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Hikers on top of MacRae Peak, Grandfather Mountain, climb back down to Grandfather trail, one of the best trails in the area to provide picturesque views of the surrounding area.

PHOTOS BY ROB MOORE | WATAUGA DEMOCRAT



Originally published: 2014-01-16 18:27:49
Last modified: 2014-01-16 18:29:40

PARK IT

by Allison Haver

For three consecutive years, the attendance at North Carolina's state parks and state recreation areas has remained at record levels, with 14.2 million visits in 2013, according to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

"Throughout fluctuations in the economy and the tourism industry, visitation at state parks has remained steady and robust, and that reflects the value North Carolinians place on outdoor experiences and the state's rich natural resources," said Carol Tingley, acting state parks director, in a statement.

A recent economic study conducted by North Carolina State University's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management revealed that travelers spend an average of $23.56 a day to enjoy the state parks. The analysis estimated the state parks system's total annual economic impact at more than $400 million.

"Visitation at this level reveals the strong contribution that our state parks make to North Carolina's tourism economy, as well as the economies of the local communities in which they're located," Tingley said.
 
Weather can also have a substantial impact on state park attendance. Heavy rains in late spring and early summer dampened visitation at many parks, but otherwise the system was not affected by winter storms or tropical storms or hurricanes during 2013, according to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. 

Locally, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in 2013 Grandfather Mountain State Park had a total of 70,010 visits, Elk Knob State Park had 26,747 visits and New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area had 269,845 visits.

Grandfather Mountain State Park
Grandfather Mountain State Park is open year-round and has 12 miles of trials. The state park has 13 backpack camping sites for those who love to hike and camp in the High Country.

"Our park pretty much consists of our park trails and backpacking, we don't have any facilities yet," said Andy Sicard, a park ranger at Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Camping is permitted in designated areas only which are identified by signs and a camping icon on the trail map. Fires are permitted at most lower elevation campsites, but not on Grandfather Trail or at the Hi-Balsam Shelter.

According to Sicard, the park intends to put in a new Profile Trail parking lot in the next couple of years.

Grandfather Mountain State Park is separate from The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The park's staff consists of three park rangers, an office assistant and a maintenance mechanic. The park is located off of N.C. 105 South in Banner Elk.

For more information call (828) 963-9522.

Elk Knob State Park
Elk Knob State Park, located on Meat Camp Road in Todd, is open all year except for Christmas day. 

The state park's five-member staff consists of two park rangers and a park office, a maintenance facility, picnic area, parking areas, a trail to the summit of Elk Knob and backcountry camping. The park has four miles of trails and a total of five campsites.

Brandy Belville, a park ranger at Elk Knob State Park, said the park would soon have a new addition.

"We are hoping to open Beach Tree, a new trail, this summer," Belville said. "We are more than halfway done.

Belville also said money from park donations went to buying snowshoes.
"We then ordered this week, so we could take people snowshoeing in the next couple of weeks," she said.

Elk Knob State Park will host an astronomy workshop on March 28, and will participate in the N.C. Science Festival on April 5.

Visitors can also take part in workshops featuring this year's N.C. State Parks theme, "Butterflies and Moths."

"All N.C. state parks have a different theme every year," Belville said. "And we will have a lot of programs on that ('Butterflies and Moths')."
For more information about Elk Knob State Park, call (828) 297-7261.

Mount Jefferson State Natural Area
Mount Jefferson is open from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. May through August, 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. September and October and closed on state holidays.

 The park offers guests 19 tables and eight grills, making it an ideal spot for a family picnic. A handicap-accessible picnic shelter is also available with eight tables, a fireplace, large grill and drinking fountain.

Visitors to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area have multiple activities to participate in. Day and night hikes enable participants to explore the trails around the mountain as a ranger discusses the area's history, wildlife and plant life.

There is a 1.3-mile hike available to learn about the mountain's largest height, major rockslides and other geologic mysteries and another ranger-led hike to the Summit and Rhododendron trails to explore the wildflowers.
For more information about Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, call (336) 246-9653.

New River State Park
New River State Park in Laurel Springs is open November through February from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., March - April 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., May - August 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., September - October 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is closed Christmas Day. Activities available are canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and picnicking. Rangers at the park also hold regularly scheduled educational and interpretive programs about New River State Park.

For more information, call (336) 982-2587.