Crowders Mountain State Park neared 1 million visitors in 2021

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Hikers brave the below freezing temperatures as they visit Crowders Mountain State Park early Thursday morning, Jan. 27, 2022.
Hikers brave the below freezing temperatures as they visit Crowders Mountain State Park early Thursday morning, Jan. 27, 2022.

Visitation soared at state parks all across North Carolina during 2021 and nowhere was that trend more evident than at Crowders Mountain.

The state park, whose signature peak can be seen from viewpoints all across Gaston and Cleveland counties, saw 958,744 visitors last year, a 26% jump over the 763,919 visitors recorded in 2020.

"I'm really surprised we did not hit 1 million last year," said Park Superintendent Glen George, "but I'm sure that day is coming."

Despite constructing new and bigger parking lots over the past five years, Crowders still sees more prospective visitors than those lots can handle "on just about any weekend day that's pretty."

Soaring visitation rates serve to put a strain on both the natural resources of the park and on park staff, George explained.

"With that rate of visitation, we have to do everything more often," he said, "from cleaning restrooms to emptying trash to staffing the parking lots.

"And," he continued, "all those thousands of feet on the trails require more trail maintenance and more extensive trail maintenance."

More: Pandemic spurs increased visitation to area state parks

South Mountains State Park, to which many Gaston and Cleveland county residents head when they think Crowders will be too crowded, also had a big jump in visitation last year.

South Mountains had 526,897 visitors in 2021, a 29% increase over the 409,043 who visited in 2020.

"If we have half-way decent weather on a weekend day, we're going to have to be directing traffic and people are going to have to wait," said Park Superintendent Jonathan Griffith.

Due to the steep topography of the park and its location along the Jacob Fork River, expansion of parking spaces is not really an option at South Mountains, Griffith said.

"We basically have 200 spaces," he said. "We have our main parking area, and we have the Cicero Branch parking area, and there really is nowhere else to go."

Griffith noted that even on weekdays the remote park probably has three times the number of visitors it had a few years ago.

South Mountains State Park does have another access area on its western flank not far off U.S. 64 south of Morganton.

More: Gastonia's new plan for Linwood Springs Golf Course includes trails, ziplines and camping

The Clear Creek access area does have a couple of short hiking trails and a lake for fishing, but it is a "day-use only" area and has no facilities.

Other state parks relatively close to Gaston and Cleveland counties also saw jumps in visitation last year.

Lake James State Park, off I-40 in western Burke County, saw 634,241 visitors in 2021 compared to 468,589 in 2020, an increase of 35%.

And Lake Norman State Park, located about 30 miles north of Charlotte off I-77, saw 857,481 visitors in 2021 compared to 763,962 in 2020, an increase of 35%.

Across the state, North Carolina's state parks and recreation areas recorded 22.8 million visitors last year, 3 million more than 2020.

Ten state facilities reported more than 1 million visitors in 2021, including Jockey's Ridge, Carolina Beach, Eno River, Fort Macon, Pilot Mountain and Umstead state parks, and Falls Lake, Fort Fisher, Jordan Lake, and Kerr lake state recreation areas.

Kim Smith, Mike Davis, David Brantley and Les Kish brave the below freezing temperatures as they hike together at Crowders Mountain State Park early Thursday morning, Jan. 27, 2022.
Kim Smith, Mike Davis, David Brantley and Les Kish brave the below freezing temperatures as they hike together at Crowders Mountain State Park early Thursday morning, Jan. 27, 2022.

"We're fortunate to live in a state with beautiful natural resources," said Gov. Roy Cooper in a press release. "We must maintain and improve these amazing parks so millions more people can enjoy all North Carolina has to offer."

The 2021-22 state budget allocated an additional $91 million for state and local parks and trails and beach access, as well as $29 million for state trails projects.

The Division of Parks and Recreation will also receive 30 new permanent field positions, $10 million to create and upgrade park facilities for veterans and those with disabilities, and $40 million in water and sewer upgrades.

Bill Poteat, who never met a state park he doesn't like, may be reached at 704-869-1855 or bpoteat@gastongazette.com.

This article originally appeared on The Gaston Gazette: Gaston County's Crowders Mountain State Park visitors soared in 2021