New Visitor Center & Shuttle Service coming to Pilot Mountain State Park
Source: By Lisa O’Donnell at Winston Salem Journal
Photo courtesy of Walt Unks at Winston Salem Journal
The new 2020 year will be a big one for Pilot Mountain State Park with some changes under way in response to increased visitation.
The number of people visiting the 3,800-acre park 30 minutes north of Winston-Salem has skyrocketed from 437,000 in 2012 to 785,500 through November of 2019. Though visitation may fluctuate because of weather, it has been on an upward trajectory for the last seven years, putting pressure on the park’s resources.
Traffic can be bumper-to-bumper on the road up to its famous knob on weekends, sometimes turning park rangers into traffic cops. On Labor Day weekend for instance, it’s not unusual for 2,000 vehicles a day to enter the park. And that congestion extends beyond the typical leaf-viewing season. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, for instance, it took some drivers an hour to get to the knob’s parking lot.
Social media is driving some of that spike in visitation, with people trying to replicate photos of the beautiful views they see friends post on Instagram and other sites, said Matt Windsor, who has been the park superintendent for 12 years.
Earlier this year, an emergency vehicle responding to a medical emergency was delayed by traffic on the road.
“We want our state parks to be peaceful, not turn into parking lots,” Windsor said.
To help ease the congestion and overcrowding at the peak, the park plans to begin a shuttle service later this year, the first of its kind for the state’s division of parks.
“This isn’t a new idea but it’s new to state parks,” Windsor said.
The shuttle would transport visitors from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends and holidays from March to November. During those times, private vehicles will not be allowed on the main park road, except for the folks who arrived before 11 a.m. or after the shuttle ends for the day. The shuttle program will get a trial run of three years. Passengers may have to pay a nominal fee for the ride, but that amount has not been specified. Windsor said the state would reject fees if they are deemed excessive.
Potential shuttle vendors visited the park last week. Bids are due Jan. 7.
New Visitor Center
Photo courtesy of Andrew Dye at Winston Salem Journal
The shuttle will start at the new visitor center, perhaps the most significant change to the park since it opened 1968.
The visitor center is one of 45 park projects being paid for by $75 million in bond money that voters approved in 2016. More than $4 million of that bond money is earmarked for a visitor center near the entrance to the park. It is expected to open in early spring.
The new visitor center will include exhibition space devoted to the area’s natural and cultural history, meeting space and expanded parking with access to trails that lead to the summit and the Yadkin River section of the park. The staff long ago outgrew the current visitor center, which is little more than few offices and a front desk with trail maps.
“This is one of the original dreams, to have an ecological education center here,” Windsor said last week as power tools buzzed around him in what will be the expansive exhibition space. “We hope this is a way to re-introduce the park to the community. We don’t want to cram more people in the park; we want them to stay longer and have more appreciation of the place.”
Finally, volunteer crews with the Friends of Sauratown Mountains, a volunteer group that supports Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks, and state park staff recently rerouted an upper portion of the Grindstone Trail, leading hikers away from an area that was popular with climbers. In some cases, hikers were wandering off the trail to hang hammocks or take photographs and inadvertently and, sometimes purposely, hitting climbers below them with rocks and other objects.