A look back at North Carolina’s national parks

This do-not-feed-the-bears sign was posted in the 1950s in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of a campaign to reduce black bear bites and scratches.
This do-not-feed-the-bears sign was posted in the 1950s in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of a campaign to reduce black bear bites and scratches. National Park Service

Great Smoky Mountains National Park came about 82 years ago. N.C. and Tennessee school kids chipped in pennies and dimes and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated $5 million through a family foundation to help buy the park’s land.

Today, Great Smokies protects 522,427 acres of rugged mountains and coves that offer sightseeing, hiking, camping and fishing. It’s the biggest national park unit in North Carolina, home to the Blue Ridge Parkway and two national seashores.

Other candidates for parks have sprung up over the decades. Ever heard of Uwharrie National Park? Or Hot Springs National Park? How about Mount Mitchell National Park? Probably not. They didn’t pick up traction and have long been forgotten.

As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, it’s timely to go over some of the historical facts and oddities about N.C. national parks as well as the Uwharrie, Hot Springs and Mount Mitchell park proposals.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The idea for a national park in the Southern Appalachians was promoted as early as 1885 by Dr. Chase Ambler of Asheville. Ambler and others sought an Eastern equivalent of Yellowstone National Park, designated in 1872 as the nation’s first park.

The Smokies park was created in 1934 from 6,600 private tracts after the legislatures of North Carolina and Tennessee and the federal government kicked in $7.6 million.

The park is home to about 1,500 black bears and 150-200 elk inside and outside the park, the latter animal reintroduced in 2001 and 2002.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Begun in 1935, the 469-mile parkway connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smokies in North Carolina.

The last link was finished in 1987 with the completion of the Linn Cove Viaduct, an S-shaped bridge that hugs the side of Grandfather Mountain.

Conservation groups, private donors and the State of North Carolina since 1996 have protected more than 62,000 acres adjoining parkway land to preserve scenic mountain vistas, according to the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Established in 1937, the nation’s first national seashore stretches 70 miles along the Atlantic coast from Nags Head to Ocracoke.

The 24,470-acre seashore holds three lighthouses, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke.

Cape Hatteras not only allows surf fishing but also waterfowl hunting on Bodie Island, one of 61 of the 411 national park units that permit hunting.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

After Cape Lookout was established in 1966, park officials had to remove 2,500 junked cars from the beaches. A few remain buried in sand.

No bridges link the 29,000-acre seashore to the mainland; visitors come by boat or car ferry.

(Other national park units include the Appalachian Trail, Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in Greensboro and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo.)

Now, about those would-be parks that didn’t make the cut.

Uwharrie National Park

In 1933, residents of Stanly and Montgomery counties pressed the NPS to create a park in the low-elevation Uwharrie mountains south of Asheboro. The park service wasn’t impressed. “We do not believe that this range of mountains possesses the outstanding scenic qualities that are required for areas to qualify for national parks,” the associate director wrote to U.S. Sen. Josiah Bailey, D-N.C.

Park proponents then shifted their campaign to a national forest, leading to the designation of the Uwharrie Forest Reserve in 1934. The federal land in 1961 became the Uwharrie National Forest, which now covers 51,000 acres.

Hot Springs National Park

Local people pushed for a park at Hot Springs, north of Asheville, known for its 108-degree mineral-springs water and, to some, its healing powers.

An NPS official replied in 1936 that “...only areas of national significance could be considered for national park status and that, as there was an established Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, it was not likely that another Hot Springs could be added to the system solely for medicinal purposes.”

Mount Mitchell National Park

Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest peak in the East, forms the centerpiece of Mount Mitchell State Park, also celebrating its centennial this year.

But some had a larger vision for Mount Mitchell. At the behest of U.S. Rep. Roy Taylor, D-N.C., the NPS in 1977 began a study of 240,000 acres around the peak for a park. But Yancey County residents and the N.C. legislature opposed the plan and it died in 1979.

Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”