Hiking for the Health of It

By: Kris Anne Bonifacio, Special Programs Coordinator, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

While hiking on the Equestrian Trail at Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, Drae Wright took in the surrounding longleaf pine forest and the blue sky above and an idea came to her: “I should do more of this. I really need the exercise and the outdoors. Why not pick a bigger goal and make it an adventure? How about all the trails in all the state parks?”

She accepted the challenge she posed to herself just as quickly as the idea came to her.

Drae Wright

Drae is 68 years old and she began her state parks Passport adventure in March. But really, her journey to her new lofty goal began last December, when she was reading the book The End of Alzheimer’s by Dr. Dale Bredesen. The doctor, who earned his medical degree at Duke University, has earned praise for what he calls “the first program to prevent and reverse cognitive decline” — a series of lifestyle changes to protect brains from “downsizing.”

Reading the book was a wake-up call for Drae who is in the age group, 65 to 85 years old, of those most at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Even more alarming for Drae, she found that she had about “80 percent of the known precursors and about 80 percent of the early symptoms of late onset Alzheimer’s.” She became determined to fight these symptoms to prevent a diagnosis.

She started by walking 15 minutes a day. She felt that changing her sedentary lifestyle was the first step in getting healthy. As she increased the duration of her walks, she found herself wanting to go back to a hobby from decades ago: hiking.

Morrow Mountain, Mountain Loop Trail
Photo by Drae Wright- Mountain Loop Trail at Morrow Mountain State Park

“[In] April 1998, at age 48, my first hiking goal was to hike at least some of the Appalachian Trail that year,” she said. “The AT had been my dream since 15, but I was sick a lot, my physical stamina was poor and I never learned to hike or backpack.”

She persevered, though, hiking at state parks within a short drive from her home, and using the section of the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail at Falls Lake State Recreation Area as her practice run for short day hikes. She moved on to a first backpacking overnight trial at Raven Rock State Park. In August 1998, she completed a three-day hike on the Appalachian Trail.

But eventually, the hiking stopped.

Two decades later, she applied the same determination she had for her AT goal, and in three months, she is hiking 5 to 7 miles a day and working through her state parks Passport book. She even started wearing a purple cap in her hikes, from the organization Alzheimer’s North Carolina, to help spread awareness about the effects lifestyle changes like exercise can have on the disease.

“The purple cap is a conversation starter,” she said. “Some people get tears in their eyes and ask to hear more. They tell me who in their family has had the disease or who is struggling with symptoms and has no hope. My thought was to let people know that I believe Alzheimer’s is reversible and preventable.”

Many 100-Mile Challenge participants cite losing weight and developing a healthier lifestyle as their motivation for signing up. About 5 percent of our participants are over the age of 65, and according to the AARP, that is the time for increased risks for heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, several types of cancers and, as Drae noted, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The good news, Drae says, is that staying active — regardless of your age — could help prevent many of these health issues. And for those already diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or depression, exercise is a powerful tool in managing your symptoms.

Photo by Drae Wright- Robin’s Nest at Haw River State Park

“My outlook and cognitive training scores have improved greatly,” Drae said, adding that since she began her regular walks, she has lost weight, slept better and had more energy than most of her life. “I expect to fully recover from all symptoms and never go through the losses of dementia.”

One of the biggest hurdles in a healthy lifestyle is maintaining it. As Drae experienced earlier in her life, a sedentary lifestyle can creep up on anyone, even if you are fit enough to hike the Appalachian Trail.

So, joining programs like the 100-Mile Challenge can be a good motivator. Year after year, participants set a goal of at least 100 miles of outdoor activity, and they are rewarded with digital badges and prizes. Last year, more than 5,000 participants logged nearly 300,000 miles of hiking, biking, running, paddling, walking, horseback riding and geocaching. The miles do not have to be completed in state parks. Walking around your neighborhood, biking on the greenways or hiking on the AT count toward your challenge miles.

For Drae, she is on her 13thstate park in the Passport and has completed 30 miles of state parks trails. Within the 41 state parks, there are 618 miles of trail. When Drae reaches her goal, she will likely far exceed that, given that she repeats a few trails just to get some more exercise.

Winter Sky at Raven Rock State Park

But your own health goals don’t have to be as big as Drae’s. If you haven’t signed up for 100-Mile Challenge account, do so now and set the goal of 100 miles by the end of the year. When you meet it, you can shoot for the next one at 250 miles. Or you can make that your goal for the following year.

That is one of the best parts about our 100-Mile Challenge: you can customize it so that it works for you. You can even add the Passport goal as part of your challenge by hiking one trail at each park and collecting the stamps along the way.

So sign up today, and as we say in state parks, take a hike! Who knows, you might even run into Drae in her purple cap.

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Kris Anne Bonifacio manages the North Carolina State Parks 100-Mile Challenge and Passport programs. She has a journalism degree from Northwestern University. In 2016, she moved to North Carolina from New York City, trading in tall buildings for tall mountains, smoggy air for salty sea air and cramped subway trains for beautiful state parks.

Learn more about the Passport program hereand about the 100-Mile Challenge here.

Do you have your own healthy lifestyle goals as part of the 100-Mile Challenge? Email us at nc100miles@ncparks.govand you may be featured in our next blog!

 

 

Year of the Fish: Get Hooked on NC State Parks!

By: Brian Bockhahn, Regional Education Specialist, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

It is the Year of the Fish in North Carolina State Parks! Programs, festivals, and events throughout the state this year will celebrate this theme. We invite you all to join us at some of these events and Get Hooked on NC State Parks!

Whether you like fishing or just fish-watching, North Carolina State Parks has a lot of waters to explore! From the mountains to the sea, our state parks showcase treasured habitats for fish including mountain streams, lakes, dense, moss-filled swamps, tea-colored meandering rivers, the largest estuary on the east coast and of course 12,331 miles of sound and oceanfront shoreline from which to catch or study fish.

Ranger and child fishing game

In the cold mountain streams shaded by Rhododendron, you can find our state freshwater fish and North Carolina’s only native trout species—the Brook Trout. Its olive green color and speckled back help camouflage it on river bottoms, but watch for its reddish-orange fin with a white line on the leading edge. Visit Stone Mountain State Park and other mountain parks to explore some of the best cold trout waters in the state.

Throughout the foothills and piedmont anglers try to catch Largemouth Bass, White Bass, Crappie and the abundant Sunfish. You know the fish are biting when you see lines of boats or shoreline fisherman during a “run.” Several free public tournaments are held at Mayo River and Pilot Mountain state parks as well as Falls Lake and Jordan Lake state recreation areas. Fishing programs are also held at many parks throughout the year.

The Carolina Bays have several sport fish to catch. Some smaller endemic fish live in these shallow waters—this means that these fish live nowhere else in the world! Three species occur only at Lake Waccamaw: the “Waccamaw” Silverside, Killifish and Darter. Pettigrew State Park is on Lake Phelps—also a Carolina Bay—and where the Lake Phelps Killifish lives.

Red Drum
Photo by S. Bland

Our state saltwater fish is the Red Drum or “Channel Bass” that lives in coastal ocean waters and sounds. The Pamlico Sound is the largest estuary on the east coast, and along with the Albemarle serves as a vital nursery for the Red Drum and other fish. When spawning, males vibrate a muscle in their swim bladder to make a “drumming” sound. Red Drum live long and get large—the  world record is a 94 pounder caught right here in North Carolina. Next time you’re paddling at Goose Creek, Jockeys Ridge or Hammocks Beach state parks, think about these large old fish and listen for their “drum.”

We hope you enjoy the Year of The Fish in North Carolina’s state parks. Make sure you check our event calendar and join us for one of many fun fishing programs across the state this year—just search here for “fish”:

https://www.ncparks.gov/find-an-activity/events-and-programs

Pup and fish

Inclined to Stay: Cliffs of the Neuse State Park

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

You know those days that are sunny but not hot; breezy but not cold; everything feels just right? The kind of day that, with one deep breath, seems to wash away the troubles of the world and make you just happy to be alive?  That was the kind of day I enjoyed for my first hike at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. I hope you’re lucky enough to experience the park on a day like I did.

CLOTN entrance sign close up_PNG_Edited

Besides its natural beauty and unique features, one of my favorite things about Cliffs of the Neuse is its location. It’s in a part of the state that is still in need of engaging, affordable outdoor recreational opportunities, and is convenient to places like Wilson, Greenville, Smithfield, Mt. Olive, Kinston, and Goldsboro. It’s also about halfway from Raleigh to the coast, offering a fun stop on a weekend trip to the beach or a great place to stay for a few nights with sun, water, and hiking without making a trip all the way down east.

CLTN_Cliffs Fall_PNG_edited

This park is home to impressive cliffs overlooking the Neuse River–truly a sight that will surprise you when you visit for the first time. The cliffs reach 600 yards along the riverbank and rise 90 feet above the water. Layers of sand, clay, seashells, shale and gravel make up the cliff face, which began to form when a fault in the earth’s crust shifted millions of years ago. The Neuse River followed this fault line and slowly cut its course through sediment across the coastal plain. A portion of the river took a bend against its bank and the water carved the Cliffs of the Neuse.

CLTN Trail_PNG_Edited

Five trails ranging from 350 yards to two miles on land will lead you along riverside micro-habitats. You’ll see mature forests as well as a longleaf pine restoration area that is just beginning its journey back to its natural state. Many of the trails have lots more elevation changes than you would expect in the coastal plain. I found the terrain to be more reminiscent of the foothills, but with a mix of flora and fauna you would expect in central and eastern N.C.  Bald cypress trees fight to hang on to their bit of habitat in bogs along the trail, Spanish moss makes its westernmost appearance here, and galax, red oak, and Virginia pines more commonly seen in the western part of the state make their home upslope in the park.

CLOTN on cliffs river view_PNG_Edited

Hosting this kind of biodiversity is truly special. Cliffs of the Neuse State Park is a place to explore, swim, paddle, run, and play– the park is a jack-of-all-trades. If you haven’t been before, you’ll be truly impressed. If it’s been a while, you owe yourself a visit! I hope that vacationers, explorers, and residents from nearby will head to Cliffs of the Neuse and enjoy all the reasons to love this very special place that belongs to us all.

While you’re there, you’ll want to stay a few nights to try our new Camper Cabins– sturdy log cabins with the added comforts of A/C and electricity, especially nice during heat or cold. These two-bedroom Camper Cabins are only offered at Cliffs of the Neuse and Carolina Beach state parks, but we hope to have more in time as they have been a big hit with visitors.

Cliffs Cabin

See you in our parks!

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Katie Hall is the Public Information Officer for the 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 visited so far: 34 

New Sandhills Discovery Room Livens-Up Weymouth Woods

The Sandhills region, a narrow ribbon of rolling land stretching from North Carolina to Georgia, preserves some of the best remaining pockets of longleaf pine forests in the Southeast,” says the introductory panel in the Sandhills Discovery Room—the newest way for families to learn about Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve.Discovery Room Puppet Theater

The new room still tells some of the same stories about longleaf pine forests as the museum from which it was created, but now in a brighter, more family-friendly, interactive atmosphere that encourages both playful exploration and quiet reflection.

New playful elements in the room include a collection of activity boxes with loose parts, puzzles, and games. There are dress-up activities for role-playing and a puppet theater for child-centered storytelling or events staged by park staff. For those who remember the museum, one element will be familiar: the room retained the forest diorama and the tunnel through which children can climb and find vignettes of underground life.

Discovery Room Microeye

Adult visitors enjoy the more challenging puzzles on the magnet board and making art with magnetic poetry, Sandhills-style. Children and parents enjoy experimenting with natural objects from the park with the user-friendly microEYE microscope.

The most striking feature of the discovery room is the sprawling longleaf forest itself, presented by the new bank of windows that were added to connect the discovery room with the outdoors. Sitting in one of the new rocking chairs, visitors can reflect on the forest and maybe catch a glimpse of a red-cockaded woodpecker as they scan the woods.

WEWO_Sandhills Discovery Room_Rocking chairs

To encourage observation, many of the areas’ natural treasures are highlighted on panels that combine art from a North Carolina watercolorist with park staff photos.

Disco RoomNew educational Panels

The walls of the discovery room encourage visitors to “wander the trails at Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve to discover … this landscape shaped by thousands of years of frequent lightning-sparked wildfires.” That’s good advice—but be sure to also stop by the new Sandhills Discovery Room during your trip.

Discovery Room Full

WEWO PATH PINES

 

Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve is a unique peek into the longleaf pine forests that once covered millions of acres in the southeastern U.S. The towering pines – some of them hundreds of years old – canopy expanses of wiregrass and rare and intriguing species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, pine barrens tree frog, bog spicebush, fox squirrel and myriad wildflowers. A network of short, easy trails provides an outdoor classroom for ranger-led hikes that teach about this ecology or for quiet contemplation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

State Parks Superintendents Celebrate Heroism, Recovery, Ingenuity at Annual Conference

Leaders from across the Division of Parks and Recreation hosted a banquet at the annual State Parks Conference of Superintendents in January to recognize colleagues for their heroism, creative programs, outstanding projects, and exemplary service. While several inches of snow blanketed Haw River State Park, the Conference of Superintendents soldiered on to celebrate outstanding work of colleagues across the state. The awards described below include those awarded to volunteers and supporters of our state park system as well as staff.

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS

  • Division of Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Don Reuter was presented with this award for his dedication and service in organizing and managing the 2017 Association of Southeastern State Parks Directors Conference in Winston-Salem, N.C.. Don’s leadership was instrumental last fall when the division welcomed over 110 state parks leaders from 12 southeastern states as well as vendors from all over the country. Don brought the right resources together with venues and partners in the face of several obstacles. He delivered an outstanding conference that set the bar for excellence for years to come.
  • Park Ranger Jeff Davis saw a need at Carolina Beach State Park and took interest in growing and improving the park’s trail system. Jeff is still leading Carolina Beach State Park in innovative trail development 25 years later. He pioneered the development of one of the first Fitness Trails in our park system. In the past two years, Jeff’s leadership led to the completion of two new trail projects including extending and refurbishing Snow’s Cut Trail and the development of Sand Live Oak Trail.
  • Fall of 2016 brought a fire season to western North Carolina unlike any other in recorded history. The season included the Chestnut Knob fire that burned at South Mountains State Park for a full month, damaging 6,435 acres.  Superintendent Jonathan Griffith managed the limited firefighting resources in the area by working every day for three weeks and over 300 hours through the course of the fire. Supported by tireless staff and volunteers from the park and surrounding areas,Jonathan managed an incredibly challenging fire from start to finish.
  • Rangers Jessica Phillips and Crystal Lloyd went above and beyond their normal duties to create the “Ask a Ranger” podcast that promotes the division’s work. The rangers reached out to staff across the park system for interviews, expertise, and anecdotes, creating the first few podcasts to engage people who either can’t visit the park or are interested in more information after a trip to one of our parks. The podcast digs in to ecology, history, folklore, art, and culture in the parks, providing listeners with a behind-the-scenes look at all our parks have to offer.
  • The total solar eclipse event at Gorges State Park would not have come to fruition without the creativity, hard work and dedication of Bob Andrews, Miki Andrews, Patricia Riddle, Cliff Arrington, and Sharon Becker. Patricia and Cliff planned logistics for the event on top of every day park operations. Bob and Miki Andrews volunteered 336 hours during August alone to prepare for the eclipse events at the park. Working together, Bob, Miki, Patricia and Cliff brought in exhibitors, programs, food trucks, and music while ensuring the space and facilities needed would be available to accommodate all parties and several thousand visitors. Regional Interpretation and Education Specialist Sharon Becker curated eclipse-themed educational activities for visitors which were a big hit with children and full-grown visitors alike.
  • Following his 30-year career as a district Interpretation and Education Specialist, Data Manager Tom Howard returned to manage data and develop databases, particularly the Natural Resources Inventory Database, which documents every living thing in every North Carolina State Park. Tom has created a logical, effective database that documents critical information that will help protect our parks’ natural resources.

 

NATURAL RESOURCE PARK OF THE YEAR

Natural resource work often takes years to plan and implement. Under the supervision of Bill Meyer, Stone Mountain State Park has introduced regular prescribed fire to the park and executed a 611-acre fire in some of the most popular areas of the park. The park’s fire program represents the biggest improvement in a fire program in the mountain region and possibly the entire system. The park’s natural resource management program has also taken on several major invasive species eradication projects with the focused work of Ranger Michael Wood. In the last year, the park also managed to successfully execute a daunting stream restoration project last year in a popular trout stream.

 

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS

  • Hanging Rock State Park was selected for a Special Achievement Award honoring its Excellence in Interpretation this year. The park offered 457 programs reaching 8,660 people in 2017. The passion for Hanging Rock that Robin, Jason, and their team shared with over 100 guests during the Association of Southeastern State Parks Directors Conference in October was inspiring.  The park’s outstanding rangers offer natural resources presentations like What’s Buggin’ Our Hemlocks, they connect programs with an annual theme like Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave, and offer cultural history programs about the Saura Indians and the history of the Mineral Springs on the property. Through innovative art and nature partnerships with community groups, they routinely pursue new and innovative events. Last fall, a theater troop performed Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in the park, which was performed along a trail.
  • This year, Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve was selected for this award to honor its Excellence in Education. The staff of the nature preserve including maintenance mechanics, rangers, the superintendent, and seasonal staff brought their diverse skillset together to turn an old, dark room with outdated and minimally interactive displays into a bright, sprawling learning center where rangers and students can interact. Young visitors now leave the park with the greatest impression and education possible. A reading nook, state-of-the-art video microscope, puppet theater, interchangeable display cases, and an hand-made tables in a multi-use activity area revitalized this space at a huge cost savings–all thanks to the hard work, vision, and dedication of staff.

 

LOCKE CRAIG AWARDS

  • Mr. Everett Davis served as secretary of Lumber River State Park’s park advisory committee (PAC) for 26 years. During this time and even prior to the creation of the PAC, he was active in the protection of the Lumber River and served on the Lumber River Basin Committee. Mr. Davis was instrumental in the major events in the park’s formation and history since then, including the creation of its master plan, opening the facilities at Princess Ann and Chalk Banks accesses, and the creation of the Friends of Lumber River State Park. His wisdom was unmatched in moving the park forward through the years.
  • Colloquially known as the “Falls Lake Angels,” Sandie Rigsbee and Susan Dellinger have volunteered with the Division of Parks and Recreation for 10 years. Visiting the park three to five days per week for hours at a time, they collect trash as they walk through the park. They have assisted park staff with cleanup of swim beaches, hiking trails, picnic areas, parking lots, and roadways. They have also collected materials that floated away during flooding including landscape materials and signage. They have cultivated and maintained great relationships with park staff but seek no recognition for their hard work.
  • The Friends of Sauratown Mountains’s Volunteer Trail Crew constructed the Pilot Creek Trail at Pilot Mountain State Park with a group of rangers. Renting a mini-excavator with their friends’ funds, they constructed the 3.5-mile trail in 59 days through rain, sleet, snow and Christmas Day. This work saved the park over $73,000 in contracted work and fulfilled a dream for visitors and park staff alike with the new trail.

 

HEROISM AWARDS

  • On July 24, 2016, Richard Goad and his son William were fishing near the Alder Trail at Lake Norman State Park when they heard a commotion. Mr. Goad understood that there were people in distress in the water and sprinted over 100 yards to help. That day, Mr. Goad dialed 911 before entering the water to retrieve a 5-year-old boy. Mr. Goad performed CPR on him until he was breathing on his own. Returning to the water to retrieve another swimmer, Goad was able to bring her to shore and perform CPR until a trained bystander arrived.
  • On May 15, 2017 Ranger Patrick Amico risked his own safety to retrieve three people from rip currents off the beach at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. In two separate incidents. Ranger Amico entered the ocean in dangerous conditions and proceeded at least 50 yards off shore before reaching the people in distress. His incredible demonstration of selflessness and bravery was most deserving of this award.

 

PARK COMMENDATION AWARDS

  • On May 20, 2017, rangers Leigh Ann Angle and James Rusher responded to a call about a visitor with symptoms cardiac arrest at South Mountains State Park. They assisted the patient with supplemental oxygen and performed CPR on the patient according to protocol. Angle and Rusher prepared the AED. CPR was stopped as the patient began showing signs of life. The patient was transported to the hospital and was released later that day. These rangers displayed calm and professionalism while applying their training effectively in a stressful situation.
  • On March 24, 2017, Ranger Brandy Belville was the first responder to a call about an apparent heart attack at her neighbor’s house near Elk Knob State Park. A son was attempting CPR on his father. Belville took over until volunteer firefighters arrived, followed by EMS and sheriff’s deputies. The victim was a friend and neighbor to Ranger Belville and other park staff, making this rescue attempt particularly difficult.
  • On Feb. 7, 2017, Ranger Jason Anthony noticed one car was left in the Hanging Rock State Park lot near the visitor’s center. Against reason, he decided to check the Hanging Rock Trail for the operator. When he reached the top of the rock formation, he saw a backpack on the ledge. He could not see anyone in the vicinity and it was very dark and windy. He called other park staff including Sam Koch, Mary Griffin, Austin Paul and Superintendent Robin Riddlebarger to help search. Koch went to the base of the rock formation and found the victim badly injured, having fallen 115 feet. The patient was able to be flown by air transport to the hospital. Less than two weeks later, another person fell 40 feet from the rock formation. At that time, Ranger Austin Paul was on duty and responded to the 911 call. He and Ranger Anthony provided care until EMS arrived. That victim was also flown by air transport to the hospital. The Hanging Rock State Park staff went above and beyond to help visitors by carrying oxygen, narcan, and increasing training for rangers to provide the best possible care.

First Day Hikes Kick-Off New Year Despite Freezing Temps

In partnership with the National Association of State Parks Directors (NASPD), State Parks across America offered First Day Hikes on Jan. 1. Here in North Carolina, we continued a tradition started 40 years ago at Eno River State Park. New Year’s Day ushered in the coldest temperatures seen in decades in most areas of the state. Rangers and visitors alike bundled up and met in our parks for hikes to kick off the new year.

Over 1,350 participants joined us to collectively hike 2,953 miles. While a couple of hikes were cancelled due to road closures, most bundled up and marched forth into temperatures as low as 9 degrees. Here are some fun facts from this year’s First Day hikes:

  • For the first time ever, Hanging Rock had to break ice on the lake for the annual Polar Plunge
  • At Goose Creek, hikers ranged in age from 4 to 82 years old
  • Many parks reported an abundance of canine visitors on their first day hikes
  • A llama (!!!!) joined the hike at Pilot Mountain, where the 11 degrees and 10-mile per hour winds were likely reminiscent of its native lands at high elevations
  • 111 participated in the 3rd Annual First Day 5K at Haw River State Park
  • Eno River hosted the most hikers with 354 hikers along for two hikes
  • Crowders Mountain led the longest hike at 5 miles

Thanks to all who joined us for our First Day Hikes, and to all of our Rangers and Staff who supported these events across the state.

Enjoy these photos from First Day Hikes 2018!

Stone Mountain State Park
Stone Mountain State Park
Stone Mountain State Park
Stone Mountain State Park
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area- small but mighty group!
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area Bear Tracks
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area– It’s a BEAR!
Goose Creek State Park
Goose Creek State Park
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
Kerr Lake State Recreation Area
Kerr Lake State Recreation Area
Lake Norman State Park
Lake Norman State Park
Goose Creek State Park
Goose Creek State Park
Stone Mountain State Park
Stone Mountain State Park

Easing in to Winter Hiking at Haw River State Park

By: Katie Hall, Public Information Officer, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

Haw River GBH Trail 2

I chose Haw River State Park to launch a season of winter hikes. Though I enjoy cold weather and especially snow, I haven’t done much winter hiking in the past. This year, my first winter with NC State Parks, I am determined to make the most of the quiet trails as I continue to explore our parks. I’m sure that some of my upcoming winter hikes will be just lovely while others will be brutal and test my resolve. I’ll need new gear, a strong dose of willpower, and a lot of hot chocolate.

So far, I’ve got two pieces of gear to recommend (other than the obvious hat, gloves, scarf): a smartphone-friendly pair of gloves and good base layer. I’ve gotten two different thicknesses of base layers to meet my needs depending on what pants I hike in that day and how cold and windy the hike could be. Always check the weather in your hike area regularly as you’re planning and be ready to adjust your plans to make the best of your time.

One of the best things about Haw River State Park is its accessibility to the massive population of the Triangle, Charlotte, and Triad areas. It’s not so close to urban centers that it often gets overcrowded, but it is accessible, wonderfully wild, and one-of-a-kind.

Haw River Map

Haw River State Park was authorized by the N.C. General Assembly in 2003, solidifying the protection of the Haw River headwaters– an area in Guilford and Rockingham counties that was among 12 sites in North Carolina identified as a potential state park in the New Parks for a New Century initiative. The park has grown to 1,425 acres over the past 15 years with the help of partners and private donors. As part of interim development, it offers the traditional amenities of hiking and picnicking at our Iron Ore Belt Access day-use area. Additional facilities are planned, with this location noted as a key destination on the state’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Iron Ore Belt Access
Haw River State Park Iron Ore Belt Access

Great Blue Heron Loop is accessed at the new Iron Ore Belt entrance and ushers you on for 3.2 miles through hardwood forests and Haw River wetlands. It rolls through changes in elevation along a dry path with few rocks and roots, allowing for a peaceful, meditative hike. The loop is the perfect length for a solid hike even if you have an otherwise busy day.

Great Blue Heron Loop Trail

Part of the joy of winter hikes is the quiet of the trail this time of year. It’s a time to discover the landscape in a different state. While much of the ecosystem lays dormant, new dynamics are at play: different fauna have moved down from the north for warmer weather or are stopping over on their way further south; trees offer less shelter for woodland critters that typically live in their branches; and the dormancy of insects affects the availability of food for the usual warm season food chain. Due to these changes, winter hikes bring you to the threshold of a different place—even in your favorite, most familiar park—and allow you to experience it anew.

I’ve always loved cedar trees. To be honest and a bit morbid, I also love things made OUT of cedar trees, but I’ll focus on the trees here. Something about their shape and vibrant color seems almost surreal in a winter landscape. One of my favorite things about Haw River State Park was seeing so many beautiful cedars.

Check out this beefcake of a Cedar!
Make sure you make your way out to Haw River State Park this winter to make the most of this beautiful ecosystem. Opportunities for birding, hiking, and photography abound on the quiet trails this season.
Li’l baby cedars along the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail.

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Katie Hall is the new-ish 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.

Personal park count (as of 12/20/17): 30

Still on tap: Carvers Creek, Crowders Mountain, Goose Creek, Lake Norman, Mayo River, Merchants Millpond, Mount Mitchell, New River, Pettigrew, South Mountains, Weymouth Woods.