Attendance at North Carolina’s state parks has been on a steep rise in the past three years.
In 2016, the N.C. State Parks centennial year, attendance set a record for the third straight year with 18.8 million visitors. That’s up 9 percent from 2015 and a whopping 32 percent just since 2013. In the years prior to 2014, parks attendance had barely fluctuated for five straight years.
All but eight of the state’s 39 parks and recreation areas reported increases in visitation in 2016. With 1.8 million visitors, William B. Umstead State Park in Wake County had the most and was one of six park units to see more than 1 million visitors.
Parks spokesman Charlie Peek credits improved infrastructure and activities, but said the population moving away from rural communities to cities has made it important for people to find green space for exercise.
"You have a more urban population and they want to get outdoors more. The more they do it, the more they find that they like it," he said. "We have certain parks, particularly those that are close to urban areas, we find that are just absolutely exploding in popularity."
Parks officials said they want to increase connectivity to other green spaces in urban communities, like local parks along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
An increased focus on exercise has also contributed to the higher visitation figures. "The whole movement has just gained momentum in the past few years," said Peek. "More people are jogging, more people are biking, and more people are just finding it necessary to get outside and get exercise."