The 41 parks and recreation areas in the North Carolina State Parks system, nine of which are on the coast, saw record-high visitation in 2021, with Jockey’s Ridge State Park topping the list.
About 22.8 million visitors flocked to state parks last year, 3 million more than any year on record, officials announced Tuesday.
The previous record for visitation was set in 2020 when North Carolina parks saw 19.8 million visitors, despite being closed for several weeks due to the pandemic in the early part of the year. Additionally, 10 state parks reached 1 million visitors in 2021, up from seven parks in 2020.
The nine sites on the coast are Dismal Swamp State Park in Camden County, Merchants Millpond State Park in Gates County, Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, Pettigrew State Park in Tyrrell and Washington counties, Goose Creek State Park in Washington, Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach, Hammocks Beach State Park in Swansboro, Carolina Beach State Park in New Hanover County and Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in Kure Beach.
Of the 41 state parks and recreation areas, 28 reported increases in visitation from last year. Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Dare County reported the highest visitation with 1.8 million visitors in 2021, and was among 10 state park units that had more than 1 million visitors. The others were Carolina Beach, Eno River, Fort Macon, Pilot Mountain, and William B. Umstead state parks, and Falls Lake, Fort Fisher, Jordan Lake, and Kerr Lake state recreation areas.
“We’re fortunate to live in a state with beautiful natural resources and our 41 state parks saw more visits than ever last year,” said Gov. Roy Cooper. “We must maintain and improve these amazing parks so millions more people can enjoy all North Carolina has to offer.”
Fort Fisher saw an increase in visitation by 46% compared to 2020, one of several parks that experienced visitation increases in excess of 30%. Other sites include Carvers Creek, Chimney Rock, Jones Lake, Lake James and Singletary Lake.
“North Carolinians in 2021 showed us how much they value state parks and trails to enhance their physical and mental health,” Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Secretary Reid Wilson said in a statement. “Fortunately, the new state budget invests heavily in new state and local parks, trails, and greenways to meet growing public demand.”
The 2021-22 state budget allocated an additional $91 million for state and local parks and trails and beach access, plus $29 million for state trails projects. The Division of Parks and Recreation will also receive 30 new permanent field positions, $10 million to create park facilities for veterans and those with disabilities, and $40 million in water and sewer upgrades, according to the state.
“This record visitation year shows us that people need new space to recreate and learn outdoors,” said State Parks Director Dwayne Patterson. “People clearly value not only having more space to roam and explore, but revitalizing and caring for them.”