There’s a ton of state parks in North Carolina. Check out this best-of list.

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.

Mount Mitchell State Park
A hiker crosses a stream while hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in Mount Mitchell State Park. // N&O file photo.

Best view

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.

See my full best-of list of NC state parks

Want to explore more places in North Carolina? Check out this list of options to take a day trip.

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