Word seems to be getting out about North Carolina’s best kept secret, Hanging Rock State Park.
The park’s annual operations report, a document detailing park usage and needs, shows some dramatic increases for Stokes County’s biggest tourism destination.
“Our visitation for the last fiscal year was 547,763 people, an increase of 30.97 percent,” said Park Superintendent Robin Riddlebarger. “As you can imagine everything else increased as well.”
Donations made in the park office increased by 16 percent, the smallest increase in a long list of improvements.
Riddlebarger said the park’s Point of Sale items, including everything from food and beverages to swimming passes and souvenirs, increased by 91 percent.
“The total for things we sell here, not including camping, picnic shelter rentals or cabins, was over $210,000,” she said. “That is a tremendous amount of money brought in.”
She said the top money makers were swimming passes and souvenirs.
The park also saw a big increase in volunteer activities during the past year.
“The number of volunteer hours increased by 82 percent,” said Riddlebarger. “A lot of the climbers came out and did a lot of trail work and the Friends of Sarautown Mountains also did a lot of work this year. There were over 100 different volunteers so we had more people spending more time helping the park.”
She said the park also was able to dramatically increase its recycling, improving that area by 134 percent. Riddlebarger said the maintenance crew deserved special thanks for that improvement after spending a lot of time sorting through and separating recyclable items.
Other highlights for the year included cutting down on the amount of water and propane used in the park and conducting a 255 acre controlled burn in the park.
“The largest previous burn in the history of the park was eight acres,” said Riddlebarger.
She said the park had also been able to expand its interpretive events.
“We presented 40 percent more programs than last year and our attendance at those programs increased by 86 percent,” she said. “I attribute that to having a full staff of engaged rangers and an environmental educator that is tremendously enthusiastic and creative.
“When we are fully staffed we have people to create those programs,” she added. “When we are short staffed you just have to scramble to get the daily operations done.”
Riddlebarger said while she is ecstatic about the improved numbers at the park, both her and her staff will continue to try to improve the park experience for the growing number of visitors.
“We are just going to keep trying to keep doing it,” she said. “We have actually been forced to design a written plan for holiday traffic. We have worked with the Danbury Fire Department and Greg Collins with Stokes County EMS to figure out the best way to deal with the traffic when we are super busy.”
She also noted that while the park has a lot of attractions to draw visitors, efforts by local groups like the Friends of Sauratown Mountains and the Stokes County Arts Council have played a big role in increasing attendance in the past year.
“We have had a lot of special events and programs,” said Riddlebarger. “We have learned that if you offer it, people will come. Thanks to the Friends and the Arts Council for coming up with hair-brained ideas. They have provided a lot of opportunities. It makes our county better and it shows more people what we have to offer.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.