Our Great Treasures: National Parks
by Cindy Ann Bowers (and Katie)
National Parks are one of the greatest treasures of the United States of America. I’ve had the immense pleasure of experiencing several National Parks this fall and winter over the south and west. My partner and I visited the Channel Islands, Pinnacles, Yosemite, Great Basin, Zion, Joshua Tree, Guadalupe, and Carlsbad Caverns.
“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The park service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.” - National Park Service, Mission Statement
As we traveled on this route, I thought a lot about how we, in this country, are in relationship with our land. We can’t ignore history and undo any of the terrible things we’ve done with this land: the genocide of the original inhabitants, the importation of slave labor to create agricultural plantations, logging of forests, mining of mountains, destruction of grasslands during westward expansion, damming of rivers, nuclear testing, unchecked pollution of earth, air and water - the list is very long. This list makes me doubly grateful that people had the foresight to create protected wilderness areas and National Parks before all the land was occupied/degraded by humans.
While outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife lovers have always known this, scientists are now documenting the value of undeveloped land. (tracts of land with no roads, buildings or dams). This land is valuable for two important reasons: for the preservation of wildlife and as a “carbon sink”. To be able to heal the damage we have done to our climate with overuse of fossil fuels and to other species with habitat loss, it is imperative that we take action to preserve as much undeveloped land as we can.
Our global leaders understand that land conservation is extremely important. Recently, the Convention on Biodiversity has endorsed the 30 x 30 Initiative. This initiative, ratified by more than 190 countries (notably not the United States), seeks to protect 30% of Earth’s lands, oceans, coastal areas, inland waters by 2030. Scientist and author, E. O. Wilson calls for even more protected land and waterways in his book, Half-Earth. He calls for the preservation of fully half the planet for wildlife.
Government protection of land for wildlife is essential. We do not fully understand our relationship with the rest of the species that occupy this planet. We don’t often reflect on how dependent we are on other species. The very oxygen we need to breathe is supplied by plants. I don’t think people appreciate that often enough. We can’t leave land preservation to individuals.
Closer to home, our county leaders are considering a 2045 Comprehensive Plan to map the future development of Henderson County. Local environmental groups like Mountain True have some major concerns with the amount of land development in the current draft of this plan. If we want to protect wildlife, mitigate climate disruption, and enjoy undisturbed natural areas, we need to start right here at home.
Read the plan, talk to your neighbors and the county commissioners, and get out to enjoy a park!
Don't forget about State Parks and National Forests too!
National Parks are ah-mazing, but if you don't have time just yet to get out west to Zion or Yosemite, you might want to check out these closer to home, NC Park options...
Take a friend, go explore, fall in love with the forest, and head back with new energy to protect our parks!)
Gorges State Park, located in Transylvania County near the tripoint where North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia meet sports plunging waterfalls, rugged river gorges, and sheer rock precipices. Backcountry-style recreation is a hallmark of the park, from backpacking to horseback riding. This park located in the Blue Ridge Escarpment spans over 8,000 acres of temperate rainforest and hosts extraordinary biodiversity. The park features 26 waterfalls, the northern boundary of Lake Jocassee, and a portion of the 70-mile Foothills Trail.
Chimney Rock State Park, located in Rutherford county 25 miles southeast of Asheville, offers some of North Carolina's most dramatic mountain scenery, overlooking Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure. At the fee-based Chimney Rock attraction, hike to Hickory Nut Falls and take an elevator or climb to the top of the park's namesake, a 315-foot freestanding rock spire. It also has the most facilities, including riverside areas, interpretive exhibits, and gift shops. The free Rumbling Bald and Eagle Rock accesses provide a more rugged backcountry experience.
Mount Mitchell State Park, located in Yancey County 30 miles northeast of Asheville, was the genesis of North Carolina's state parks system. At 6,684 feet, the mountain is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, and an observation deck provides breathtaking mountain views on a clear day. Easy trails at the summit explore the Fraser fir forest, while a vast network of challenging trails — including the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail — extend into adjacent wilderness areas and lead to backpacking opportunities within Pisgah National Forest.
Lake James State Park, located in Burke and McDowell counties 50 miles northeast of Asheville, includes two areas to access this picturesque lake that is perfect for boating, swimming, and fishing. Campsites at both Catawba River and Paddy's Creek accesses provide an opportunity to spend the night by the lake, with some sites accessible only by paddling. Trails include bike trails at Paddy's Creek, the kid-friendly Holly Discovery Trail, the historic Overmountain Victory Trail, and the Fonta Flora State Trail.
South Mountains State Park, located in Burke County 55 miles east of Asheville, is situated at the crossroads of the Appalachian Mountains and the Foothills to provide the ultimate backcountry experience. The park boasts elevations up to 3,000 feet, an 80-foot waterfall, and nearly 50 miles of trail for hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. Water recreation is offered via the Jacob Fork River, which hosts designated trout waters, or to the far west at the separate Clear Creek access that features the namesake lake. South Mountains State Park is situated at the crossroads of the Appalachian Mountains and the Foothills to provide the ultimate backcountry experience. The park boasts elevations up to 3,000 feet, an 80-foot waterfall, and nearly 50 miles of trail for hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. Water recreation is offered via the Jacob Fork River, which hosts designated trout waters, or to the far west at the separate Clear Creek access that features the namesake lake.
Grandfather Mountain State Park, located in Avery, Caldwell, and Watauga counties 13 miles southwest of Boone, showcases a stunning mountain known for severe weather and challenging terrain that has hikers scrambling along cliffs, gripping cables, and climbing up ladders. It also boasts an unmatched ecological diversity that has been recognized as a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve. The state parkland sits between the privately-owned Grandfather Mountain attraction (admission fee charged) and Blue Ridge Parkway trails managed by the National Park Service.
Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountain and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. The largest of North Carolina's four National Forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald in Jackson County to 1,200 feet in Cherokee County along Hiwassee River. "Nantahala" is a Cherokee word meaning "land of the noon day sun," a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge, where the sun only reaches to the valley floor at midday. The Forest was established in 1920 under authority of the 1911 Weeks Act. This act provided authority to acquire lands for national forests to protect watersheds, to provide timber, and to regulate the flow of navigable streams. With over 600 miles of trails, opportunities exist for hikers, mountain bikers, horse-back riders and off-highway vehicle riders.
Pisgah National Forest is a land of mile-high peaks, cascading waterfalls, and heavily forested slopes. Comprised of over 500,000 acres, the Pisgah is primarily a hardwood forest with whitewater rivers, waterfalls and hundreds of miles of trails. This national forest is home of the first tract of land purchased under the Weeks Act of 1911 which led to the creation of the national forests in the eastern United States. It is also home of the first school of forestry in the United States, now preserved at the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site, and boasts two of the first designated wilderness areas in the east.