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22.8 million people visited North Carolina state parks in 2021, the most on record

Jockey’s Ridge State Park, located in Nags Head on the Outer Banks, saw 1.8 million visitors, the highest reported statewide in 2021.

NORTH CAROLINA, USA — If you're in North Carolina, there's a ton of ground to cover when it comes to the great outdoors.

There are 41 places within North Carolina's state parks system to pick from, ranging from the Outer Banks in the east to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west.

That's something more people are catching onto. A record-breaking 22.8 million people visited North Carolina's state parks and recreation areas in 2021, which is three million more than any other year.

According to data from the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, 2021 broke the previous record for visitation, which was set in 2020, despite several weeks of closures due to the pandemic. In 2020, North Carolina's parks saw 19.8 million visitors.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park had the most visitors

Last year saw 10 state parks reaching one million visitors each, up from seven parks in 2020.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park, located in Nags Head on the Outer Banks, saw 1.8 million visitors, the highest reported statewide in 2021. The park features the tallest living sand dune on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as views spanning from the ocean to Roanoke Sound.

The other places that passed a million visitors are:

  • Carolina Beach State Park
  • Eno River State Park
  • Fort Macon State Park
  • Pilot Mountain State Park
  • William B. Umstead State Park
  • Falls Lake State Recreation Area
  • Fort Fisher State Historic Site
  • Jordan Lake State Recreation Area
  • Kerr Lake State Recreation Area

Of these parks, four are located on the coast and four are located in or near the Research Triangle.

So, what's behind more people going outdoors?

Katie Hall, a spokeswoman with the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, said the state parks offer access to the most naturally beautiful places in the state, featuring different ecosystems, geological features and habitats.

According to Hall, the division is focused on keeping public lands in the most natural state possible, adding facilities and trails for education and recreation.

Hall said visitations started ramping up in 2020 when indoor places, including gyms, had to close due to COVID-19. That's when people turned to the outdoors to get exercise or have some fun. 

The trend continued into the following year as vaccines became available.

The parks division says it's working to meet the demand

As more people take to the outdoors, Hall said the division has experienced staff shortages in 2020 and 2021, specifically with seasonal positions, but officials hope to be back to normal this year.

North Carolina's budget for 2021-22 provided an additional $91 million for state and local parks and trails and beach access, plus $29 million for state trails projects.

According to Hall, that funding will be used to build and repair trails, renovate water and sewer systems, establish new access areas and hire additional staff to support the greater number of people visiting.

Hall said North Carolina is partnering with Leave No Trace to make sure people help preserve the natural beauty of the state. The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Stick to trails and overnight right
  • Trash your trash
  • Leave it as you find it
  • Be careful with fire
  • Keep wildlife wild
  • Share the trails

To learn more about the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, you can visit its website.

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