Last year, North Carolina saw record crowds pour into its state parks: 1.94 million visitors — a 3.4 percent increase over 2016 numbers.
Over the past 20 years, I've trod through all 41 parks in the state. So with springtime rebirth in mind, I offer this guide to the Top 10 on the state's list, ranked in order of attendance and featuring a signature activity for each. Those hiking boots in the closet need to lose some tread.
1. Jockey's Ridge, Nags Head: 1,560,254 visitors
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
This one qualifies as an obvious stop considering the Outer Banks' beaches, lighthouses and pirate paraphernalia, but great fun can be had at the state's most popular park without tripping over sunbathers. For the best chance at fun, rent a sandboard from any outfitter nearby and surf down the tallest sand dune system east of the Mississippi River. A standard boogie board works just as well for surfers wishing to ride on their bellies rather than upright. It's a good idea to check in with rangers because this type of fun is typically allowed between October and May, and fancier boards with foot straps require a free permit. But close your eyes on the way down the dune and you'll channel Orville Wright.
2. Fort Macon, Atlantic Beach: 1,543,772 visitors
Civil War enthusiasts can tour the coastal fort without having to change out of their swimming trunks, taking in the cannons and thick brick walls on near-daily tours. But to really get a feel for a soldier's life in 1862, watch the calendar for the musket demonstrations. Rangers will show off all nine steps for loading the antique guns, attaching the bayonets and — on a lucky day — tossing in some 19th-century jokes.
3. Umstead, Raleigh: 1,538,830 visitors
Before it became a beloved patch of urban wilderness, the land at Umstead state park held settlements dating back to 1810. In the height of the Depression, when the state and federal government first bought the land, hardscrabble farmers tried to grow cotton in the depleted soil around Crabtree Creek. One of the best parts of hiking through Umstead is finding artifacts strewn about the woods. A pair of cemeteries. A ruined chimney. Rusted metal shot through with holes. Some hikers make an annual jaunt through these remnants.
4. Jordan Lake, Apex: 1,485,956 visitors
On Jordan Lake, the bald eagle population has thrived enough in recent years to merit its own webcam — a window into the nesting habits of the impressive raptor. Most any trail along the lake makes for excellent eagle watching, especially in spring and early summer. But the Ebenezer Church boat ramp features a guide for spotting the birds from a distance and not confusing them for vultures or osprey, which are just as prevalent.
5. Kerr Lake, Henderson: 1,120,837 visitors
At Kerr Lake, the legend persists of a catfish the size of a grown man lurking at the murky bottom, discovered by a terrified Navy diver who swore never to swim its depths again. The park along the Virginia border, also known as Buggs Island, still carries the reputation for outrageously good fishing, especially after anglers hauled in a 143-pound monster in 2011. The pier at Henderson Point stays open 24 hours a day, waiting for the next folk hero.
6. Falls Lake, Wake Forest: 1,033,861 visitors
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail winds 1,200 miles from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, and along its way, its cuts just north of the Triangle through an easy-to-reach patch of woods. Also known as the Falls Lake Trail, the trademark white circular blazes follow a path that varies from lakeside to thick woods and, with a squint and some imagination, give a hiker a taste of actual mountains. A trail of this length — more than 20 miles — is good practice for the rougher stuff out west.
7. Lake Norman, Troutman: 962,576 visitors
Technically, Lake Norman counts as biggest in the state, edging out Lake Mattamuskeet, which covers more ground but never gets more than about knee-deep. So Lake Norman provides plenty of territory to explore in a canoe or kayak. But suburban Charlotte's aquatic playground offers the added benefit of a sea monster reputed to look like the fabled beast of Loch Ness and stretch up to 15 feet long. Sightings are posted at LakeNormanMonster.com, and a chance to update the list is excuse enough for taking a paddle.
8. Crowders Mountain, Kings Mountain: 888,039
The thing to know about bouldering at Crowders Mountain: These are not pipsqueak rocks. While some of them might be fit for scampering, the signature boulders at the overlook off Bethlehem Road stand taller than the typical house. The idea here is to climb them without ropes — a free permit is still required, and access is limited — but even with plenty of cracks and crags for gripping, it's vertigo-inducing and easy to take a dangerous tumble. That said, these are some of the noblest rocks in the state.
9. Eno River, Durham: 809,099 visitors
Eno River cheats a bit on its way to the Top 10 list, counting attendance at its neighbor Occoneechee Mountain as part of its total. But niggling aside, Eno's salamander hunt makes for a unique wilding outing. The park holds nine species of wriggling amphibians, most of which can be found by turning over a log by the riverside. Rangers and biologists lead these walks in February to April, prime viewing time when the critters are searching for pools to lay eggs, but they've been spotted year-round. Be sure to replace the logs to their proper spots, and keep an eye out for millipedes and beetle larvae. They like logs, too.
10. Pilot Mountain, Pinnacle: 801,954 visitors
For my money, Pilot Mountain ranks as our state’s signature landmark, more iconic even than Grandfather’s profile. Nothing beats rounding the last corner of the Grindstone Trail and greeting it face-to-face. Rangers at Pilot Mountain up the ante, though, by leading nighttime hikes inside the park, adding owls and bats into the mix. Nocturnal creatures always make for a nice bonus.