North Carolina State Parks saw 20.1 million visitors and 4% visitation growth in 2023, according to a release from the Division of Parks and Recreation.
The growth was largely driven by Jordan Lake State Park’s 2.5 million visitors, which broke the previous record for visitation to a single park by 500,000, according to the release.
But increased visitation doesn’t necessarily lead to increased revenue, as the parks generated $300,000 less revenue in 2023 than in 2022, according to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Since visitation is free at nearly all state parks, revenue is generated through parking fees, reserving campsites or purchasing passes to amenities and attractions at the parks.
Several campgrounds and attractions were closed in 2023 and remain closed in 2024 for upgrades and renovations. Morrow Mountain State Park in Stanly County and Umstead State Park in Wake County, two of the most popular parks, closed campgrounds in 2023, says N.C. State Parks Public Information Officer Kris Anne Bonifacio.
Closures at Morrow Mountain and Umstead, along with other closures across the state, likely contributed to the decrease in revenue, Bonifacio speculates.
“Day-use visitation increased last year at Morrow Mountain,” Bonifacio says. “But with all of our camping closed, including the very popular vacation cabins [and] the pool, more visitors didn’t contribute to the state parks system revenue since they weren’t reserving campsites or purchasing swimming passes.”
Bill Stirewalt, former NC Family Campers and RVers Association (FCRV) president, says the closure at Morrow Mountain didn’t impact his FCRV chapter in neighboring Cabarrus County.
Stirewalt and his FCRV chapter visited the campgrounds 25 years ago, and Stirewalt recalls that even then, they weren’t up to modern camping standards and didn’t support many RV features.
Stirewalt says that he and his chapter of FCRV would keep an open mind about camping at Morrow Mountain in the future, assuming the upgrades support more RV features.
“I understand they’re overhauling it now, and it’s about 25 years too late,” Stirewalt says. “[But] we would love to go back to Morrow Mountain again if they would get set up so you can get 30 campers in there.”
Scout Troop 104 in north Raleigh uses Umstead as a training hike for Scouts preparing to go on long, overnight backpacking trips, says Scoutmaster Mark Yalch. But for nearby state park camping, it uses Falls Lake State Recreation Area to get further outside of the city.
So, when Umstead’s campgrounds closed for upgrades, it didn’t have much of an impact on Troop 104. But with upgrades coming, Yalch says Troop 104 may start to use Umstead campgrounds to take younger Scouts on overnight camping trips.
The Division of Parks and Recreation plans to open the upgraded campgrounds at Morrow Mountain in 2024, but there is no timetable for the reopening of Umstead’s campgrounds, according to Bonifacio.
A new campground at Hammocks Beach State Park is supposed to open near the beginning of this summer, Bonifacio says. The new campgrounds and re-opening of upgraded ones could help bring increased revenue in 2024, but Bonifacio says this isn’t the parks’ ultimate goal.
“We are always striving for the best possible visitor experience, and sometimes that may mean closing revenue-generating facilities for a time so they can be repaired or upgraded,” Bonifacio says. “We are very excited for our visitors to enjoy the new facilities once they open though, and we hope the improvements will convince them to come back again.”