Father’s Day is just a couple of days away, and North Carolina’s state forests are great options for dads to get outside with their families. There are 10 state forests throughout the state – all managed by the N.C. Forest Service, a division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Three of the forests were temporarily closed because of concerns about people gathering too closely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have reopened. Walking trails, watching for wildlife or having a picnic are just some of the possibilities at the forests. Anyone looking to connect with nature will find a variety of things to see and do at any of the forests.
“No one is reporting they are at or above capacity,” said Christie Adams with the Forest Service. “People can still visit and be able to spread out.”
There’s plenty of space to spread out even at some state forests that have been more popular than normal lately. Jordan Lake Educational State Forest is one of the forests that’s seen increased visitation since North Carolina’s stay-home order took effect.
“All of our days, we’ve been two to three times over our normal daily attendance,” explained forest supervisor Michael Teague. “From people I talked to, it was word of mouth that the forests were open. I’ve seen family visitation really increase.”
Open with adjustments
If you head to a state forest, don’t forget the water and mosquito spray you would normally take, plus hand sanitizer you may not have previously taken on an outdoor excursion. Although open, there are a few adjustments still in place at all the state forests to help with distancing and prevent people from being near each other.
• There are no classes or guided tours right now.
• Education centers or forestry centers are closed to the public.
• Picnic shelters may be closed depending on location.
• Restroom buildings are closed, and portable toilets may or may not be available.
• Popular “talking” trees are not playing educational messages, but the trails are open, and educational placards are still in place. (With less bathroom maintenance, staff is using the time to rewire the talking trees.)
• Primitive camping areas are not available right now. (Holmes and Bladen Lakes forests)
“The changes are just to keep large groups of people from congregating in the same area,” Adams said. “If someone is looking for a particular opportunity, it’s good to visit the forest’s website or call the office to see if that particular amenity is available.”
It’s very important to check the hours at any state forest you may want to visit. Hours vary from forest to forest, and the forests are not state parks. So hours will be different from the hours you may find at other public lands such as state parks. Checking hours will help you avoid waiting at a gate for a forest to open, and it will help you leave on time so forest staff won’t have to wait on you.
Highlights of each forest
Planning a family outing for Father’s Day doesn’t need to be complicated, and the simple pleasures of state forests could bring hours of enjoyment this weekend. At a minimum, the forests provide a public outdoor setting, but for those more interested, there are plenty of opportunities for education about the surroundings. Below, you’ll find a quick list of the state forests and some highlights that you may enjoy year-round or particularly this time of year. (Amenities that may be closed now are not included.)
- Bladen Lakes State Forest (Bladen) https://www.ncforestservice.gov/BladenLakes/index.htm (Adjacent to Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest listed below. Also adjacent to Jones Lake State Park, which is operated separately by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.)
o The only state forest not designated as educational or recreational, so forest land management is the sole objective.
o The forest includes a mix of longleaf pine stands where you can see for several hundred feet and very thick forest where you can’t see past a few feet.
o You may see an active logging operation with big machines, raking operations, water birds or alligators or even a rare red-cockaded woodpecker.
o Two military landing zones are used for helicopters and osprey landings and take-offs.
o Visitation has not increased lately, so you may not encounter many other people.
- Clemmons Educational State Forest (Johnston and Wake) https://www.ncesf.org/clemmons.html
o Great trails with 90% of them in the shade
o A long strip of wildflowers borders a wildlife field along the entrance road, and the flowers should begin blooming soon. (Full bloom is expected in July.)
o Picnic sites
- Dupont State Recreational Forest (Henderson & Transylvania) https://www.dupontstaterecreationalforest.com/
o Waterfalls and lake waterfronts are the biggest attraction.
o One of the three forest that closed temporarily this spring.
o Plenty of space, but to maintain distancing you may have to wait for a spot at viewing platform or water access points.
- Headwaters State Forest (Transylvania) https://www.ncforestservice.gov/Headwaters/index.htm#
o Access is only by foot, and this forest is best used by experienced visitors.
o There are four small roadside parking areas viewable on the forest map. (Sassafras Mountain, White Oak Bridge, East Fork Falls, Gum Gap)
o While there are some trails, most of the forest offers backcountry exploring for those who want to really get away in a forest.
o Hunting and fishing are options.
o Note: There are no facilities of any kind, and no cell phone service in most places.
- Holmes Educational State Forest (Henderson) https://www.ncesf.org/holmes.html
o Blooming rhododendrons may still be viewable now.
o Pollinator garden
o Some trails offer scenic vistas.
- Jordan Lake Educational State Forest (Chatham) https://www.ncesf.org/jordanlake.html (Not to be confused with Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, which is operated separately by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.)
o Picnic sites
o Trails offer views of the lake, dog walking or wildlife viewing.
o You may even have a chance to see a bald eagle.
- Mountain Island Educational State Forest (Lincoln & Gaston) https://www.ncesf.org/mtIsland.html
o So new it’s not yet open to the public.
- Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest (Wilkes)
o Trails offer beautiful mountain scenery.
o Picnic sites and a fire tower
- Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest (Bladen) https://www.ncesf.org/turnbull.html (Adjacent to Bladen Lakes listed above. Also adjacent to Jones Lake State Park, which is operated separately by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.)
o Trails: The quarter-mile Turnbull Creek Trail offers nice views of the creek, plus a bottomland swamp with frog ponds and a sand ridge hosting a stand of longleaf pine. The more rugged four-mile Duncan Trail takes you around the entire forest providing a glimpse of the forest management activities there.
o Most of the forest is drivable, so it’s possible to do a look-see without walking through the woods.
o The naval stores exhibit is quite an interesting sight that shows off authentic relics of colonial North Carolina’s history in tar and turpentine production.
o Century-old longleaf pine stands are home to red-cockaded woodpeckers.
o Picnic sites
o Visitation is less than normal lately, so you may not encounter many other people.
- Tuttle Educational State Forest (Caldwell) https://www.ncesf.org/tuttle.html
o Trails include some scenic mountain views.
o Picnic sites