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While 2013 N.C. State Parks Attendance Hovers at Record Levels, High Country State Parks See Decrease in Visitors

By Jesse Wood

Jan. 17, 2014. While visitors to North Carolina state parks and state recreation areas as a whole combined for record-level attendance in 2013, the four state parks and natural areas in the High Country saw a year-over-year decrease in visits, according to data from the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. 

In 2013, state parks and recreation areas experienced 14.2 million visits, and last year marked the third year in a row that attendance has “hovered at a record level.” But of the 40 state parks and recreation areas, only 19 saw an increase in attendance. 

Elk Knob State Park and Grandfather Mountain State Park saw a significant over-the-year decrease in attendance, while New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area saw a slight decrease. See attendance figures below:

  • Elk Knob State Park attendance decreased from 31,926 visitors in 2012 to 26,747 in 2013.
  • Grandfather Mountain State Park decreased from 77,459 visitors in 2012 to 70,010 in 2013.
  • New River State Park and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area  decreased from 281,589 in 2012 to 269,845 in 2013.
Photo by Jay Wild, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation
View from summit of Elk Knob State Park – Photo by Jay Wild, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

Randy Johnson, who launched Grandfather Mountain’s trail program in the ‘70s and is author of numerous guidebooks on hiking and skiing in the High Country, said he believed the reason for the drop is “really simple.”

“The High Country state parks are truly outdoor state parks – hiking to the top of Grandfather, canoeing on the New River. These are places, where the emphasis is on the outdoors, and 2013 was one of the wettest, rainiest years on record in the North Carolina mountains,” said Johnson, who is also on the Grandfather Mountain State Park Advisory Committee.

Grandfather Mountain, for example, recorded a “whopping” 85.95 inches of rain in 2013 at the Mile High Swinging Bridge, which was the second highest annual precipitation total in 58 years of weather recording, according to a Grandfather Mountain release. That 85.95 inches of rain is also 22 inches more than the yearly rainfall average recorded. 

Johnson went on to add that once the rains finally came to a halt just before peak leaf season, the federal government shut down, closing the facilities on the Blue Ridge Parkway – “the most visited national park in the entire nation.” Johnson added that people who visit the Blue Ridge Parkway also check out the other outdoor attractions, including local state parks, during their stay in the High Country.

While the federal shutdown didn’t affect the funding or operation of state parks, Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreations, speaking in October during the shutdown, mentioned that his office was receiving a high volume of calls from people assuming that the state parks were closed, too. 

A Jan. 14 press release from the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation touting the record attendance and the $400-million economic impact that parks have on communities across the state, mentioned that “heavy rains in late spring and early summer dampened visitation at many parks.” It also noted that early winter storms and tropical storms or hurricanes didn’t affect state parks in 2013.

“Throughout fluctuations in the economy and the tourism industry, visitation at state parks has remained steady and robust, and that reflects the value North Carolinians place on outdoor experiences and the state’s rich natural resources,” said Carol Tingley, acting state parks director, said in a statement.

Tingley went on to state the “strong contribution” that state parks have on the tourism economy and economies of local communities in general. The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation cited a study from N.C. State University that estimated that travelers on average spend $23.56 a day to enjoy state parks, each contributing to the total annual economic impact of state parks that is valued at more than $400 million. 

Source: N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation