Check out what's changed at Lake Norman State Park
BY DEBBIE PAGE
Lake Norman State Park may not have been around as long as some of the state’s oldest parks — including Mouth Mitchell, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year along with the whole state park system's centennial.
But the park, which was created in 1962 as Duke Power State Park and renamed in the early 2000s, has become a vital part of the Lake Norman area, growing and changing over the years. Last year, the park attracted 740,000 visitors.
And there is still more in store for Lake Norman State Park in the near future, Advanced Park Ranger Jarid Church said.
Thanks to the park’s $2.3 million share of a recently passed state bond, park officials are planning family and group campsite improvements, including more electric, water and sewer hookups, as well as building more family campsites.
Church also shared some policy changes for 2016. The campground will now have 24-hour access for those with reservations, unlike in the past. “We have had many requests for more flexible hours because of people’s work schedules or late arrivals,” he explained.
The park will also have new water sports available. “We have added eight single-person kayaks and eight stand-up paddle boards for rental this year,” Church said. The Visitor Center also added expanded gift store selections.
Visitors can also expect improved bathroom and shower facilities, which underwent a $35,000 facelift over the winter. “In the two weeks they’ve been open, I get compliments daily on the improvements,” Church noted.
The park had 551,081 visitors in 2014, climbing to over 740,000 in 2015. Church credits the jump to an increase in campers and bikers. “We’re getting a generation that is more interested in being outdoors,” Church said.
“The mountain bike trail is a very big draw. That 30.5 miles is something they’re not getting anywhere else around here. There’s also something for people just getting into biking as well as experienced riders,” Church continued.
“We have also seen an increase in hikers, especially with people with dogs, who like to get them out to hike with them,” added Church.
Church hopes that the increase in available water sport rentals will generate even more visitors and money this year.
Friends of the Park
Lake Norman State Park currently has no Friends of the Park organization, though Church said officials are interested in creating a formally organized volunteer group. If interested, contact Park Superintendent Greg Schneider (704-528-6350) during regular park hours.
“We would love to have regular volunteers who can step in to fill needs and generally support the park,” Church said. Several organizations have done recurring trail or shoreline cleanups, and prospective Eagle Scouts often complete projects on its grounds.
The Tarheel Trailblazers organization also helps with the many miles of heavily used bike trails that require frequent upkeep to maintain their quality, Church said. Interested volunteers can contact the group to set up opportunities to help (http://www.tarheeltrailblazers.com).
“We can always use more help,” Church said. Any group, family, or individual can volunteer talents and services by contacting the park office.
The park opened its $4.3 million, 11,000-square-foot Visitor Center one year ago. The facility contains classrooms, a multipurpose room, and an auditorium seating up to 88 people. The lobby features exhibits about the park, its wildlife, and Lake Norman. Rangers also use the outdoor classroom for park programs.
In keeping with protecting the environment, the center is built to gold-level standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. To achieve this qualification, the building features active and passive solar energy systems, geothermal HVAC systems, natural lighting, water-saving fixtures, and natural landscaping, according to North Carolina State Parks website.
“This building was built to serve the community,” stated Church. He encouraged community members to use its assets, which can be reserved for specific events or occasions.
He noted the park serves as the site of weddings nearly every weekend except in winter. The community building is a popular choice for weddings and other special events, Church noted.
Situated on the shores of Lake Norman, the park offers amenities such as a swimming beach (open April 1), bathhouse, and boat ramp as well as prime fishing spots. Canoes and paddleboats are also available for rent.
The park’s community building features kitchen facilities, restrooms, and a fireplace for rent for family and group events year round. Three picnic areas offer individual tables as well as popular picnic shelters for which park officials suggest reservations.
A group camping area, as well as 32 individual campsites, offers families a fun getaway now through November 30. Tent pads, grills, and picnic tables are available. Restroom and shower facilities are varying distances from sites, and some sites have electric hookups.
Reservations for campsites through the park website (http://www.ncparks.gov/lake-norman-state-park) are recommended.
The park also offers plenty for kids to do as they learn more about nature. The visitor’s center offers educational exhibits, and the child-friendly Dragonfly Trail gives kids opportunities for hands-on learning experiences and exercise.
Lake Norman State Park has trails for every ability level. The Alder Trail is an easy .8 mile trek for pleasure walkers, while the Itusi Trail offers 8 loops of 1.0 to 9.75 miles (total 30.5 miles) for hiking or biking enthusiasts. All loops are easy to moderate in difficulty, with the Laurel Loop offering the most challenge.
The Lake Shore Trail is another moderate activity level natural scenic footpath along Lake Norman. Though 6.3 miles round trip, people of any fitness level can use it with available shortcuts.
The park personnel also partner with area schools to provide up-close experiences with nature that tie into class curricula. Teachers can arrange special student programs at Lake Norman State Park by contacting the park office.
“We get a lot of requests from schools for educational activities. These private activities are for the students only and not open to the public,” said Park Ranger Church.
Educational materials are available for grades 4-6 that complement North Carolina curriculum in science, social studies, math and language arts. A teacher's booklet and workshop is also free of charge to educators.
The Lake Norman program introduces students to topics such as aquatic organisms, water quality and resource management, watersheds, aquatic ecosystems, and drinking water safety.
If you like to observe wildlife, you’re in luck. At least 35 mammal species live around the park, including coyotes, Virginia opossum, eastern cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, red and gray foxes, white-tailed deer, eastern moles and species of shrews and mice. Muskrat and raccoon occupy along creek and lake edges.
Amphibians and reptiles such as frogs, turtles and water snakes live in the wetlands along the creeks and lake. Most snakes in the park are harmless; however, hikers should exercise caution to avoid the occasional poisonous copperhead.
All kinds of birds make Lake Norman State Park a birdwatcher’s paradise. Chickadees, pine warblers, rufous-sided towhees, bobwhites, and red-tailed hawks frequent the area, as do wild turkey and osprey near the lake.
Mallards, wood ducks, teal, and geese visit during certain seasons. Great blue herons, green-backed herons and egrets also enjoy the lake in summer.
Lake Norman State Park will celebrate the state parks centennial with its Bike, Paddle and Hike Through the Years event to on Saturday, October 22, beginning at 10:00 a.m.
Church said plans are still being finalized, but they currently plan booths from various community groups and many fun activities for this special event.
Looking for a summer job? Church said the park is still looking to fill numerous positions, including office assistants, general utility workers to help maintenance, certified (Red Cross or Boy Scouts of America) life guards, and fee collectors at the swimming/beach areas. Pay ranges from $8 to $13 per hour.
The park is also currently adding several new park rangers and maintenance workers to replace those recently lost to promotion and retirement. The park normally has a superintendent, four park rangers and four maintenance mechanics, and two office assistants to keep the park running smoothly.
Want to Visit?
Pets on leashes are welcome in most park areas. No alcohol or intoxication is allowed at this family friendly park. Though coolers are allowed at the beach, glass bottles and metal cans are not for safety reasons.
Located at 759 State Park Rd., the park is open in March, April, May, September and October from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. In June, July and August, hours extend from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. In November, December, January and February, the park operates from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The family camp and boat launch are open 24/7 hours through the St. Johns Road entrance.
For more information, contact the park office daily at 704-528-6350 from 8 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.