Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in North Carolina, people have been flocking to state parks, setting record visitation at the most popular sites and park rangers are expecting to be even busier this Fourth of July weekend.
"What we've learned during the pandemic is people really love their state parks and especially in times of stress," said Katie Hall with the NC Division of Parks and Recreation.
A lack of personal protective equipment for staff forced the closure of most of NC's 41 state parks in the early pandemic days, but Hall said since campsites started to reopen over Memorial Day weekend, people came back in force.
"For the past few weekends we have seen record crowds in many of our popular parks," she said.
When comparing Memorial Day Weekend 2019 and Memorial Day Weekend 2020 when the Triangle experienced heavy rain going into the holiday, Hall said the following state parks saw significant increases in visitation:
Eno River State Park: 58% increase
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area: 46% increase
Carolina Beach: 98% increase
Umstead: 20% increase
From Thursday-Sunday during the 2019 July 4th holiday weekend, 493,842 people visited NC's state parks.
"We expect a similar weekend to most July Fourth weekends, which is our busiest weekend of the year," Hall said. "But what's different now is there are many areas that are closed."
To reduce the spread of COVID-19, all swim beaches at inland state parks, such as Jordan Lake and Falls Lake are closed, as well as some overlooks and popular spots on hiking trails where people are known to gather, along with community buildings and large picnic shelters.
Hall said where you might have made those fun Fourth of July memories last year, don't expect to recreate them.
"They need to be prepared to find an open patch of grass and spread a blanket out for their picnic," she said.
Also, you'll need to come with a face mask and use it on crowded hiking trails.
"Our rangers will ask you to put on a mask if they see you without one," Hall said.
If you refuse to put on a mask, Hall said rangers will ask you to leave the park, but they won't issue a citation.
Before you visit, Hall urged visitors to check that specific park's website for instructions, be flexible, and set an early alarm to ensure you get a parking space and enjoy fresh air along the trails before they get crowded.
"If your friends or you and your family are headed out to a state park, and it's really important to you that you get into that park, you need to go as early as possible in the morning," Hall said.
The best way to play it safe at state parks this holiday weekend is to heed all signage, Hall said. If a specific area is closed, it's because rangers have deemed it unsafe.
"It's just really about being considerate and not just thinking about what you want to do in that moment, but actually thinking about others and thinking how that action might affect other people," she said.