For the cost of two vacation days, several full tanks of gas, and $246 in spending money, Greg and Morgan Bartos took their four kids to all 41 North Carolina state parks in 10 months this year, from January to October.
The Bartos family — with kids ages 2, 4, 6, and 7 — participated in the North Carolina State Parks Passport program, which offers rewards as you acquire stamps at the various parks, plus a grand prize at the end if you visit all 41. The passport is free. The $246 covered swimming passes, canoe rentals, and entry into privately run attractions.
“We realized, ‘Wow, this can actually give us a whole new look at our state,'” Greg said. “Our kids would have a big goal that they were working towards, they would get outside a whole lot more, and they would learn different things in each of the parks.”
The passport can be picked up at any state park. Their final haul included water bottles, hats, hiking socks, and a gift certificate to an outdoor clothing store.
They turned nearly all of their excursions into day trips, making 23 separate outings. They were careful to group nearby parks into single trips — except the parks near the Outer Banks, which they explored for an entire weekend.
The strategy made the Passport experience more affordable. Greg also recommends printing off fact sheets associated with each park, so you can determine which parks to visit in the winter, and which to visit in the summer.
They recommend bringing:
- Several gallons of water
- Travel cups for the kids use for drinking
- A picnic lunch
- Albums of children’s music to listen to while driving
- Notebooks and pencils for the children to draw what they’re seeing at the park
- Lots of snacks (they would stock up at Costco on things like fruit leathers and Clif bars)
- Bug spray
- Hats, scarves, and gloves for the winter months, as well as warm shoes and socks
The passport program allowed the Bartos family to create several memorable moments, although having four young children participating in the experience inevitably led to some exhaustion-fueled meltdowns.
Their favorite moments as a family included canoeing at Merchants Millpond State Park in far northeastern North Carolina.
“There were lots of big Cypress trees, and you’re paddling through lots of green algae,” Greg says. “The pictures and the video that we got from that are really unusual for what you would have thought North Carolina would have.”
The other highlight was Elk Knob State Park, north of Boone. “It was two miles up and two miles down and the kids were still pretty young, but the view did not disappoint!” Greg says.
They had some regrets, some things they wish they’d done differently.
Greg also said they could have invited extended family members and friends to join them on their excursions.
“What would end up happening is we would go and have a great time and get video and some pictures,” Greg says. “Then everybody would be like, ‘Wow! Where is that? That looks amazing!’ Then we’d go, ‘Oh, well, that’s true. I guess we could have asked anyone to come.'”
If you’re interested in following the family’s route, here’s the order in which they visited the parks, the mileage from Charlotte (roundtrip), and notable features found at each park.
You can also check out Morgan Bartos’s blog about the experience.
(1) Haw River + Mayo River State Parks
Distance from Charlotte (roundtrip): 282 miles
Notable features: A boardwalk
(2) Gorges State Park
Distance: 334 miles
Notable features: Great views
(3) Eno River + Occonochee State Parks
Distance: 309 miles
Notable features: Both have short trails
(4) South Mountains & Grandfather Mountain
Distance: 267 miles
Notable features: A swinging bridge, a zoo ($58 to enter)
(5) Carver’s Creek + Raven Rock + Weymouth Woods
Distance: 268 miles
Notable features: A tour of the Rockefeller house
(6) Stone Mountain
Distance: 231 miles
Notable features: Granite rockface
(7) New River + Mount Jefferson + Elk Knob
Distance: 304 miles
Notable features: Two summit hikes
(8) Falls Lake + Kerr Lake
Distance: 421 miles
Notable feature: Playgrounds ($7 cost)
(9) William B. Umstead + Medoc Mountain
Distance: 500 miles
Notable features: Both have access to bike trails
(10) Jordan Lake
Distance: 309 miles
Notable features: Swimming, Bald Eagle observation deck
(11) Morrow Mountain
Distance: 104 miles
Notable features: Canoeing ($7/hour)
(12) Lake Waccamaw + Lumber River
Distance: 213 miles
Notable features: Reverse whirlpool, short trails at both
(13) Carolina Beach + Fort Fisher
Distance: 156 miles
Notable features: Swimming, short trails, Venus fly traps
(14) Hanging Rock + Pilot Mountain
Distance: 290 miles
Notable features: Swimming, waterfalls
(15) Lake James
Distance: 226 miles
Notable features: Swimming, canoeing
(16) Dismal Swamp + Merchants Millpond + Jockey’s Ridge
Distance: 428 miles
Notable features: Canoeing, hiking, sand dunes
(17) Pettigrew + Cliffs of the Neuse + Goose Creek
Distance: 391 miles
Notable features: Hiking, short trails
(18) Jones Lake + Singletary Lake
Distance: 305 miles
Notable features: Pedal boating
(19) Mount Mitchell
Distance: 294 miles
Notable features: 100-mile view, first state park, hike Balsam Nature Trail
(20) Chimney Rock
Distance: 327 miles
Notable features: 26-story elevator ($45)
(21) Lake Norman
Distance: 123 miles
Notable features: Canoeing, mountain biking
(22) Fort Macon + Hammocks Beach
Distance: 426 miles
Notable features: Swimming, fort tours, short trails
(23) Crowder’s Mountain
Distance: 108 miles
Notable features: Short trail
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