Western North Carolina’s natural beauty has drawn visitors and residents to our area for centuries, so it’s no surprise that some of the very first state and national parks were established right here. Today, our region is virtually surrounded by protected parklands, which are visited by millions of people each year and provide a stunning backdrop for our cities and towns.
This year marks the 100th birthday of the US National Park Service, and WNC is the ideal place to celebrate by learning, relaxing, and reconnecting with nature in these unique protected areas.
Mount Mitchell State Park
In 1916, North Carolina gained 795 acres of land, creating the first state park in all of the Southeast: Mount Mitchell. Since then, the state system has grown to almost 250,000 acres dedicated to conservation, recreation, and education.
“The idea of protecting and preserving North Carolina’s natural and cultural resources really started with Mount Mitchell State Park,” says Skyler Hill, park ranger at Mount Mitchell. “Those seeds of conservation were planted really early in the 1900s. With the starting of the state park system, not only throughout the state of North Carolina do you find what would be considered world-class scenery and great recreational opportunities, but you find land and waters that are really unique to this country and are very valuable to North Carolina citizens.”
Mount Mitchell boasts the highest peak east of the Mississippi at a lofty 6,684 feet. Lucky for us in Western North Carolina, the views from the peak are just a short drive away. “As long as you can get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway,” says Ranger Hill, “you can access Mount Mitchell.” Mount Mitchell State Park provides a great opportunity for day-use visitors who want to drive all the way to the summit or for people who want to hike all the way from the base to the summit.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a national roadway known as “America’s Favorite Drive.” The Parkway traverses our region and many of our parks are accessible via this slow-paced and relaxing drive. On the way to your destination, experience some of the most breathtaking long-range views in the entire Southeast.
Pisgah National Forest
One of the first national forests in the US, Pisgah National Forest also celebrates its centennial this year. Made of over 500,000 acres, Pisgah is home to the nation’s first school of forestry and makes up a significant portion of the remaining forested land in Western North Carolina.
“Having lived here all my life, I have an affinity and a love for the mountains themselves,” says Gavin Brown, mayor of Waynesville. “My favorite thing to do is to simply get on the expressway and keep going west until the sun sets. And if I get to the Blue Ridge Parkway or if I get to the Smoky Mountains National Park, I just keep going because there’s nothing to stop me.”
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the United States and it’s easy to see why. The park is a perfect retreat for for hiking, camping, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities. Visitors can also view the park’s signature wild elk, reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley in 2001 after nearly becoming extinct, and now thriving in this striking success of natural conservation.
Chimney Rock State Park
Chimney Rock State Park, overlooking Lake Lure, North Carolina, has been a part of the NC State Park system since 2007. This tourist attraction has been owned by the Morse family since 1902, and the family has worked with the state of North Carolina to ensure its preservation for future generations.
“A visit to Chimney Rock Park gives people the opportunity to see the best of the mountains in one place,” says Mary Jaeger-Gale, general manager of Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park. “We have fabulous cliffs, we have a waterfall, we have outstanding views, the geological and botanical features are incredibly significant, and people can come away not only having had a fabulous mountain experience but learn a lot about why these mountains are so special.”
It is important we continue to support and protect our state and national park systems for future generations, so that they can enjoy it just as we have. “I personally believe that the whole economic future of Western North Carolina is based on its geography,” says Mayor Brown. “If we maintain the integrity of that geography, then we’ll have an economy that we can survive in.”
To find out how to volunteer or how to join in our parks’ centennial celebrations, visit their websites: ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park, nps.gov/grsm, and chimneyrockpark.com. To learn more about our national and state parks and all the incredible natural resources in Western North Carolina, contact your Beverly-Hanks & Associates representative today.