Thursday, October 31, 2019

Been There, Loved It: Our North Carolina State Parks Tour

Let me let you in on a couple of secrets: North Carolina is rich with beauty and intrigue beyond your wildest imaginings, and one of our state's greatest assets is a park system that preserves and showcases its natural splendor for all to enjoy.

I share this insight with the eager authority of a zealous, nature-loving tourist and outdoor enthusiast who, along with the family, has now visited all 41 of the North Carolina State Parks over the course of a year that took us to every corner and deep into the heart of our fair state.

After our family hike challenge in 2018, we wanted another goal and decided it would be neat to say we'd covered the state park circuit. Now, with every page of our park passports stamped, I'm even crazier about the natural wonders of the Tar Heel state and our time spent together exploring it.

Every step of our journey uncovered something new and exquisite.

Whether we were at the pinnacle of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the east coast at 6,684 feet, perched above an ocean of mountains as far as the eye could see, or at the tippy top of Sugarloaf Dune, just 55 feet above sea level at Carolina Beach, overlooking the Intercoastal Waterway, the views were magnificent.

Whether we were breathing the thick, sweet, salty air along the boardwalk trails through dense, lush, moss-draped swampland in the Coastal Plains, or the crisp, fragrant Frasier firs along mountaintop trails, the whole-body experience was stimulating.

Whether we were treading on hallowed territory that once played a role in the Underground Railroad, gaping at a 471-year-old longleaf pine, or touring any one of the impressive visitor center educational exhibits, the exposure was enlightening.

On our quest, we found ourselves kayaking through salt marshes, running along vast sand dunes, tubing down broad and winding rivers, paddling on shimmering lakes, traversing swinging bridges, hiking moss-carpeted trails, summiting mountains, and pausing in awe at thundering waterfalls. And, let me tell you, there was something fantastic, something magical about every state park that made each visit meaningful and worthwhile.

Of course, the destination is only part of the journey, and, with parks scattered from mountains to sea, taking this tour introduced us to back roads, small towns and slices of the state we hadn't visited, and probably otherwise wouldn't. There's a lot to be said for spending time together outside of our big-city bubble.

And, as was the case with our family hike challenge, this experience gave us an excuse to work toward a goal as a unit, to learn to be open to surprises and possibilities, to be present with one another, and to bond over shared experiences. That's perhaps, the greatest gift of it all.

Though, the kids would probably say that the passport prizes were a fun incentive, and I wouldn't disagree. This wonderful program rewards visitors for every 10 park stamps they get. And the gifts are cool: field journals, bandanas, hiking socks, backpacks, shirts and outdoor store gift cards. . . Another bonus feature of a solid park system.

So, the secret's out. North Carolina is spectacular and our state park system offers exceptional opportunities to experience its beauty. Now the question is which park will you visit first? This new North Carolina State Park super-fan now has 41 enthusiastic recommendations. Wanna go for a hike?

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