By Lauren Corriher
Last year, Greg and Morgan Bartos of Charlotte, North Carolina, were looking for a way to liven up their family time, spend time with their four kids (they’ve since added another one to the mix!) and get active. They decided to challenge themselves to visit all 41 North Carolina state parks that year. The Bartos family used the North Carolina State Parks passport program to guide their journey. As part of the program, each of the kids received their own “passport book” and a sticker upon checking a new park off the list. They were great for keeping the little ones engaged over the ten months it took to complete the challenge, Morgan says.
Despite their excitement over the passports, Morgan notes that the children weren’t totally sure what to expect when they first embarked on their newfound family adventure. “Some of the trails were challenging. The kids would get tired or someone would have a blister. But it was so fun to watch them going from having a rough moment to being excited that they actually did it. Even in those challenging times, they really had a sense of accomplishment.”
The Bartoses say they racked up plenty of memorable moments over the course of the visits and frequently reminisce about the trips as they look at pictures from that year. Greg cites a trip to Merchants Millpond State Park in Gatesville as his personal favorite. Morgan says Jockeys Ridge State Park and its famous sand dunes in Nags Head topped her list.
Navigating state park trips in 2020
Of course, a visit to the parks looked different this past year. The N.C. State Parks website offers details about what you can expect now. The good news is (with a few necessary adjustments) you can still enjoy the Passport Program. Katie Hall, Public Information Officer for N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, says that participants should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with their name, mailing address, a list of parks they visited, and photos of themselves at the parks they visited. They’ll mail you the stickers to add to your passport.
For a full list of exactly what’s open at your favorite North Carolina state parks, click here for details.
The Bartoses say this stressful year feels like an especially opportune time for families to take on a state park challenge. “We see it as a great break. It’s a good way to connect and unplug from the news, electronics, and other things that could be causing stress. Reconnecting with nature is always so refreshing,” Morgan says.
Through trial and error, Morgan and Greg Bartos have plenty of insight on making your trek a success, especially with little ones in tow. Here’s their advice:
First, get organized
Aiming to visit all 41 state parks can feel overwhelming at first, they admit. To make it manageable, you’ll find fact sheets and location details about each park on the NC State Parks website, Morgan recommends printing out this information to make plotting your trips easier. Thanks to some strategizing, the family was able to schedule trips so that only one visit required an overnight stay. They’d zero in on clusters of parks in particular areas and hit several in one day.
Ditch the electronics
“The thing you do first sets the tone for the rest of the trips, so we didn’t pull out an iPad or other electronics. It would have felt ironic to watch a movie for three hours and then get out and hike. We drove through some really gorgeous areas, so we made that the focus. We wanted to enjoy the mountain roads and be present in what we were doing,” Greg says.
To keep boredom at bay, they’d often listen to books or sing along to kid-friendly music.
Time your trips based on your family’s preferred schedule
Greg and Morgan advise tuning into your family’s natural energy levels to prevent mid-visit meltdowns. For them, that meant being most active mid-morning, knowing that the kids tend to crash in the afternoon.
Morgan recommends bringing along plenty of snacks and water for car rides and mid-hike breaks. Fruit leathers and Cliff bars became family favorites. Oh, and leave anything melty (like chocolate) at home, she advises, speaking from experience. The family also recommends considering ever-changing weather into account, reminiscing on one outing where the weather was supposed to stay in the 50s and quickly dropped, making for a chilly hike. Bring extra layers even if the temperature is supposed to be mild.
Lastly, when you’re planning to log some serious miles, don’t forget to have your AAA card readily available. You never know when a flat tire might decide to rear its ugly head or, on the positive side, you have a chance to snag a members-only discount.
And last but not least, always force a bathroom break
“We quickly realized that with a bunch of little kids, we’re not moving until everyone goes potty,” laughs Morgan. “Because of that, they did well. There was maybe only a time or two when one of the kids had to go behind a tree.” Anyone with a small bladder is encouraged to take this advice before hitting the trail.
In the midst of a stressful year, unplugging and enjoying North Carolina’s natural beauty feels like the perfect way to spend some time. Whether you’re feeling bold and are ready to hit all of the parks or are just eyeing a weekend’s worth of adventure, get ready to buckle up and hit the road.