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In early August of 1956, I camped on Mount Mitchell with my best boyhood friend, Don, and two other pals. Immediately upon arrival, we raced to the summit and climbed

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In early August of 1956, I camped on Mount Mitchell with my best boyhood friend, Don, and two other pals. Immediately upon arrival, we raced to the summit and climbed

Photo Essay/

Natural Wonder in North Carolina’s State Parks

In early August of 1956, I camped on Mount Mitchell with my best boyhood friend, Don, and two other pals. Immediately upon arrival, we raced to the summit and climbed the steps inside a rugged stone observation tower. Next to the tower, under a heap of stones, was the grave of Professor Elisha Mitchell, for whom the mountain was named. That magical night, while Don’s father was wise enough to sleep in his car, his four intrepid explorers burned hot dogs, shivered in pup tents, and told each other “Elisha” ghost stories until sunrise.

Before heading home the next day, we marveled at the wild forest of Christmas trees surrounding us and returned to the summit, where, with unlimited visibility in every direction, the world appeared larger and greener than ever before. Back in the car, we kept reminding each other, We just climbed North Carolina’s highest mountain! We could not have been prouder as we compared our mountaineering success to that of Edmund Hillary, who had climbed Mount Everest in 1953.

By that point, I had been to several North Carolina state parks with my family. Little did I know that more than 60 years later, I would have visited and photographed each of our 41 state parks, from mountains to coast. It was, however, during that epic mid-’50s camping trip to North Carolina’s first state park, Mount Mitchell, that these magical lands became a permanent part of my DNA.

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Today, for me and for thousands of other Tar Heels who value their time in the natural world, the most important real estate in North Carolina is found in our state parks system. Parks serve as classrooms, laboratories, and places of discovery. They are gymnasiums and yoga studios. For some of us, they are cathedrals and places of inspiration. Long before the pandemic, these same lands played a significant role in public and mental health for residents and visitors alike. For much of my adult life, North Carolina state parks have also served as an office and a place to think clearly.

I have not forgotten the important recreational components — hiking, camping, fishing, birding, horseback riding, kayaking, and some of the best rock climbing in Eastern America. State parks also preserve several of the most iconic and distinctive geologic features in the Southeast: Pilot Mountain, Jockey’s Ridge, Chimney Rock, and the unmistakable profile of Grandfather Mountain.

Our state parks system preserves some of the most iconic views in North Carolina, like Pilot Mountain in Surry County. photograph by Jeff Silkstone

Finally, the 40-plus regional holdings of North Carolina Parks and Recreation — whether designated as parks, recreation areas, natural areas, trails, or scenic rivers — are important repositories of biodiversity. The fauna and flora found within 250,000 acres — scattered from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the 6,000-foot mountain ridgelines in the west — make these state-owned and -managed lands among the foremost biological preserves in the temperate world.

Within this system are maritime forests, salt marsh mazes, longleaf pine savannas, millennia-old bald cypress, towering stands of hickory and oak, and boreal forests reminiscent of those in southern Canada. Under forest canopies, in fields of native wildflowers and grasses, and in pristine waters live an immense collection of amphibians and reptiles, almost 450 species of resident and seasonal birds, mammals from bats to black bears, insects in every niche, and an array of carnivorous plants. Because of the pivotal role that state parks play in the preservation of our natural heritage and in enhancing our quality of life, it should come as no surprise that the lands and facilities of North Carolina Parks and Recreation have hosted more than 22 million visitors in the past year.

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Recently, we’ve been introduced to the term “critical infrastructure,” referring to assets and services associated with quality of life, health, and a functioning economy. Others define critical infrastructure as systems so vital that their destruction would have a detrimental effect on our security, health, and economy. Regardless of political persuasion, most of us agree that it’s universally beneficial to have things like modern highways, safe bridges, and fast Internet service. But don’t these definitions of “critical infrastructure” apply directly to parks and natural spaces — also integral to quality of life, health, and a sound economy?

There is one difference, however, between parklands and most other critical infrastructure. Roads, highways, airports, and bridges cannot be planned, engineered, or maintained by a few good citizens. It takes investment and oversight from governmental agencies at all levels. Parks and wild places are different. Many of our parks have origin stories that highlight the generosity, courage, and tenacity of individuals and citizen activists who made them a reality. And today, networks of local supporters known as “friends groups” assist park professionals by volunteering time, equipment, special funding, and the passion necessary to share park history.

At Goose Creek State Park in Beaufort County, a sandy beach provides the perfect place for a dip in the Pamlico. photograph by Chris Council

I have come to believe that parks are more than critical infrastructure. Within each of us, there is an innate connection to the land and its creatures. When we set aside tracts as state parks, we are making a covenant, a commitment acknowledging our connection to the natural world.

During the pandemic, I found myself taking day trips to state parks near my home in Raleigh. As a frequent park visitor, I am often asked to reveal which is “the best” or “my favorite.” Truth is, I long ago discovered that each park has a distinct personality. Each holds diverse ecosystems, unique landforms, important water features, and vital biodiversity. Taken together, they serve as a physical record of North Carolina’s natural heritage.

In the coming weeks, I will again visit a state park, and I know that no matter how many times I’ve been there, I’ll learn something new. It’s never too late for you, too, to begin an epic journey of discovery. The views from the state park you visit may not be as grand as the one I experienced on Mount Mitchell with three friends in 1956, but the possibilities for connecting with the natural world are just as great. Getting to know any state park can expand your world and make it greener than you ever imagined.


At Carolina Beach State Park, licensed anglers can cast a line from the fishing deck. Elsewhere in the park, Venus flytraps can be seen growing along Flytrap Trail, and painted buntings flit through wooded areas. photographs by CHRIS COUNCIL, BAXTER MILLER, JARED LLOYD

Carolina Beach State Park

At just 761 acres, Carolina Beach State Park is relatively small, but it contains multitudes: Few coastal destinations hold more variety in habitat and biodiversity. Elevations range from sea level to the summit of a 50-foot sand dune called Sugarloaf. The park’s mix of soil types is home to longleaf pine, turkey oak, live oak, and dwarf cypress. Its boggy areas give rise to a sampling of pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews, and Venus flytraps. In warmer months, you’ll be treated to a mix of wildflowers usually found farther inland.

Because of its strategic location on the Cape Fear River, Carolina Beach State Park has a rich cultural history spanning American Indian occupancy, the colonial period, and the Civil War. For birders, myself included, it’s also a great place to view large coastal species like egrets, pelicans, and ospreys. In forest thickets, keep an eye out for North America’s most colorful bird, the magnificent painted bunting.


Visitors to the Outer Banks town of Nags Head can experience the otherworldly beauty of Jockey’s Ridge on foot — or, thanks to year-round winds, often blowing 10 to 15 miles per hour, via hang glider. photographs by CHRIS COUNCIL, VISITNC.COM

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

There is no more recognizable natural feature on the Outer Banks than Jockey’s Ridge — but this coastal icon was almost lost to development in the 1970s. It took one brave person, Carolista Baum, standing in the way of construction equipment to prevent the destruction of this mountain of sand.

Today, some celebrate Jockey’s Ridge because it’s the perfect place to watch a sunset and observe colorful hang gliders. Others appreciate its stark beauty and changing shape as the tallest living sand dune in Eastern America — 80 to 100 feet high, depending on weather conditions.

On its southern edge and western border, next to Roanoke Sound, you’ll find wax myrtle, cedar, and live oak growing at the base of the dune. One October several years ago, something caught my eye on the side of the dune. As I got closer, I realized that it was a single spindly persimmon tree with perhaps a dozen orange fruits. A year later, the small tree had disappeared under shifting sands.


Generations of families have held annual reunions at Jones Lake State Park. photograph by Baxter Miller

Jones Lake State Park

By the 1930s, a century of unsustainable forestry and farming practices had depleted the soil in Bladen County. During the Great Depression, much of the submarginal land around Jones and Salters lakes was bought by the federal government, and a recreation center was created. In 1939, the site opened as North Carolina’s first African American state park.

Until the early 1960s, people of color from eastern North Carolina and the Piedmont used the 224-acre Jones Lake and adjoining lands to hold church picnics and family gatherings. Today, Jones Lake State Park, born out of the Great Depression and an era of segregation, has a beautiful visitor center and outdoor recreation opportunities for all North Carolinians. Around the park’s two “Carolina bay” lakes, visitors find a rich mix of bay forest and pocosin plants: fetterbush, sweet bay, and red bay. This combination of plant communities and water always guarantees an exciting mix of birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians.


Merchants Millpond, located in northeastern North Carolina, is threaded with 11 miles of hiking trails, but the best way to experience the park is from the water. Bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent one at the visitor center. photograph by RYAN STANCIL; CHRIS COUNCIL

Merchants Millpond State Park

Like most North Carolina state parks, Merchants Millpond is green and beguiling in the summer months, but in the winter, you can see dramatic shapes of ancient trees that are normally hidden by foliage.

Beginning in the 19th century, the millpond became a center of commerce, powering a gristmill and a sawmill. These days, it’s a hub of wildlife activity where you can see otters, bobcats, and the construction projects of resident beavers. Within the park, more than 200 species of birds have been identified, but the two that define Merchants Millpond in summer are the northern parula and the prothonotary warbler.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself at the millpond at sunset, you might see bats dipping and diving for insects above the water. Several bat species live in the hollow trees that dominate the landscape. And finally, look for eyes just above the waterline — the pond is currently the northern limit of the habitat of the American alligator.


Early in the morning or just before dusk at the summit of Morrow Mountain, an ethereal haze hovers over the ancient rolling hills of the Uwharrie range. photograph by MATT WILLIAMS PHOTOGRAPHY

Morrow Mountain State Park

Within the Uwharrie Range, the tallest peak may be High Rock (at almost 1,200 feet), but the most famous is Morrow Mountain.

Morrow Mountain State Park is one of our “organic parks,” having come about through the efforts of local citizens. In 1920, James McKnight Morrow’s donated land — including what is now called Morrow Mountain — and additional gifts by Stanly County residents eventually resulted in the creation of a state park in 1939. Many of the facilities were built or improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

Yet human activity on this land started long before that. Morrow Mountain was a source of a stone called rhyolite, a fine-grained volcanic rock used by American Indians to produce projectile points and cutting tools. Archaeologists have studied the quarry sites in the area that were in use for 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Not many state park sites have been in use for 11 millennia.


Hikers along the Raven Rock Loop Trail get an up-close view of the park’s namesake formation, a massive outcrop of gneiss that stretches for more than a mile along the Cape Fear River. photographs by Tyler Northrup

Raven Rock State Park

This park marks the end of the Piedmont and the beginning of the Coastal Plain. Prior to the Civil War, locks and dams were built to facilitate river traffic on the Cape Fear. An enormous rock, rising almost 150 feet above sea level, was a significant landmark for river pilots until those locks and dams were destroyed by floodwaters during a hurricane in 1859.

Today, that natural feature is the centerpiece of Raven Rock State Park. The desire of local residents to preserve the rock formation helped create the park in 1969. An initial purchase of 220 acres has now grown to more than 4,600 acres.

Raven Rock State Park preserves the best of the Piedmont and Coastal Plain: spectacular wildflowers and an array of reptiles, amphibians, and birds, both resident and seasonal. Located in Harnett County just southwest of Raleigh, Raven Rock remains the major natural landmark on the Cape Fear, and is protected forever in a great North Carolina state park.


Footpaths like Cole Mill Trail — an easy hike along the river and through the forest — make Eno River State Park an appealing escape into tranquility for families living in the Triangle area. photograph by Tyler Northrup

Eno River State Park

Most of us have forgotten that the Eno River was almost dammed in the late ’60s. The efforts of one woman, Margaret Nygard, and her husband, Holger, started a movement that saved one of the loveliest rivers in the northern Piedmont. As a result of their efforts, 14 miles of river and more than 4,000 acres of land have been preserved in Orange and Durham counties.

Eno River State Park contains hiking trails and some of the best wildflower and birding opportunities in the Triangle area. Like other Piedmont rivers, the Eno also holds a variety of native fish, including shiners, darters, chubs, and several species of sunfish, like the beautiful Roanoke bass.

Nygard is gone, but the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley, Inc. (now the Eno River Association), formed in 1966, still raises money to protect the river through its annual Festival for the Eno. When you visit Eno River State Park, let its free-flowing waters remind you that it takes only one person to make a difference.


Hiking to the summit of Hanging Rock is a quintessential Piedmont experience, but there’s much more to the park that shares the rocky outcrop’s name. photograph by Jeff Silkstone

Hanging Rock State Park

You don’t have to go to the Blue Ridge to find “real mountains.” Just north and northwest of Winston-Salem, the Sauratowns rise impressively from the Piedmont floor to elevations of more than 2,500 feet. At 9,000 acres, Hanging Rock State Park protects the best of the Sauratown Range.

To give you some idea of the Sauratowns’ significance, Moore’s Knob, at 2,579 feet, is taller than any mountain in the entire state of Alabama, where the Appalachians end. (The highest point in Alabama, Cheaha Mountain, is only 2,413 feet.)

Like several other Tar Heel parks, Hanging Rock emerged out of the Great Depression through the efforts of citizen advocates. In 1936, the Stokes County Committee for Hanging Rock and the Winston-Salem Foundation donated more than 3,000 acres to the state. Now, the park is a year-round destination for hiking, rock climbing, and the most beautiful waterfalls east of the Blue Ridge. It’s also the site of some of the best-preserved Civilian Conservation Corps structures.

As a special bonus, this Piedmont park is home to wildflowers and birds normally found in the Appalachians, far to the west. At Hanging Rock State Park, birders have reported common ravens, a variety of warblers, and even peregrine falcons. In the springtime, look for mountain wildflowers, including fire pinks, pink lady’s slippers, and a variety of azaleas and rhododendrons. Hanging Rock State Park holds the best of the Piedmont and the mountains in one place.


Stone Mountain State Park

Stone Mountain offers one of the most exquisite settings for a park that one can imagine. The central feature — a granite dome rising 600 feet above the valley floor — is surrounded by trout streams, hiking trails, and beautiful campsites. Sheer rock faces make the mountain a mecca for rock climbers.

Because of the number of waterfalls, springs, seeps, and cracks, the area is a haven for wildflowers and rare plants. Constantly changing light and shadows also make Stone Mountain one of the most photographed natural features in North Carolina.

In a long meadow at the base of the granite dome, visitors can explore the restored 19th-century Hutchinson Homestead, depicting life in the area in the mid-1800s. If you started from scratch, it would be hard to design a location with more spectacular geological features and a more complete slate of family activities than those at Stone Mountain State Park.


Gorges State Park is home to many waterfalls, in part because of the high annual rainfall in the area.  photograph by Tom Moors

Gorges State Park

This 7,500-acre park, established in the late 1990s, is located at the very edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, where North Carolina literally falls into South Carolina at Lake Jocassee. Many of the trails in the park are steep and labeled “strenuous,” but for those who have the time and energy, Gorges State Park offers a glimpse of almost half of the natural plant community types found in all of western North Carolina.

There are rare salamanders and seldom-seen native fish species. This park is also a haven for rare plants. Wildflower lovers can search for a variety of orchids, as well as the holy grail of wildflowers: the Oconee bell.

The mountain ridges above Gorges State Park receive the highest annual rainfall of any part of North Carolina — between 80 and 100 inches. This high volume of water coming off the Blue Ridge Escarpment makes for the best collection of waterfalls in Eastern North America.


The centerpiece of Chimney Rock State Park is a North Carolina icon: Visitors follow the Outcroppings Trail to the top of a 315-foot rock formation for 75-mile views of Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. Photography courtesy of CHIMNEY ROCK MANAGEMENT

Chimney Rock State Park

I spent many summers in Hickory Nut Gorge, several miles above Chimney Rock Park. During much of the 20th century, Chimney Rock was a private mountain attraction. In 2007, the private park was purchased by North Carolina as part of our state park system. I enjoyed visiting the Chimney Rock of the 1950s and ’60s, but it is far better today as a state park.

One of the newest additions to our publicly owned lands, Chimney Rock is part cathedral and part stone sculpture. For the fittest, there is rock climbing at the Rumbling Bald access. Although some trails are challenging, they are all well maintained, and the park shows off the natural wonders of Hickory Nut Gorge. The rock formations and views from Chimney Rock State Park are simply jaw-dropping. If you spend the day at the park, make sure you take time to walk the trail to Hickory Nut Falls — a moderate 45-minute round-trip. At 404 feet, the falls are among the highest east of the Mississippi.


It’s no wonder that early botanists were drawn to what is now known as Mount Mitchell, home to some of the most diverse flora in the Southern Appalachians. Hikers are delighted to find clouds of white wood asters and other wildflowers carpeting the forest floor. photograph by Tom Moors

Mount Mitchell State Park

I’ll end our tour where my love affair with North Carolina state parks began. Since that first visit in the 1950s, I have averaged at least a trip a year to Mount Mitchell — at 6,684 feet, the highest peak in the East.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences calls Mount Mitchell and our state’s other 6,000-foot peaks “islands in the sky” for the way clouds gather below their summits. These mountains are also islands of biodiversity, whose wind-whipped crags are home to lichens, mosses, shrubs, and wildflowers found nowhere else in the Southeast. Some of the birds found on Mount Mitchell in the summer — cedar waxwings, ravens, crossbills, and dark-eyed juncos — are more common in Canada and northern Maine.

Over the years, the parking lot on Mount Mitchell has grown larger, and the trails more crowded. The rugged stone observation tower at the summit in the 1950s and ’60s has been replaced by a modern spiral ramp — and, yes, Elisha Mitchell’s grave is still there. Find a quiet trail or a rock off the beaten path, and let the sights, sounds, and scents serve as a reminder that places like Mount Mitchell are a living record of our natural heritage. Perhaps you’ll agree that — by any measure — our state parks are the most valuable real estate in North Carolina.


Related: After a day of hiking, walking, climbing, or kayaking, nothing is better than enjoying some tasty brews and bites.

This story was published on Mar 31, 2022

Tom Earnhardt

Earnhardt devotes his life to acquainting himself with North Carolina’s natural abundance so that he may introduce this wild world to us. In addition to working as an attorney, photographer, and producer and writer of the PBS series Exploring North Carolina, he is the author of three books, including Crossroads of the Natural World.