On the up and up at Elk Knob

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation

Turning on to “Meat Camp Road” just before getting to Boone makes me think of camping and eating lots of grilled meats, which I would argue are two of the best things in life. Nearly to Boone, I jumped off the highway and was at Elk Knob State Park within 20 minutes. The drive up to the park was lined with Christmas tree farms, rolling green hills and farm houses.

Entrance to park

Elk Knob State Park encompasses one of the highest peaks in North Carolina’s high country at 5,520 feet. The trail system in the park has something to offer every visitor. The Beech Tree Trail loops around the picnic area through the park’s American Beech forest at an elevation of 4,500 feet and is great for families. The up-and-coming Maple Run Trail is still under construction and is designed for cross country skiing and hiking. The two-mile Backcountry Trail winds down into the backcountry campsites and showcases the headwaters of the North Fork of the New River and Trout Lilys in spring. One of the parks system’s finest trails was my target for the day: the Summit Trail, which would lead me to spectacular views from Elk Knob.

Elk Knob Summit Trail

When I looked up at the winding switchbacks of the Summit Trail, I felt pretty confident. My friendly park ranger and hiking buddy planned to stay with me until about halfway to the summit, and then I would go it alone.  I learned that I had a long way to go to be a strong mountain hiker. I had to set our trek at a “piedmont pace,” which is what I’ve decided to call my slow (for now) hiking canter.

Wonderfully shady Summit Trail

Looking up at the steady climb of the trail, the switchbacks didn’t seem steep and in many places they appeared to flatten out. The trail offers full cover from the sun and changing scenery. Still, a steady incline for two miles over stones and tree roots can put you in your place quickly.  We stopped regularly to talk about the park, including the incredible group of volunteers who put in thousands of hours of work on the trail without bringing heavy equipment into the park.

Hand-laid stone steps on Summit Trail

Less than halfway up the Summit Trail, there’s a special treat. By that point, you already feel like you earned it. This overlook offers a shaded place to rest off of the trail and a stunning view.

Overlook on Summit Trail
View from overlook on Summit Trail

After a rest at the overlook, I felt recharged and ready to get back on the trail. Close to the summit, I met a steeper, stony climb. My ultimate reward arrived as I reached the summit and found two stunning and entirely different views—one toward the north and one toward the south.

I made it to the summit without ditching my gear 🙂

One of the best things about being on Elk Knob is the perspective you gain about where you are in the much larger Appalachian system.  From the summit, I saw familiar peaks like Three Top, Bluff Mountain, Mount Jefferson, The Peak, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Mount Rogers (Va.). My favorite part of this was seeing Grandfather Mountain from such a great distance, a familiar face (pun intended) of my childhood and a family favorite.  The fresh air and cool breeze were welcome rewards for the hike.

Elk Knob looking south

The way back down the switchbacks from the summit is mostly a breeze. I sailed down the mountain with a big smile.  I don’t mind admitting that I got a little overconfident with the ease of bouncing down the trails and twisted my ankle negotiating a rocky patch a bit carelessly. That brought me back down to Earth but it shook off quickly.

Heading down the Summit Trail

All in all, it took me about 70 minutes to reach the summit—and that’s with several brief stops—and about 30 to get back down. Make sure you have a pack of supplies when you head up to the summit. You will want your camera, plenty of snacks and about twice as much water as you would take on a regular walk or flat hike. Make sure someone knows you’re headed up and when to expect you back down the mountain. Leave yourself plenty of time to hang out on the summit a while.

See you in our parks!

___________________________________________

Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more.  Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach.

Magnificent Morning on Mount Jefferson

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, NC Division of Parks and Recreation

The winding road to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area takes you through the 100-year-old town of West Jefferson, which lies in a valley between Mount Jefferson and Paddy Mountain. I weaved through charming neighborhoods along a road that appears to be tunneled through a forest, but really the old town roads have been there for so long that they became embraced by the trees. There are more kinds of trees than I can recognize while driving, and I find that the green of the summer leaves is almost blinding as the trees seem to usher me toward the entrance of the park.

Entrance to Mount Jefferson SNA

A series of accessible overlooks as you wind up the mountain are truly breathtaking.  It was fun to stop on my way up the mountain to take in the vistas in different directions from Sunrise Overlook, Sunset Overlook, and Jefferson Overlook.  In some places, you can hike from one overlook to another via a narrow but well-maintained dirt trail.  The cool breeze and low light of the morning were breathtaking as I made my way up and up.

Sunset Overlook
Hiking trail between overlooks
Jefferson Overlook

As a state natural area, Mount Jefferson was protected by North Carolina to “preserve and protect scientific, aesthetic, or ecological value.” This means that most of the state’s natural areas have fewer facilities and therefore require less staff and maintenance. Mount Jefferson, which was formerly classified as a state park, is a bit of an exception, as it hosts spectacular, well-maintained trails, water access and bathroom facilities, abundant picnic sites, and a beautiful rustic shelter with a stone fireplace.

When I reached the parking and picnic areas that lead to the upper trails, I found the large shelter in the shade of the trees. It offered views of the valley below and of adjacent mountains and was expansive with several picnic tables and a beautiful view.  Open air picnic sites cascaded down the mountain toward the shelter, and I wished I had something more exciting to stop and enjoy there than trailmix and a bottle of water.

Shelter

As I made my way up to the ridgeline trail, I stopped in my tracks to look around. This place was different.  I’ve been on a lot of mountains, but here I felt like I was on another planet. The flora was woody and the undergrowth was sparse. The morning light bounced through the trees at a low angle that created a serene and dreamy atmosphere.  I thought, “if I were a skilled photographer I bet I could take some amazing photos right now.”  Hopefully at least one of these will do this place justice.

On the way up to the ridgeline

After a short hike up the Summit Trail, I joined the Rhododendron Trail. Particularly in early June, the trail very much lives up to its name with blooming rhododendrons everywhere you look. I learned from George the maintenance man that I just missed the pink lady slippers bloom, which I will try to catch next spring.

Rhododendrons along the trail
Rhododendron Trail along the ridgeline of Mount Jefferson

This path is considered “strenuous”, but I found it to be more moderate—a bit rocky and rolly (I believe that’s the technical term) in parts but often flat and smooth. A cool breeze across the ridge keeps you comfortable as you hike, and I don’t recall running in to a single insect (good for me, less so for entomologists) save some stunning butterflies. The ridgeline trail allows regular views of the valley below with multiple opportunities to creep to the edge of the trail for a stunning vista. Every step seems to be more beautiful than the last.

One of many vistas along the Rhododendron Trail

I came to a fork in the trail where I could go up to Luther Rock or down to the Lost Province Trail. Feeling torn, I sat on a bench at the fork and wrote for a while. I paused regularly to marvel at the steady cool breeze that seemed to defy the physics of fluid motion by making it deep into the trail despite the trees.

Fork in Rhododendron Trail to go up to Luther Rock or down to Lost Province Trail

Two families traveling together with young children caught up with me, their bubbling conversations in stark contrast with what had been a nearly silent solo hike. I overheard them chatting about their most loathed kids TV show (Calliou, which I’ve heard many times before) as they meandered along the trail, their daily lives woven in to their nature hike—their indoor and outdoor worlds colliding.

I finally decided to head up to Luther Rock, which turned out to be less than 50 yards up the trail. The families headed back down, leaving me to take photos and spend a luxurious amount of time lying on a bit of bare rock with thousands fewer feet between me and outer space than usual.  Words really can’t describe what I observed there, so I’ll just share the subsequent photos. As usual with the photos of a newbie photographer, these photos really don’t do this place justice.

From Luther Rock
From Luther Rock in another direction
From Luther Rock

I could have stayed all day.  I wanted to stay all day.  But alas, I had more parks to see in the area and did not want to run out of daylight.  I headed down the south side of the mountain on the return section of the Rhododendron Trail, home to a rare virgin forest of large northern red oaks that looked entirely different from the ridgeline portion of the trail. There were still plenty of rhododendrons to see on the way down, though.

I’m likin’ the lichen 🙂

I exited the trail a little bit winded and with a big grin.  I stopped to look back where the forest spit me out and thought longingly of all of the spots I must have missed this visit. Until next time, Mount Jefferson! You are an absolute joy.

Focus on flora from Luther Rock

______________________

Katie Hall is the new Public Information Officer for North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation.  A life-long North Carolinian, Katie is on a mission to explore all the State Parks she has missed or hasn’t seen in a decade or more.  Her background is in environmental science, management and policy, communications and outreach. 

Parks and recreation authority approves park expansions, improvement projects

Land acquisition projects at eight existing and proposed state parks and natural areas and four capital projects were funded in whole or in part by the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Authority on Friday, May 12 at a meeting at Carolina Beach State Park. The projects will be supported with a $5.2 million share of the trust fund designated for state parks. The allocation of this funding is contingent upon budget approval by the North Carolina General Assembly.

Land acquisition projects totaling $4 million include adding 151 acres to Eno River State Park, 212 acres to Grandfather Mountain State Park, 50 acres to Morrow Mountain State Park, 114 acres to Lake James State Park, and 236 acres to Hanging Rock State Park. Other projects include acquiring 1,790 acres to establish the proposed Black River State Park and an initial acquisition of 1,000 acres for the proposed Salmon Creek State Natural Area, which is located on a Bertie County site where artifacts that may be linked to the “Lost Colony” and 18 other identified archaeological sites were found.

The authority also approved $1.2 million in funding for much-needed capital improvement projects including sand relocation in Jockeys Ridge State Park, dock replacement at Hammocks Beach State Park, design for restaurant renovations at Mount Mitchell State Park, and HVAC replacement at Fort Macon State Park.

The Parks and Recreation Trust Fund is the principal source of funding for land acquisition and capital projects in the state parks, with 65 percent of trust fund revenue directed to those types of projects. The remainder is set aside for local government grants for parks and recreation projects and for coastal beach access.

At the May 12 meeting, Secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Susi Hamilton got to know to authority members and spoke of her deep appreciation for the work of DNCR’s divisions, which manage and support state parks, historic sites, art, science, and history museums, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Symphony, and much more. Division of Parks and Recreation Director Mike Murphy updated authority members on park visitation, the successful NC Science Festival, stream restoration projects and prescribed fire success in the parks. He also shared the progress of the exciting new 100 Mile Challenge and Passport programs and provided legislative updates.

Medoc a Mountain of Tranquility

I arrived before the heat of the day Saturday at Medoc Mountain State Park to celebrate the grand opening of the Park’s new bike trails—the first bike trails in the region and a new opportunity for mountain bike enthusiasts to get to know Medoc. The Park is located closest to the community of Hollister, north of Rocky Mount and east of Henderson– this is not an area of North Carolina that you tend to “happen upon.” You’ve got to set off to this Park with intention, and you’ll be glad you did. You’ll lose cell signal once you’re within ten miles of the park, but you won’t mind.

Enthusiastic cyclists arrived early and ready to hit the trails. Saponi Loop is a 3.3 mile “moderate” trail that partially follows existing hiking trails. Pyrite Loop is an entirely new 5.3 mile trail with natural rock and tree obstacles and is rated “difficult” for those of you who enjoy a rocky, rooty challenge. Not yet a confident cyclist, I set off on foot to get to know Medoc.

Before you’ve gotten far enough in to Bear Swamp Trail to get your heart rate up, you’ll find you’re immersed in the forest and incredible tranquility. As our daily lives become more and more jam packed, the places like Medoc Mountain State Park really rise to the top as a treasured refuge from the daily grind. The fresh, sweet smell of the air, the intense green of the plants, trees, and moss, the rocky earth under your feet– all of these things are abundant and free.

The trails at Medoc will remind you of mountain trails, only with more forgiving hills and less wildlife that is higher on the food chain than you are. Pack a snack and plenty of water and take your time on these trails– there is a lot more to see if you slow down and look closely.

Along the trail, I saw incredible displays of bright green moss, fields of native ferns, and trees that have twisted into funky shapes to reach the sun. With over nine miles of trails, you’re likely to find yourself alone for most of your hike—allowing you to feel truly immersed in this unique and inviting ecosystem.

In addition to the new trails, Medoc offers a pristine fishing stream reminiscent of another day and age that beckons in the heat, and a sprawling meadow big enough for flying kites or a game of football. Camping facilities are available near the meadow and covered picnic area.

Medoc Mountain State Park is a hidden gem that warrants a visit. Bring your bike or your best pair of hiking boots to traverse the rocky trails. See you there!

 

 

Fort Fisher has it covered

Summer is just around the corner, and Fort Fisher State Recreation Area has launched into the season with a splash.  Just five miles south of Carolina Beach, Fort Fisher was already an accessible treasure with its undeveloped beaches, four-wheel drive access, and one-mile Basin Trail– a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in a healthy salt marsh and maritime forest (from a lovely and sturdy boardwalk, and without being neck-deep in pluff mud). Last week, this State Recreation Area celebrated new additions to its ample charm that will offer visitors an even better experience.
As the first NC State Parks property to complete a Connect NC Bond project, Fort Fisher spruced up two of its most utilized resources: the picnic area and the restrooms. Newly installed sunshades stretch across an expanded, sandy-bottomed picnic area, offering a break from summer sun and a fun place to enjoy lunch. The restroom facility (originally constructed when Ronald Reagan was POTUS and “Top Gun” was in theaters) was remodeled and renovated from the bones to the stones- a much-needed upgrade from the original facility.
IMG_0453
Remodeled and renovated bathroom facility at Fort Fisher
When you head down to the coast this summer, make sure you visit your friendly Park Rangers at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area to enjoy the new amenities and all it has to offer.  You’ll be glad you did!
IMG_0454
Beach entrance adjacent to new shaded picnic facility

Mysterious Lakes in Bladen County

Not too many things are that mysterious in the natural world. Almost all the mysterious things have been figured out by science and reasoning. But here at Jones Lake State Park, we have a true mystery that has not yet been solved and most likely will never be solved: “How were the Bay Lakes formed?”

This question sparks many different feelings and answers from many people.  Some are adamant that these oval and uniform lakes were made by meteors. Others believe they were formed by the receding Atlantic Ocean and prevailing winds or prehistoric animal signs.  Scientists claim it is built up nitrogen beneath the Earth.Bay Lakes

Whatever the answer, people have been drawn to these bodies of water for centuries.  Native Americans have a word for them, Pocosin.  Pocosin roughly translated means, water on a hill.  Ancient dugout canoes have been found at the bottom of these lakes. There is one located in the visitor center of Jones Lake State Park. This canoe has been carbon dated to over 2,000 years ago.

Jones Lake State Park has a proud and long history dating back to 1939. It is one of the oldest parks in the North Carolina state park system. It was built and opened as the first state park for African-Americans in North Carolina. Since most businesses and attractions were segregated in the South until the 1960’s, Jones Lake State Park stood as an oasis to socialize and recreate for that community. Many of the same families and churches that came to the park when it first opened still hold family reunions and baptisms on a regular basis.JONE4

The water in Jones Lake has a distinct color. The dark color is created similarly to the way tea is made. The 224-acre lake is surrounded by hundreds of acres of thick bay forest (named after a type of bay tree that inhabits the forest). The bay forest has a peat bottom which seeps tannins into the water staining it dark. These tannins or tannic acid do more than stain the water; they cause the water to be very acidic. The lake does not have a creek or river running into it so it is rain-fed only. Because of the acidity, the lake does not hold regular freshwater fish species. There are only four different species of fish that call Jones Lake home: chain pickerel, yellow perch, flyer sunfish, and yellow bullhead catfish. Even though you cannot catch bass in the lake, it is still very relaxing to sit on the fishing pier and wet a hook.jone_shoreline_cp

Jones Lake has a total of 7 miles of hiking trails available for visitors. All trails are flat and easy to walk. Three trails give hikers the opportunity to see the distinct habitats that can be found in Carolina Bays. The Cedar Loop is a 1-mile long trail that offers great views of Jones Lake and loops through the thick Carolina Bay forest. While taking the 4-mile Bay Trail, hikers will travel through the thick bay forest aRCWnd the open sand rim. The Salters Lake Trail begins at the halfway point of the Bay Trail and is 1.5 miles long one way. This trail leads hikers to Salters Lake, one of a few remaining undisturbed Carolina Bay Lakes in the state. There is a good chance of seeing a red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered species of bird that calls Jones Lake State Park home.

For folks who want to camp at Jones Lake, the park offers 20 different family campsites to choose from.  If you have a large group, Jones Lake does offer an organized group camp that holds up to 35 people. Soon, thanks to the Connect Bond package passed last spring, there will be campground improvements made, which will consist of more full hookup sites and a new modern bathhouse.camping1

Folks have been enjoying this unique, mysterious, nature gem for quite some time and just maybe you will do the same. We hope so!

~Written by Jones Lake State Park Rangers Lane Garner & John Privette.  Lane is a graduate of University of North Carolina at Pembroke in Recreation Manager and has been a ranger for 14 years.  John is a graduate of Appalachian State also with a degree in Recreational Management.  He has been at Jones Lake State Park 2 1/2 years.

StoryWalk combines reading and the outdoors for kids

StoryWalk is coming to a North Carolina State Parks.

storywalk 1StoryWalk is simply a book and a walking path combined. In 2007, Anne Fergusson with the Vermont Department of Health had the idea to combine literacy and exercise. Teaming up with the Kellog Hubbard Library in Montpelier, they attached laminated pages from a children’s book onto wooden posts. In the ten years since, StoryWalks have gone up in all 50 states and at least 11 countries.

Our state parks education team has been busy laminating their favorite nature-based children’s books. We just add a little Velcro tape to the back, affix them to metal sign stakes, and a trail instantly becomes even more fun for children and book-lovers of all ages.

storywalk 2“As a parent, I love that the signs inspire young ones to hurry along the trail to find the next one. But, they also help make sure the kids don’t get too far ahead since they stop to read the next page,” says Education Manager Sean Higgins.

State park StoryWalks will usually remain up for one-to-two weeks along easy trails about one mile or less.   Upcoming walks include:

Dismal Swamp State Park, April 13-24, “Be A Friend to Trees”

Raven Rock State Park, April 20-May 1, “Diary of a Spider”

Carvers Creek State Park, May 2 – 16, “Diary of a Spider”

Lake James State Park, May 1 – 15, “Diary of a Spider”

Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, May 17-31.

 

Look for more at www.ncparks.gov throughout 2017.