Grandfather Mountain. Photo by Hugh Morton and courtesy of Grandfather Mountain State Park.
Grandfather Mountain State Park, in Avery County, posted a 55 percent increase in visitation between 2011 and 2012, which was the largest increase among the region’s six state parks. Park Superintendent Sue McBean said it was the first year the park had foot-traffic counters installed on all its trailheads. Photo by Hugh Morton and courtesy of Grandfather Mountain State Park.

North Carolina’s state parks collectively drew more than 14 million visitors in 2012, continuing the trend in record-level attendance that began in 2009.

In Western North Carolina, the numbers show a somewhat different story. While some parks located in the 18 westernmost counties saw boosts in the number of guests last year, combined visitation to the region’s six state parks fell 6 percent from 2011, state data shows. In total, more than 1.1 million visitors went to the state parks in WNC: Chimney Rock, Elk Knob, Gorges, Grandfather Mountain, Lake James and Mount Mitchell.

“It’ll be up and down that much without a whole lot of effort,” said Charlie Peek, public information officer for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. “We normally see that much variation. That’s not significant.”

In fact, several changes in mountain state parks — from improved ways to track visitors to new and restored amenities — may explain why the tallies could be skewed.

Grandfather Mountain State Park posted the largest jump in attendance with a 55 percent increase from 49,820 visitors in 2011 to 77,459 in 2012.

“The reason for that is because we installed the last two foot-traffic counters on two of the trails,” said Sue McBean, park superintendent at Grandfather Mountain State Park. “Before that, we didn’t have any way of recording those numbers.”

Grandfather Mountain State Park was established in 2009 when the state of North Carolina bought 2,700 acres of land in Avery County from Grandfather Mountain, Inc. The park installed foot traffic counters at the heads of three of its trails in 2011, but the remaining two trails were not given foot traffic counters until 2012. The number of visitors in 2011 who weren’t counted is impossible to determine.

“Once it’s been a full two years of having all the counters up, I think we’ll have a good idea of what our attendance is doing,” McBean said.

In Transylvania County, Gorges State Park had 112,096 visitors in 2012, up 22 percent from 92,060 in 2011.

After the park’s two primary parking lots were closed in 2011 due to construction, 2012 saw the opening of two new picnic shelters and bathhouses, as well as a new visitor center that opened on Oct. 7.  Prior to that, Gorges rented a facility in the town of Sapphire, N.C., to serve as a park office.

“With those facilities coming back online, I would attribute our increase in attendance to that,” said Kevin Bischof, park ranger at Gorges State Park.

The main attraction at Chimney Rock State Park is its namesake rock formation, a towering spire 315 feet above the ground with a 75-mile view of Rutherford County.

While visitors normally had a choice between taking an elevator or traversing 500 steps to reach the top of Chimney Rock, the elevator broke down in December 2010 and remained out of service throughout 2011. According to park officials, that led to the park only having 167,532 visitors that year, down 23 percent from 219,221 in 2010.

Chimney Rock’s elevator was brought back to full-time service on June 8, 2012, and the park’s visitation level rebounded. The year ended with 227,641 visitors to the park, a 36 percent increase over 2011 and up 4 percent from 2010.

Two WNC state parks saw modest declines in attendance in 2012. Elk Knob State Park in Watauga County dipped 6 percent with 31,926 visitors, while Mount Mitchell State Park in Yancey County eased only 1 percent to 299,839.

Lake James State Park Superintendent Nora Coffey
Lake James State Park Superintendent Nora Coffey

Located in McDowell and Burke Counties, Lake James State Park had a 31 percent decline in attendance from 2011 to 2012. Though that figure appears steep — it was the second-largest percentage drop in park attendance statewide — that was due to 2011 being an above-average year for the park, according to Nora Coffey, park superintendent.

In September 2010, Lake James State Park began development of property it had purchased in 2005. The newly completed swimming beach, bathhouse, picnic shelters and hiking trail helped to draw 569,319 visitors in 2011, a whopping 70 percent increase over 2010’s more typical 335,537.

Although attendance dropped in 2012, the park’s 390,110 visitors that year represented a 16 percent growth from where the park was two years prior.

“We currently have 14 miles of mountain bike trails under construction that we hope to have open by the end of this year,” Coffey said, adding that the biking trails will make the park “more of a year-round destination.”

“We definitely expect those numbers to go up in the next few years,” she said.

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Ben Haines is a former reporting intern at Carolina Public Press.

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