WEST JEFFERSON-Saturday proved to be anything but a quiet fall afternoon for visitors of Mount Jefferson State Natural Area.
Hundreds of people crowded Ashe County’s crown jewel Oct. 15, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the High Country’s most accessible public parks.
In fact, the event was so packed a shuttle service was needed to ferry waiting visitors to Mount Jefferson’s highest parking area where the bulk of the festivities were held.
Joe Shimel, superintendent of Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, said Saturday’s fun was a joint remembrance of both Mount Jefferson’s history and the 100th anniversary of the North Carolina State Park’s System.
“We’ve hosted a Mount Jefferson birthday party on occasion,” Shimel said. “But nothing of this sort, really. I couldn’t be happier with the turnout.”
Saturday’s shindig featured a live old-time music band, a t-shirt painting station, a birthday cake cutting ceremony, along with other interactive events like a read and hike tour hosted by the Ashe County Public Library, corn husk doll making and demonstrations by Foxfire Hollar Fiber Arts and NC Climate Office.
“North Carolina was really on the leading edge in creating a state park system, starting with Mount Mitchell, all the way back in 1916,” Shimel said. “And the idea behind turning Mount Jefferson into a park really got going in the 1950s.”
The numbers indicate the public at large continue to embrace the state park’s model. Last year, the system recorded record attendance numbers of more than 17.3 million, up from 15.6 million the prior year, or 11 percent.
Mount Jefferson State Natural Area welcomed more than 124,000 visitors last year alone. Combined with its sister facility, New River State Park, the pair drew more than 365,000 visitors in 2015, up 25 percent from the year before, one of the largest year-over-year percentage increases recorded by any of the state’s 39 state parks.
Coming in at slightly more than 1,000-acres with four overlooks, Mount Jefferson represents and easily accessible outing for High Country visitors, which Shimel said accounts for much of the park’s popularity.
“It’s easy to get to and kind of right in the middle of town,” Shimel said. “People come up here on their lunch break – Sunday afternoons after church is actually our most popular time – and they can just enjoy this for a minute or two. That’s a great thing to be able to offer visitors.”
Nestled in the northwest corner of the state, this towering giant rises more than 1,600 feet above the surrounding landscape, according to the state park’s service. The mountain’s five neatly manicured trails allow visitors to enjoy the unique fauna of the mountain, which is comprised of a uniquely chemically-balanced soil structure, and an array of wildlife that keeps visitors awestruck and returning annually.
Mount Jefferson and its nearby peaks are remnants of a once lofty, mountainous region that existed throughout much of the western part of the state, according to the park’s service website. Weathering and the erosive action of streams throughout millions of years wore away the softer, less resistant rocks.
There is evidence to suggest that Native Americans likely hunted in the immediate area and some historians even argue that sympathetic Moravian farmers made the mountain a popular stop on the Underground Railroad. These findings, however, have never been completely verified although this has done little to prevent the myth from perpetuating.
Before the Revolution, Mount Jefferson was known as Panther Mountain, perhaps because of a legend that tells of a panther that attacked and killed a child there, according to N.C. State Parks.
Area residents gave the mountain other names until 1952 when Mount Jefferson received its official name. The mountain’s name was chosen in honor of Thomas Jefferson and his father, Peter, who owned land in the area and surveyed the nearby North Carolina-Virginia border in 1749.
The inkling for Mount Jefferson State Park began with Works Progress Administration efforts in the 1930s, when the agency built a two mile road to the mountain’s summit.
“In 1939, local officials wanted to have the road improved, but the state could not provide funds for a private road,” according to North Carolina State Parks. “Thus,two prominent local citizens donated 26 acres of land for a public park and thereby attained the road improvements.”
A campaign to turn the tiny park into a state park failed in 1941, and the entire effort seemed stymied in 1955 when the state said all state parks must be at least 400 acres. In response, park proponents banded together and obtained a 300-acre donation and purchased more than 160 additional acres to meet the state’s requirements.
Mount Jefferson officially became a state park in October 1956.
State budget challenges in 2010-2011 put the park’s future in question, but a vocal campaign by outspoken local activists kept the park open to the public for future generations.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.