HUDSON — Jackie Clarkson traveled to 41 North Carolina state parks in just 11 months. Yes, 41.
Clarkson, a 68-year-old retiree from the Caldwell County town of Hudson, started her journey on September 2021 and finished her tour of the 41st park on August 2022.
"During COVID, I walked a lot in my neighborhood, as I'm sure a lot of people did," Clarkson explained. "We had been to several state parks, and I thought I'd find all the state parks. So I wrote the park system and they sent me a map of all of them in the state of North Carolina."
Later, Clarkson received a passport booklet that allows visitors to keep track of their state park adventures. The passport includes a "Bucket List" that gives visitors ideas of something to do or see in each park. Out of all 41 Bucket List items, Clarkson said she missed only five.
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During her travels, Clarkson used an app called "Seek" to identify plants, animals, insects and other things that she spotted along the trails.
"You aim your phone at plants and (the app) identifies them for you," she explained. "And then it tells you how many have been spotted locally, and if it's something that's rare, you can send it to the local botany or state park and let them know the exact coordinates. At one park, I found several American chestnuts, and those are endangered ... At the last park, I found 13 different species of mushrooms. That's what takes so long to walk. I'm constantly looking at things through my phone. That was interesting to use."
Clarkson said her favorite park was South Mountain State Park located in Burke County. Every park has educational trails for children to spot different flora and fauna on their walk, and the one at South Mountain was the best, she said.
"The parks are very well maintained," she said. "There are lots of signs posted so you couldn't get lost. All the state parks had really good maps, and all the trails are listed as easy, moderate, strenuous or expert. They also give you what the footing is — like if it's gravel, mainly sand and dirt or a paved road — so you can tell."
Clarkson camped overnight at four different parks with a tent that she could set up in the back of her pickup truck.
She was able to catch a few ranger-led hikes, as well. At Eno State Park, for example, a ranger taught Clarkson how to use the compass app on her phone.
"We didn't hike a trail. We did what he called 'bush whacking,'" she recalled. "Using the coordinates, he guided us to an old settlement in the park that had no trails leading to it."
Clarkson noticed that many people hiked with their dogs, and she quickly decided to get one, a Jack Russell/Beagle mix named Treksie.
"I got a little dog from the pound, but didn't take her on the next couple of trips because she was too small," she said. "Her first one was Mount Mitchell. She was three months old, and she went up Mount Mitchell like a little billy goat. She hiked a lot of the trails with me. She was a good companion."
Because Clarkson started her state park expeditions in fall 2021 and ended in summer of 2022 she said "it was interesting to see the differences between what you see in the fall and what you see in the spring and summer."
After 11 months, she calculated that she had hiked about 175 miles in total.
"I never saw any Big Foots or bears," she joked.
Clarkson has some helpful advice for those who might be interested in following her lead. She advises attaching a whistle to your pack or keeping it near your head in case of emergencies. She also kept pepper spray with her at all times and bug spray for when she camped overnight. In her backpack, she always carried a first-aid kit, rain gear, extra food, water and matches. She made sure to wear good hiking boots and socks, as well as layers of clothing that she could peel off if needed.
"I was never afraid," she said. "I think if you take proper precautions, you'll be fine."
In many of the parks, Clarkson found herself completely alone on the trails.
"It's just peaceful," she said. "You can worship in your own way out there in nature. I just loved the adventure."