Three years ago, halfway up Grandfather Mountain with my 7-year-old boy, I started counting all the state parks where I’d plopped down a hiking boot – a mental tally that was half curiosity and half distraction against sore knees.
I figured I’d seen about half of them – Hanging Rock, Stone Mountain, Carolina Beach – and I launched a quest to notch the rest. This park crusade led into some of North Carolina’s most obscure corners: Mount Medoc in Hollister; Pettigrew in Creswell; Elk Knob in Todd. Along the way, I stood at the top of Mt. Mitchell, saw 3-foot icicles dangling from Raven Rock and lost a night’s sleep to the bullfrogs in Gorges.
And then last week, I collected the final trophy in the wilds of Bladen County, stamping my passport at the shore of Singletary Lake. It took more than 20 years, but I made it to all 41 state parks and recreation areas. I congratulate myself on what is perhaps the nerdiest accomplishment of all time.
When this journey began in 1996, I was a freshly relocated Marylander, and my colleague Jerry Lankford at the Sanford Herald recommended I try Stone Mountain in his native Wilkes County. He suggested fishing for trout with canned corn – advice I followed into futility.
By the time I finished, I had canoed or kayaked down the New River, the Lumber River, the Neuse River, the Eno River, Crabtree Creek, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Dismal Swamp canal – all on state park land. I kept a wildlife checklist that includes bald eagles, wild turkeys, beavers, otters and a thousand great blue herons. Most of this I experienced by driving less than an hour outside Raleigh.
And now with all the candidates counted, I offer this best-of list – a highly subjective product of boot leather, gasoline and spousal patience. I admit here that I gathered the last six parks in a whirlwind day and a half – a less-than-thorough examination in a few cases. Apologies to Crowders Mountain, where it was hot and I was short on time. As they say at the spelling bee, we’re all winners here.
The obvious contender is Mt. Mitchell, highest point east of the Mississippi River, which is indeed jaw-dropping. But I’m going to pick Mt. Jefferson, an overlooked stunner. I hiked to Luther Rock this spring with my friend Ken Pugh, and we clung to the ridgeline in a strong wind, gawking over a cliff that seemed to drop straight down. Heed warning signs and be cautious on this beauty.
Best short walk
I am a sucker for swamp boardwalks, and though the park at Haw River lets you see critters skittering through black water, it is no match for the half-mile Palmetto Boardwalk at Goose Creek. This had closed temporarily when I last cut through, but its proximity to wriggling nature is unparalleled in my experience. In the summer, though, biting flies will drain your entire blood supply.
Best family-bonding slog
From the time I met her, my wife told harrowing tales of her father marching her and her brothers up the Daniel Boone Scout Trail at Grandfather Mountain, camping at the Hi-Balsam shelter made of logs and sheet metal. So of course, I forced my own child through this experience, which involves climbing several ladders and hiking past the wreckage of a 1978 plane crash.
Bear Island sits off the coast of the Hammocks Beach park, where the timid reach it by ferry and the bold fight the tides with a paddle. Uninhabited, almost undeveloped, the seashells that wash ashore here are larger and more intact than any other beach my toes have touched.
1. Pilot Mountain. For my money, it’s 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.
2. Merchants Millpond. It’s a maze of watery trails navigable only by small boat, where you camp on your own island.
3. Carolina Beach. Any state park with a carnivorous plant hike deserves prominent mention. At several points on these trails, I have encountered a parade of hermit crabs, claws raised.