This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the North Carolina State Parks system, with Mt. Mitchell State Park being the first in a system that now includes 34 state parks, four state recreation areas, two state natural areas, and one nature preserve. And our state parks have never been more popular, with 2015 visitation numbers at a record high 17.3 million visitors across all parks. This growth in visitation is up from 15.6 million visitors in 2014 and 14.2 million visitors in 2013. For a state that has a population of 10 million, our state parks are getting quite a lot of visitation!
In light of the 100 year anniversary of our State Parks system we have put together a bucket list of seven state parks that every North Carolinian should visit at least once in their lifetime. We have chosen these parks primarily based on their unique or iconic natural and/or historic significance. We would venture to say that our bucket list of state parks are the top parks that people think of when they think of NC State Parks, and therefore we believe that every North Carolinian should experience these parks at least once, but preferably many times in a lifetime!
1. Mt. Mitchell State Park
At 6,366 feet above sea level, Mt Mitchell is the highest point in North America east of the Rockies. If that’s not enough of a reason to visit, it is also the first state park in the NC state parks system, having been established in 1916.
Mt. Mitchell is accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway north of the small town of Black Mountain. NC Highway 128 winds off the Parkway five miles to the top of the mountain where there is a raised observation platform with 360 degree views giving you visibility of up to 85 miles on a clear day.
If you are looking for more of a challenge, you can hike up the Mount Mitchell Trail, which ascends 3600 feet in 5.5 miles to reach the summit. There is also small nine-site campground near the summit, which is the highest campground east of the Rockies.
Mt Mitchell is also home to a number of extremely challenging races including the Assault on Mount Mitchell - a 102 mile bike race from Spartanburg, SC to the summit - and the Mount Mitchell Challenge - a 40 mile ultramarathon trail race from Black Mountain up to the summit and back down.
For more about Mount Mitchell State Park click HERE
2. Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge is located in Nags Head on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is the tallest active sand dune system in the eastern US. The dunes were almost bulldozed in the mid 1970s for the construction of a residential development until locals organized to protect and preserve Jockey’s Ridge.
The tallest dunes in Jockey’s ridge are as tall as an 8-10 story building and the views of both the ocean and the sound from the top are spectacular, with sunset being a particularly popular time to climb the dunes. Favorite past times at Jockey’s Ridge include flying kites, sliding down the dunes on boogie boards, sand boarding, and for the truly adventurous – hang gliding.
The park was the center for hang gliding on the East Coast in the 70s and 80s and Jockey’s Ridge’s soft sand and smooth winds continue to make it an ideal place to learn how to hang glide. Beginner hang gliding lessons are available in Jockey’s Ridge State Park and are provided by Kitty Hawk Kites, located just outside the park boundaries.
3. Pilot Mountain State Park
Pilot Mountain is an iconic geologic feature of North Carolina, rising up majestically 2,000 feet from the surrounding landscape. The mountain’s unique and unmistakable shape, which is visible for miles around, has served as a landmark and guidepost for Native Americans and early European settlers for millennia. The local Saura Indians called Pilot Mountain “Jomeokee” which means the Great Guide or Pilot.
While you cannot get on top of Pilot Mountain there is a 0.8 mile trail that goes around the base of the rock formation with great views of the cliffs of Pilot Mountain. Rock climbing and rappelling are popular activities in the park although climbing on Pilot Mountain itself is prohibited.
For more about Pilot Mountain State Park click HERE
4. Chimney Rock State Park
Chimney Rock is one of the newer parks in the state park system having been previously owned and operated as a private park until 2007 when the family that owned Chimney Rock sold it to the state. The Chimney Rock is another one of the iconic geologic features of North Carolina. It is a spire of rock 315 feet tall that you can walk out on to enjoy amazing views of Lake Lure and the Hickory Nut Gorge.
Back in the late 1940’s, in a unique feat of engineering, an elevator was constructed inside the cliff walls behind the Chimney Rock to provide access to the top. While the elevator is currently undergoing repairs and updating, the only way to get to the top now is to climb the 500 steps that wind up and around the cliff faces surrounding Chimney Rock.
In addition to visiting the namesake Chimney Rock, there is also a wonderful short ¾ mile hike to the 400 foot Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. Rock climbing is also available in the park with instruction provided by Fox Mountain Guides – the southeast’s leader in climbing instruction.
5. Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon State Park is the only state park created around a man made landmark as opposed to the more commonly featured natural landscapes of the state park system. While Fort Macon is the most prominent and unique aspect of this state park, there is also 1.5 miles of ocean front beach that make this park a popular draw for those interested in history as well as beach time fun and relaxation.
Fort Macon was built between 1826 and 1834 and served to defend Beaufort Inlet as the main point of entry to the ports of Morehead City and Beaufort Harbor, which was North Carolina’s only major deep water ocean port. The Fort was the location of a brief siege during the Civil War in which one Union soldier and seven Confederate soldiers lost their lives and Union Forces ended up taking over the Fort. In 1903 the US Army abandoned the Fort and it was later sold to the state of North Carolina for $1 in 1924, becoming North Carolina’s second state park that year.
The Fort went back into military usage during World War II when the US Army leased the fort from the state of North Carolina and actively manned it with coastal artillery troops.
Today there are musket and canon firing demonstrations as well as daily tours of the Fort from spring through fall. Fort Macon, located on Beaufort Inlet and the eastern edge of Bogue Banks, is also a popular spot for fishing as well.
For more about Fort Macon State Park click HERE
6. Hammocks Beach State Park
On the opposite end of Bogue Banks from Fort Macon, and across Bogue Inlet, you will find Bear Island, which is a part of Hammocks Beach State Park - one of the most remote and least visited state parks in the state park system.
Hammocks Beach State Park consists of three Islands as well as some acreage on the mainland with a visitor’s center, but Bear Island is the crown jewel of this park and the main reason why people come to Hammocks Beach. Bear Island is a four-mile long undeveloped and pristine ocean front island that is only accessible via passenger ferry or private boat.
There are 16 campsites on Bear Island and camping on Bear Island, just feet from the ocean, is a truly wonderful experience for beach lovers. Camping on Bear Island is not for the faint of heart though with the good possibility of storms, high winds, and flying-biting critters during the warmer months.
For the most adventurous, kayaking out to Bear Island is a great way to explore the park, with well-marked paddle trails that wind between the islands in the salt marshes between the mainland and Bear Island. The paddle from the kayak launch at the visitor’s center to the Bear Island campsites is 2.6 miles one-way.
For more about Hammocks Beach State Park click HERE
7. Your Local State Park
With 41 protected areas in the NC State Parks system spread all across our state it is safe to say we are all within 30 minutes to an hour drive of a state park. Each one of these parks has something special and unique to offer.
For more about local state parks near you click HERE
Our closest local state park, and the one we spend the most time at, is the Eno River State Park here in Durham. We have been coming to this park for as long as we can remember – hiking in the woods, playing in the river, cliff jumping at the quarry, fishing, trail running, kayaking after a heavy rain – using this wonderful natural resource to its fullest!
Since we have been coming to the Eno River State Park it has continually grown in size through land acquisitions and now fully encompasses and preserves 9 miles of the Eno River and surrounding lands. Every year on the 4th of July weekend there is the Festival for the Eno at the West Point on the Eno city park. The Festival for the Eno raises money for future land purchases and includes musical performances as well as vendors selling food, beer, art and crafts.
Whatever and wherever your local State Park is, every North Carolinian should get out and get familiar with their local park. The state of North Carolina has done a tremendous job of preserving some of the unique natural landscapes of our state so that we can all enjoy these places for generations to come!
We would love to hear about your favorite local parks and what you love about them – comment below!