A Hairy Woodpecker tap-tap-taps on a pine tree just below the summit of Mount Mitchell. It’s a sunny spring day. It’s 46 degrees - about 10 degrees cooler than nearby Burnsville.
With the park now open after winter, superintendent Bryan Wilder says visitors are flocking here.
“I think it’s just the natural beauty, the height of the mountains. On a clear day typically if you look out, the views … you can see the skyline of Charlotte, actually. It has to be a clear day with very little haze, but you can see the skyline of Charlotte. I think people just enjoy being out in nature, hiking, picnicking … whatever,“ Wilder says.
A century ago, lawmakers designated Mount Mitchell as North Carolina’s first state park. That came after citizens and officials became worried about increased logging near the peak. Since then, the state park system has grown to 75 protected parks, lakes, beaches, and other natural areas.
The mountain is named for Elisha Mitchell, a geologist, explorer and Presbyterian minister. In the 1830s, his measurements proved the 6,684-foot peak was the highest in the East ... surpassing Grandfather Mountain 60 miles northeast. Questions about the height persisted, and it was on a return expedition in 1857 that Mitchell fell to his death from a waterfall. If you visit the summit today, you’ll find his grave.
By the early 1900s, timber operators had moved in. Citizens called for preservation.
One of the strongest voices was then-governor Locke Craig. He was moved to act after he was invited to dedicate a new timber railroad up the peak. State parks director Mike Murphy tells the story:
“He looks around, and sees all of the downed trees. So he started off with the intent of congratulating the company on building this magnificent railroad. And he looks around and he goes, ‘Oh, I’ve made a terrible mistake,'“ Murphy says.
Logging was within 1,500 feet of the summit. Craig returned to Raleigh and helped pass a law making Mount Mitchell a state park in 1916. The first 795 acres cost $20,000. Today, it’s nearly 2000 acres.
The first visitors to Mount Mitchell a century ago used private roads and that old timber rail line. They numbered in the hundreds every year. In the 1930s, the federal government built the Blue Ridge Parkway, and visits have grown ever since.
The same motivations that created Mount Mitchell State Park pushed North Carolina to expand the park system over the past century. It now includes 75 sites with more than 230,000 acres, from the mountains to the beach, Murphy says:
“We have 35 state parks, four state recreation areas, 20 state natural areas, seven state lakes, five state trails, and four state rivers,“ Murphy says.
Last year, state parks logged a record 17.3 million visitors, up 11 percent from the year before. A half-dozen parks had more than a million. Jordan Lake near Raleigh topped the list, with 1.6 million visits. Jockey’s Ridge, at the Outer Banks, wasn’t far behind.
Lake Norman State Park in Troutman grew fastest. Murphy says a new visitors center and improvements in mountain bike trails drove visits up 35 percent, to 742,000. That’s about double the number who visited Mount Mitchell - though it’s more remote, and only open seven months.
Murphy says the state park system faces a couple of challenges. The first is boosting visits to out-of-the-way parks “to see some of the wonders there, because they all have them. There’s a reason why we have every single state park. There’s something unique and interesting there.”
The state hopes to do that with more special events from festivals to foot races and through marketing.
The other challenge will be maintaining, improving and expanding the system, even as urbanization alters some parks and makes new park land harder to come by. Murphy’s department will have an extra $75 million for upgrades, thanks to the CONNECT NC bonds, which voters approved in March.
The Charlotte region will get about $135 million for improvements at Crowders Mountain, Lake Norman and Morrow Mountain state parks.
At Mount Mitchell, there’s also talk of expansion. A nonprofit group called The Conservation Fund owns a few thousand acres around the park. It’s negotiating to make two nearby peaks and other mountainside land part of the state park.
The peak draws people from around the country. Mavis Kim and her family were visiting on a recent weekday from Chicago, during her boys’ spring break. They had been thinking about a trip to Orlando ....
“… but you know it’s crowded there, and I just wanted to go somewhere peaceful, where we could see some mountains. I just looked at Mount Mitchell and saw it’s the highest point east of the Mississippi and we had to come see it,” Kim says.
Sometimes, a park just sells itself.
N.C. Parks website about the state parks centennial, http://www.ncparks.gov/100/celebrate-our-centennial
Mount Mitchell web page - http://www.ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park