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Some NC Parks 'Overwhelmed' By Visitors After Reopening Amid COVID-19

Crowders Mountain State Park
Dashiell Coleman
Crowders Mountain State Park, seen here in 2019, is usually popular, but it has been really popular as coronavirus restrictions begin to ease in North Carolina.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced people to get creative about exercising. Gyms in North Carolina are closed. That – and perhaps a mass sentiment of feeling cooped up – is sending folks to parks in droves, putting a bit of a strain on places where rangers are trying to enforce social distancing. 

The state park system opened its gates to the public May 9 during the first phase of North Carolina's reopening plan. Last Saturday, Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County broke records with how many people showed up – by 1,000 visitors. On Sunday, it was at capacity by 10:40 a.m. Several other parks in the system soon filled up, too.

Crowders Mountain State Park west of Charlotte has been "completely overwhelmed," said Katie Hall, a spokesperson for the park system. Crowders recorded 10,168 visitors this past Friday-Sunday.

"This is probably on par with a Fourth of July weekend with good weather or a peak leaf season, fall weekend-type crowd," Hall said.

Crowders Mountain is one of the state's most popular parks, in part because it's so close to Charlotte. But it's also relatively small, at roughly 5,200 acres, and one of its access points was closed last weekend.

Small parks aren't the only ones seeing a surge of visitors.

South Mountains State Park is the largest in the North Carolina State Parks system.

South Mountains State Park in Connelly Springs – about an hour and a half's drive from Charlotte – is the largest in the state park system at more than 20,000 acres. Hall says it reached visitor capacity the last two weekends. And Lake Norman State Park north of Charlotte was busier than usual.

"I think people have a misconception that the park's size means that there's plenty of space for everyone, when in fact we are limited by things like miles of trail and popular overlooks and popular waterfalls and restroom access," Hall said.

Park staffers are asking people to wear face coverings and try their best to stay six feet apart from others – something that can be tricky on narrow trails.

When parking areas fill up, park rangers can close the gates until someone leaves. But some smaller parks aren't waiting for parking lots to completely fill in order to enforce social distancing.

"We do keep people coming in as soon as we have space for them, but there is a chance that people will have to wait in a line of cars to get into a park," Hall said. "Over the past couple of weekends, there have been several instances at several parks where people have waited an hour or more in a line of cars to get a spot in the park."

Campgrounds will be open for the holiday weekend and more boat ramps will be opening – something Hall says the park system hopes will help visitors spread out.

"Now they have a few more options," Hall said. "I think more people will be traveling and doing different activities, so I'm hoping it won't be quite as chaotic as the past two weekends."

Some areas, like visitors centers, are still closed. Parkgoers should check ncparks.gov for details.

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