RALEIGH – Attendance is up at North Carolina’s state parks, with the number of visitors setting a record in 2015. The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation reported more than 17.3 million visitors to the state’s 39 parks, up from 15.6 million in 2014. The news comes just months after the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed that the Tarheel State has surpassed 10 million in population and five weeks before voters are set to decide on a bond package that includes $75 million for improvements at state parks.
“An 11 percent increase proves that nothing compares to the enriching experience of a visit to a North Carolina state park,” Gov. Pat McCrory said. “North Carolina’s natural beauty is an important part of our overall quality of life that is second to none. I commend the men and women of our parks division for creating unique adventures that can turn a visit into a lifetime memory, and sharing our vision of preserving our state parks for future generations.”
Among 39 state parks and state recreation areas, 30 reported increases in attendance in 2015, according to the governor’s office. Jordan Lake State Recreation Area in Chatham County reported the highest attendance at 1.6 million visits and was among six state park units logging more than a million visitors. The others were Fort Macon, Jockey’s Ridge and William B. Umstead state parks and Falls Lake and Kerr Lake state recreation areas.
“The diverse beauty of North Carolina is found in our state parks,” said Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz. “From the mountains to the coast, each park is unique in the wonderful opportunities it offers to our visitors to connect to nature.”
Lake Norman State Park saw the largest increase in visitors, with 35 percent higher attendance than in 2014. Parks officials say that a new visitor center and improvements in mountain bike trails likely contributed to the increase to 742,236 total visitors. According to the state, other parks reporting significant attendance jumps included Gorges State Park (48 percent), Pilot Mountain State Park (35 percent), Grandfather Mountain State Park (30 percent) and Hanging Rock State Park (24 percent).
Since state parks are free to attend, attendance figures for state parks are estimated by parks staff. Staff use vehicle counters at park entrances, according to Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the state parks division. Peek said the counters are weighted differently from park to park based on estimates over time of the average number of people in each vehicle, as well as adjusting for park vehicles.
“Beginning with First Day Hikes a year ago, North Carolinians found every opportunity to enjoy our state parks in 2015, setting an attendance record for the third straight year. This reflects the value they place on our state parks and the opportunities for family recreation,” said Mike Murphy, state parks director. “There are even more reasons to visit in 2016 as we celebrate our 100-year history with special events statewide and in every state park.”