Challenge for 2018.
Elk Knob State Park had been on my “must see” list for several years. In fact, it was supposed to be my first trip after starting with Parks. Sadly, it remained elusive for nearly three years. However, this weekend would be different. Despite the snowstorm in the forecast, my instinct said the weather would move through quickly. I called the park office when I left Raleigh and the park was indeed open. However, I was advised by the ranger to delay my visit due to icy roads. Taking her advice, my son and I took a side trip to South Mountains State Park to see the waterfall, which had been frozen only a few days earlier. I did not want to acknowledge the thought I may not make it to the park again!
The next day the snowstorm had moved through, the sun was bright and the temperatures were warmer (if you call low 20’s warm). I called the park. It was open and the roads from Boone were clear. For months leading up to the visit, I had promised the superintendent I would make the journey only to be side-tracked by weather, work or other commitments.
After a quick stop for gas, coffee, and snacks, we headed out. When we arrived, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had finally made it to Elk Knob State Park, my forty-first state park! I got out of the car and took several snapshots to celebrate in front of the park sign. Many state park employees have intentions of visiting every park, for some, it never happens. I felt grateful that my position allows me the flexibility to visit all the state parks, to see the variety and get to know them and their staff on an individual park basis.
We drove up to the park office, got our passport stamped and hit the road into the park. Knowing that daylight was fleeting and my opportunity in the park was limited due to the snow and ice, we decided the Summitt Trail would be our destination for the day. The 1.9-mile trail took over 6,000 hours and five years to construct. We were optimistic we could do the hike in less than 4 hours.
When we arrived at the parking lot there were only a handful of cars. Like most ten-year-old boys, my son enjoys exploring and basically being a goof-ball. We are normally passed on trails as people hike up. As we worked our way up the trail we were passed by more people coming down on the switchbacks than going up. I did the math on my fingers. Less than five cars left in the parking lot. I questioned my decision and the advice I routinely give others: hike early.
The trail was blanketed with snow. The trees seemed to be nestled in for a long winter’s nap. It was extremely quiet. The only noise was my son and I giggling and sharing stories or the crunch of our boots on the snow. The air was crisp and cold but not unbearable. We had dressed like onions with thermal underwear, long-sleeved shirts, fleece and our ski jackets. At one point on the way up, my son wanted to remove his coat. The inclines can be tough if you don’t take them slowly.
We planned on the hike taking four hours total and we had just passed the two-hour mark. The group that started at the same time we did was now coming down. We asked them if we should continue or if the trail ahead had more ice than we can handle. They assured us it was safe and well worth the time. We pressed on. We only encountered a few slippery spots and I reminded my son to “be careful.” Of course, wouldn’t you know, I’m the one who slipped. He asked “How much longer?” and I responded, “We are almost there,” even though I had no clue.
If you ever question whether the teachers in North Carolina are doing their jobs, let me give you an example they are (or at least my son’s current fifth-grade teacher is). As we came around a bend after the 30th time of him asking, “Are we there yet?” he proclaimed, “Mom, we are almost there.” Tired, I asked, “How can you tell?” He said proudly, “The trees are shorter. I learned that at school.”
We were alone at the summit for what seemed like a lifetime as we took in the views of The Peak, Three Top and Bluff Mountain, Mount Jefferson, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell and the Iron Mountains in Virginia and Tennessee. Then, out of nowhere, a trail runner came up behind us and asked if we wanted our picture taken. We did.
In one afternoon I had completed my journey of visiting all North Carolina State Parks. We hiked the tallest peak in North Carolina’s High Country at 5,520 feet in the winter and reached the Top of the Knob.
My passport may be complete but my journey has only begun. The year 2018 has a lot in store for me and other park visitors: the new Passport Program, more 100 Mile Challenge badges and the Amazing Adventure.
“Never give up, stay focused, stay positive and stay strong.”
Written by Catherine Locke, Marketing Director of the North Carolina State Parks. Catherine is close to her third year with Parks, hired in the newly created marketing position in March 2015 to execute the 100th Anniversary of the North Carolina State Park’s centennial marketing campaign in 2016. Now she works to promote the parks, programs, and staff as well as create awareness and support for the North Carolina State Park System. On weekends, you can find her on the trails.