Crowders Mountain is adding 400 parking spots. But it may be harder to find one now.

Crowded Crowders Mountain is going to get worse before it gets better

Crowders Mountain is adding 400 parking spots. However, parking construction will reduce parking in the currently packed lot.
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Crowders Mountain is adding 400 parking spots. However, parking construction will reduce parking in the currently packed lot.

Crowders Mountain State Park, a natural site about 45 minutes west of Charlotte, offers scenic views and high-impact hikes. But in recent years, visitors have contended with ballooning visitor counts that frequently close Crowders’ three parking areas, sometimes even before 10 a.m. on weekends.

Summer construction on two of those lots will expand parking access from 500 to nearly 900 total spots, alleviating weekend pressure — at least when construction finishes in October.

Crowders Mountain State Park Superintendent Glen George said that the park does not know the exact dates when the parking areas will be closed or if they’ll overlap. Construction has already closed half the lot at the Linwood access area. The Linwood lot will largely remain open but may be closed temporarily as its capacity is expanded by 202 spots from less than 100.

The Sparrow Springs gravel lot near Short’s Lake will be closed for stretches of the summer as 215 spots and restroom facilities are added to the area, which now has only several dozen spaces, according to a press release.

The Linwood access lot, where construction has already begun. This lot is expected to stay open for most of the summer. Sarah Skinner sskinner@charlotteobserver.com

“It’s going to cause havoc,” said Cassmer Ward, a 43-year-old Charlotte resident.

Ward and his girlfriend have visited Crowders Mountain nearly every weekend for over three years, during which he said he’s viewed congestion grow “exponentially,” making him question why construction is taking place during the summer.

Last year, the park saw nearly 900,000 visitors, a number that has more than doubled since 2013, George said. And more growth is expected, though George noted that fall and spring are the park’s busiest times and that “as the hot weather arrives, visitation slows.”

“It’s extremely crowded,” said Gastonia resident Lisa Patterson, who frequently hikes the mountain. “You have to climb up 300 stairs, and just imagine at least 100 people coming up 300 stairs.”

Parking concerns have forced some area residents, like Natalie Chastenay, to abandon the park altogether. Chastenay visited almost every weekend for two years, but says it’s a place she will no longer visit due to overcrowding.

“It’s not as enjoyable of a hike as all you hear is noise, music and carrying-on,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place, but it’s just not peaceful anymore. It’s not what it used to be.”

With the addition of over 400 parking spots, Chastenay said that unexpected concerns may arise.

“Because of the parking being available, there will probably be more people who’d want to come to the park,” she said.

The improvements are funded by the $2 billion voter-passed Connect NC Bond Package, and were originally slated to cost around $750,000. A contract was awarded for $960,630 in February to Riley Nash Forkovich Construction LLC, a South Carolina-based contractor, according to George.

When the park fills up on weekends, visitors are often turned away. Sarah Skinner sskinner@charlotteobserver.com

Even with the planned expansion, Crowders Mountain is struggling to handle its visitors.

“I remember when you just used to park on the side of the road back in the ’90s,” said Reed Patterson, who said he’s previously had to “just turn around” when the park filled up. “Or you have to drive over to King’s Pinnacle and it’s full, and then you’re just up the creek with no paddle.”

King’s Pinnacle is another site within Crowders Mountain State Park, several miles south. However, the park has frequently had to turn away visitors, who are encouraged to consider other parks like Kings Mountain State Park in South Carolina, around a 20-minute drive from Crowders.

“We do have the parking ability to hold a greater number of people compared to Crowders Mountain,” said Kings Mountain senior ranger Kevin Palmer, who said that whenever Crowders Mountain fills up, park rangers start “sending them down this way.”

Another problem facing the park as it expands: the impact of nearly 2 million feet per year.

George said that the park’s natural surfaces are facing erosion due to the high visitor counts, requiring more maintenance to keep them healthy — which is done by a team of around 20 volunteers. Ten times a year, they take to the trails with rubber gloves and shovels, beating back the damage to the natural mountain surfaces by constant wear and tear.

George asked the public to visit Crowders Mountain on weekdays to have a “much better experience.”

Logan Hawkins, who hikes the trails with his mom and two dogs frequently — during the week — agreed.

“Today, this is probably the most I’ve ever seen,” Hawkins said Tuesday, referencing a full Linwood lot at around 8 p.m. “Mostly, when we come here, it’s not that crowded.”

The park previously expanded its parking in 2012, adding 75 spaces to the visitor center parking lot. The visitor center lot will remain open for the duration of the construction, George said.