Reflections on the NC State Park Journey

It’s hard to believe that this will be my final post for my state park blog. I will try to recap our experiences but I will surely fall short. During this journey, we conceived and lost our precious daughter Mamie Laine Davis who is truly missed and lives on in our hearts. Rebecca’s employer donated money to the NC State Park system in honor of Mamie. We saw friends we had not seen in years and we visited towns and communities in our great state we never heard of. We met some of the kindest people and heard different southern dialects.

We saw a variety of wildife like eastern chipmunks at Gorges, white-tailed deer at Lake Waccamaw, blue crabs at Fort Fisher, an eastern box turtle at Morrow Mountain, osprey at Lake Norman, and a luna moth at Pilot Mountain. We saw the oldest living longleaf pine tree at Weymouth Woods and viewed carnivorous plants at Carolina Beach. We experienced mostly pleasant weather with the exception of heavy clouds at Mount Mitchell, rain while canoeing at Merchant’s Millpond, and a severe thunderstorm with a waterspout at Jockey’s Ridge. We saw breathtaking waterfalls at Hanging Rock, South Mountains, and Gorges. We saw beautiful mountain vistas at Chimney Rock, Mount Jefferson, and Elk Knob. We experienced our favorite and most challenging trail at Grandfather Mountain and explored beautiful beaches with maritime forests along the coast.

Each park had it’s unique qualities that I appreciated. It felt like an accomplishment to visit each of them. I’ve decided to rank my top three favorite parks for each region for the casual visitor who wants to get outside and explore. My ranking is based mostly on scenery and recreational amenities offered. Please know that there were a lot more that I really enjoyed but I wanted to at least share some of my favorites.

Favorite Coastal Parks

  1. Fort Macon
  2. Lake Waccamaw
  3. Jockey’s Ridge

Favorite Piedmont Parks

  1. William B. Umstead
  2. Raven Rock
  3. Haw River

Favorite Mountain Parks

  1. Gorges
  2. Pilot Mountain
  3. Hanging Rock

 

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Park prize #4 and extra photos from parks 31-41

Picture One – We’re holding our last set of prizes. Included was a $25 gift card from Great Outdoor Provision, a state park pin, and a NC State Park t-shirt.

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Picture Two – Rebecca on the Rainbow Falls Trail at Gorges

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Picture Three – Rebecca and I standing near Rainbow Falls at Gorges

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Picture Four – Rhododendron in bloom shown on Skyline Trail at Chimney Rock

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Picture Five – The dunes near Fisherman’s Path at Fort Macon

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Picture Six – The pier off the Lakeshore Trail at Lake Waccamaw

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Park #41 – Mount Mitchell

Date visited: May 11, 2018

Mount Mitchell State Park is the oldest state park in NC and one of the oldest state parks in the U.S. It is located 33 miles northeast of Asheville off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The summit is the highest point east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet. This was determined by Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina who made trips to the area starting in 1835. In 1857, Mitchell fell to his death at nearby Mitchell Falls to verify earlier measurements of the mountain’s peak height. His grave can be seen near the summit at Mount Mitchell. The park is located within the Black Mountain range which has 6 of the 10 highest points in the eastern U.S. It is said that the climate at Mount Mitchell is more similar to Canada than North Carolina. Due to colder temperatures, the area has plants found typically in northern environments.

It is coincidental that Mount Mitchell is the oldest state park and happened to be the last state park we visited for the state park passport program. We traveled to Mount Mitchell after completing our visit to Sapphire. We traveled approximately 30 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway were we saw beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Being only partly cloudy at around 3,000 feet, we were optimistic about our visit until we started to climb in altitude. As we climbed, heavier clouds rolled in limiting our view of our surroundings. We made it to the park entrance around 9:30 am and felt unsettled about how the view would be at the summit. We stopped at the visitor center to get our final passport stamp and knew we needed to put more clothes on. We both put on pants and hooded sweat shirts because the temperature appeared to be 10-15 degrees cooler than on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Also, the winds were gusting through the mountains making it feel more like winter than spring weather. As we drove two miles up to the summit parking area from the visitor center, we were accepting the fact that our view would be limited at the top. At the parking area we took care of business and walked 300 yards up the Summit Trail. When we arrived at the observation platform at the summit, our suspicion was correct. We could not see any mountains in any direction of the 360 degree view on the platform due to the cloud cover and fog. Rebecca said, “I thought you are supposed to see over 80 miles, I can’t even see over 80 feet”. I agreed with her comment. While we were standing there, another young man was pushing an older man in a wheelchair to the platform. I overheard there conversation and the older man said, “it was so nice to finally make it here”. He seemed so excited and grateful even though there was no view of the surrounding area. His positive attitude had an affect on my negative one. We both engaged with them briefly before walking back to car. I told Rebecca I was going to hike the Balsam Nature Trail while she decided to stay back. The trail can be accessed by the summit parking lot. The 0.75 mile loop  trail went through a spruce fur forest showing no signs of flowering plants along the trail. The area seemed quite barren. The ground was damp and the air was foggy. I felt like I was in the movie Sleepy Hollow with Johnny Depp. I’m glad I never saw the headless horseman. Along the walk, I viewed different lichen on trees and a lichen species I’d never seen known as white ghost lichen. Toward the end of the hike, I saw a sign directing toward a spring.  I decided not to visit the spring so I could go back to the car to meet up with Rebecca.

It is bittersweet to have finished the passport program. It was disappointing to finish our last park with unpleasant weather. However, Rebecca and I have agreed that this was the only visit we had with less than desirable weather. We are grateful for that. I guess 40 out of 41 isn’t bad. Even though we have finished this journey, we still have plans to visit some of our favorite state parks again. Mount Mitchell will be one on our list to revisit to see the 80 plus mile view. In the future, we will make it a point to visit this park either earlier in the morning or late in the afternoon as I was told later by park staff.

Picture One – The state park sign near the visitor center

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Picture Two – The start of the Summit Trail near the summit parking lot

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Picture Three – A view of Elisha Mitchell’s grave in front of the observation deck

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Picture Four – Rebecca and I near the summit

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Picture Five – The start of the Balsam Nature Trail

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Picture Six – The trail showing trees with lichen

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Picture Seven – A tree with ghost antler lichen

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Picture Eight – At the park entrance at the end of our journey showing views of the Black Mountains

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Park #40 – Gorges

Date visited: May 9, 2018

Gorges State Park is located in Sapphire, NC about 60 miles southwest of Asheville and 25 miles southwest of Brevard. The park is located near the South Carolina border. It is the western most park and the newest. The area is known for rare species, high rainfall, and numerous waterfalls. The park was acquired from Duke Energy in the late 1990s since it was no longer needed for hydropower projects.

Rebecca and I arrived at Gorges the day after our visit to Chimney Rock. We started by visiting the impressive visitor center which was built to national green building standards. The visitor center has an auditorium, classrooms, and an outdoor deck offering southerns views of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. We started our hiking by taking the Visitor Center Connector Trail from the parking lot to the Bearwallow Observation Deck. We took in the view of Lake Jocassee, a lake in South Carolina, before proceeding to the Bearwallow Valley Trail. It was there where I saw two small animals that were brown with a white stripe down each sides of their backs. They appeared to be smaller than a squirrel. I told Rebecca I bet they were Eastern chipmunks. She questioned me thinking I made it up because my name is Chip like theirs and it would make a good story. I told her that I seriously saw them. Later we were both able to see a chipmunk as they appeared to be plentiful in this area of the mountains. Farther along the trail we made it to a picnic shelter and restroom area. We were greeted by an Eastern Towhee. After taking care of business, we took the Bearwallow Falls Trail to the observation deck of the Upper Bearwallow Falls. An impressive view, we were able to clearly see the waterfall surrounded by the forest. We completed approximately two miles during this hike.

We headed for the Rainbow Falls Trail after a short break at the visitor center. The trail was more strenuous compared to the previous trails at Gorges. It is unique in that it’s maintained by both the state parks and the Pisgah National Forest district. We started our hike by noticing more chipmunks. Rebecca could not deny at that point that they were around us. Along our hike, we noticed the Horsepasture River which led to the spectacular 125 foot high Rainbow Falls. It was one of the most scenic pieces of landscape we had viewed during our park visits. We noticed the rainbow at the bottom which gives the waterfall it’s name.We felt the mist of the waterfall on our faces which cooled us from the hiking. At the top of the waterfall we observed several large rocks along the river. A nice resting place, we stopped on the rocks to have our lunch. It was a wonderful scene sitting near the river leading down the waterfall with the lush greenery of trees in the background. We continued hiking a quarter mile further along the river to Turtleback Falls, a shorter waterfall and a popular swimming hole. After leaving Turtleback Falls, we turned back for the visitor center to complete about a four mile round trip hike. Gorges is indeed a gorgeous park with beautiful mountain views and waterfalls making it one of my favorite mountain state parks. Even though the park is in a remote area of the mountains, it was worth the trip for us to see it.

Picture One – I’m standing near the entrance to the visitor center

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Picture Two – Rebecca is standing inside the visitor center

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Picture Three – A view of the Blue Ridge Escarpment behind the visitor center

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Picture Four – A view from the Bearwallow Observation Deck looking toward Lake Jocassee

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Picture Five – At the beginning of the Upper Bearwallow Falls Trail

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Picture Six – Upper Bearwallow Falls

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Picture Six – Rebecca is standing at the beginning of the Rainbow Falls Trail

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Picture Seven – Rainbow Falls

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Picture Eight – Our lunch view near the top of Rainbow Falls looking toward Turtleback Falls

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Picture Nine – Turtleback Falls

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Park #39 – Chimney Rock

Date visited: May 8, 2018

This is our first visit back to a new state park after our daughter was born on April 4, 2018 without breath. Mamie Laine Davis, 5.4 oz and 17 inches, we believe never knew pain or suffering.  She offered us such joy and the capacity to love in a way we never imagined.  She was surrounded by warmth, community, and love during her short time on earth. At 34 weeks 5 days in Rebecca’s womb, she was able to visit 18 state parks with us. We are now taking it one breath at a time to accept the moment by moment reality of life without her here. It hurts like a pain we’ve never known, but there is beauty in the pain too. She is truly missed and lives on in our hearts always as we continue our journey through the rest of the state parks.

Rebecca and I set out for Chimney Rock after a short visit with friends in King, NC. During that visit, we hiked the Lower Cascades Trail at Hanging Rock to view the Lower Cascades waterfall. We were pleased to finally see the Lower Cascades waterfall since we only saw the Upper Cascades waterfall back in April 2017.

Chimney Rock State Park is located 25 miles southeast of Asheville. This park offers a variety of well kept hiking trails for all levels showing spectacular views of the Hickory Nut Gorge. The Hickory Nut Gorge is located on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment which separates the Piedmont from the Blue Ridge Mountains. The gorge is also home to Hickory Nut Falls, a 404 foot waterfall. The Chimney Rock, where the park gets its name sake, is a 535-million-year-old monolith. It is considered one of the most iconic sites in the state. The park is located near Lake Lure. Movies like Dirty Dancing were partially filmed near Lake Lure and Last of the Mohicans at the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Chimney Rock is the only state park that has an admission fee. We started our visit by paying $13.00 each at the admission gate and getting our passport stamp. From there, we drove to the top of the parking area. It was a mostly clear and warm spring day. We packed snacks and started walking toward the trails. We noticed a souvenir shop to our left. It was then that I told Rebecca that this park is geared toward tourists. I proceeded to tell her that I was glad we decided to visit during a weekday as I suspect the park to be crowded with tourists on the weekends. We made our way to the start of a number of the trails. The first trail was the Outcropping Trail, a series of 499 stairs leading to the Chimney Rock. The elevator was out of use during our visit. However, visitors can pay a little extra to ride the elevator when it is in use. At the start of the Exclamation Point Trail, we saw the Devil’s Head, a popular geological formation, resembling a head. We continued to the end of the Exclamation Point Trail which took us 200 feet above the Chimney Rock to one of the highest lookout points in the park. We continued on the Skyline Trail where we walked along the forest, crossed streams, and observed the upper cascades of Hickory Nut Falls. We were disappointed in the view of the falls. We noticed just a small amount of rolling water that trickled down the gorge. Over two miles at the end of the trail, we turned back toward the parking area for about four miles hiking round trip. On our way back, Rebecca saw a snake and let out a scream.  She was ahead of me, so I didn’t know what happened.  She assured me it was just a garden snake and not to worry.   We encountered visitors asking us questions like how much further to the end and how is the view. We gave vague answers not to spoil the hike for them. Overall, we enjoyed the splendid views at Chimney Rock along with the well maintained and constructed trails. We felt a bit like we were at an amusement park which was unique when compared to the other parks.

Picture One – View overlooking Lake Lure near the parking lot

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Picture Two – Rebecca is standing at the beginning of the Outcroppings Trail

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Picture Three – Rebecca and I are standing on top of Chimney Rock

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Picture Four – Chimney Rock view overlooking Lake Lure

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Picture Five – View of the Hickory Nut Gorge

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Picture Six – Devil’s Head view

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Picture Seven – Rebecca is standing near the beginning of the Exclamation Point Trail

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Picture Eight – I’m standing near the beginning of the Skyline Trail

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Picture Nine – The top of Hickory Nut Falls at the end of the trail

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Park #38 – Fort Macon

Date visited: February 3, 2018

Fort Macon State Park offers an historic fort, multiple walking trails along the beach, maritime forests, and a saltwater marsh. The park is located in Atlantic Beach and is the second most visited park in North Carolina. It is about five miles from Morehead City and 30 miles east of Hammocks Beach State Park. The current fort was constructed in 1826 by the US Army Corps of Engineers and was completed in 1834. During the beginning of the Civil War, North Carolina seized the fort from the Union. The fort was later attacked in 1862 where it fell back into Union hands. Later in 1934–35, the fort was restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps where they established public recreational facilities allowing Fort Macon State Park to officially open May 1, 1936, as North Carolina’s first functioning state park. 

We traveled to Fort Macon on a sunny but cold Saturday afternoon. The temperature hovered in the high 30s but with little wind. As usual, we went to the visitor center to get our passport stamp. We decided to start our adventure by walking to the fort. Along our walk, I noticed the five walls of brick and stone which made up the fort. Various rooms were staged during the times of occupancy by soldiers in the fort. We made our way up the steps to get a view at the top. There was a clear view of Shackleford Banks, an island with wild horses, along with the Cape Lookout lighthouse.

We continued our visit by making our way back to the visitor center where we noticed various birds such as robins and cardinals. From there, we walked to the Elliott Coues Nature Trail, a 3.20 loop trail. We started near the beach but the trail quickly went in and out of a maritime forest. Early on during our walk, I smelled some type of spruce then I noticed numerous Christmas trees laid on the side of the trail. Before the end of our hike, I noticed 100s of them. I jokingly told Rebecca that Fort Macon should be called the Graveyard of Christmas Trees State Park. We continued on the trail toward the west part of the park where there was public beach access and a bathhouse. We stopped to take care of business. From there, we continued on the trail back to the visitor center noticing a saltwater marsh and a coast guard station.

We decided to have our lunch at the visitor center before continuing to walk. We walked on the beach after lunch as our food digested. We walked to Fisherman’s Path, a 0.25 mile trail to the beach, located off the Nature Trail. The view was beautiful along the beach with wide sand dunes leading to the ocean.  We finished our visit to the park looking at the ocean, Shackleford Banks, and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse from the beach. It was a great view to finish this region of our park visits. While walking back to the car, Rebecca and I agreed that this was our favorite coastal park. It offers an historic fort with areas to explore along with walking trails offering walks along the beach, maritime forests, and saltwater marshes. This will definitely be one of our favorite parks on our journey.

Picture One – I’m standing near the entrance to Fort Macon

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Picture Two – A view of Fort Macon with the visitor center behind it

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Picture Three – Rebecca and I at Fort Macon

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Picture Four – A view looking inside the rooms

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Picture Five – At the beginning of the Elliot Coues’ Nature Trail

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Picture Six – Rebecca points to Christmas trees scattered along the side of the trail

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Picture Seven – Maritime forest along the trail

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Picture Eight – Saltwater marsh along the trail

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Picture Nine – The Atlantic Ocean looking toward Morehead City

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Picture Ten – Rebecca and I standing near the ocean at the end of Fisherman’s Path

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Park #37 – Hammocks Beach

Date visited: February 2, 2018

Hammocks Beach State Park is located near Swansboro. The park is 18 miles east of Jacksonville and 26 miles west of Morehead City. The park is located on the mainland but is also home to Bear Island. Bear Island is an undeveloped three mile barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean. The island consists of extensive dunes, a maritime forest, and a marsh. It also has primitive campsites and a bathhouse. Bear Island can be accessed from Hammocks Beach by ferry from April through October. During those months,  a 25 minute passenger ferry ride will take you over to Bear Island. You may also want to launch a kayak or canoe and paddle there from Hammocks Beach year round. On the mainland, the sites include the visitor center, a picnic area, and a hiking trail.

We traveled to the park on a clear and cool Friday afternoon. We started by going to the visitor center. While in the center, we noticed a view of the water which was the Intracoastal Waterway. After getting our stamp, I asked the office attendant if Bear Island could be viewed from the center. She said it was the farthest tree line when looking out back away from the visitor center. We decided to go out the back door for a closer look. We walked down to the ferry launch area and noticed two park rangers talking on a pier near the ferry launch area. I was curious to know more about the park and any future plans of development. So I asked them and they said 300 more acres have been acquired. The current plans are to add more camp sites and hiking trails.

After talking with the rangers, we headed to the one and only trail located near the visitor center. When we walked toward the trail head, I noticed a pink piece of paper on the ground. I picked it up and it said the grand opening of the trail would be the following day at 2:00 pm. We were excited to walk on the new trail. We started by walking about 0.2 miles toward the Intracoastal Waterway. We saw a view of the waterway and small islands while we were near a saltwater marsh. After taking in the views, we proceeded to walk a 1/2 mile loop through a longleaf pine forest before completing our visit. We enjoyed visiting this park. I think it would be better to visit the park while the ferry is operating in order to visit Bear Island. I believe that Bear Island is a gem and worth traveling to. I recall our visit there over five years ago in the summer when we paddled there with a group and did yoga on the beach. That was a fun time. However, I’m glad to finally visit the mainland at Hammocks Beach during this trip.

Picture One – Rebecca is standing in front of the visitor center

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Picture Two – A view of the ferry launch area near the visitor center. The farthest tree line is Bear Island.

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Picture Three – A view of the Intracoastal Waterway looking toward Bear Island

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Picture Four – I’m standing at the start of the trail

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Picture Five – A view along the trail on the half mile loop

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Pictures Six and Seven – Views at the end of the trail looking at the Intracoastal Waterway

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