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WNC Business

Spreading awareness and visitation across NC’s State Parks

Jun 06, 2023 01:08PM ● By Randee Brown

North Carolina State Parks are a large draw for people interested in outdoor recreation according to Katie Hall, Public Information Officer for the NC State Park system.

A press release in January 2022 announced record visitation rates for 2021 across NC’s 41 state parks with 22.8 million visitors, three million more than any other year on record. Ten of those parks received more than one million visitors in that year.

Hall said 2022 had slightly less visitors than the previous year, though the parks are still seeing more visitors than before the pandemic. While there is no official record of where visitors come from, Hall said rangers say that they see license plates from all over the country. She said that state parks near cities are very popular with locals, and some parks are often stopping points for people on long road trips.

“The perception is that a lot of people learned to love the outdoors that hadn’t before,” Hall said. “People are also rebalancing their lives with other activities that they enjoyed pre-pandemic. As populations grow, the number of visitors that the parks see will keep increasing, as people need their space and time in nature.”

Each region having something different to offer, Hall said state parks throughout Western North Carolina attract more experienced hikers and climbers. “It’s typically a different group of people than those looking for a casual stroll,” she said. “There are more challenging conditions at different times of the year. Western North Carolina’s parks also offer a break from the heat in the summer as well as their variety of challenges.”

With more than 450 permanent staff and 800 seasonal staff, the park system is coming into a modern era for data analyses to determine reasonable capacities for visitors.

While visitation increased by 40% over the last 10 years, state park staff only increased by 2%.

Not dependent on revenue, the state parks are taxpayer funded. Hall said that the state parks are working with $20 million in funds from Connect NC Bond on many projects to update and upgrade infrastructure at many parks around the state. There is also a Complete The Trails Fund that comes out of the NC General Assembly to build new trails and repair trails that were overused during recent years. 

“We must have the staff to meaningfully manage visitor capacity to preserve these natural resources,” Hall said. “We are close to a tipping point in some locations that are so heavily trafficked that small shrubs, natural grasses, and other plants are getting trampled to a non-recoverable point. We don’t want to do permanent harm to those resources.”

While Hall said they want to promote off-season camping and awareness of other parks to help disperse visitors more evenly, she said their challenge is trying to teach safety and preparedness for park visitors with little to no outdoor experience at the same time. There are programs in place to encourage learning about safety as well as pursuing new places.

The Passport program consists of a book with each page telling about a different park. Visitors can learn what they can see and do at each park, and get a stamp at each park’s visitor center. “This encourages people to visit parks they’ve never been to before,” Hall said. “We’ve had great response from visitors, and it’s really becoming beloved by people.”

There is also the 100-Mile Challenge — a health-focused initiative that promotes a goal of completing 100 miles of outdoor activity in a year. People can track their miles online and look at all the trails in NC, whether they be state, local, or national parks. There are badges to be collected, and special days or months may offer special badges. Hall said that these collectible badges remind people of their experience and encourage people to have a goal of physical activity while learning about their parks.