Hikers and out-of-town visitors probably weren’t thrilled with the six-week closure of Mount Mitchell State Park during April and early May. And the continued shutdown of its museum, gift shop, concession stand and restaurant is an ongoing annoyance. But there’s a bright side.
“When we were closed, you’d notice animals up closer to the road then because we didn’t have the vehicle traffic. And there are clearer days now,” says park Superintendent Kevin Bischof. “It seems to be a little less hazy.”
Bischof, who just celebrated his 13th year as a ranger with N.C. State Parks, has supervised maintenance, law enforcement and staffing for the nearly 4,000-acre Mount Mitchell State Park since 2018. He’s transitioning to the position of superintendent at Grandfather Mountain State Park in Linville, but with COVID-19 concerns delaying the hiring of his replacement, he’s currently juggling both jobs, including managing some highly unusual — and sometimes stressful — circumstances at the two busy attractions.
Shutting down the parks entirely, Bischof says, meant closing roads to vehicle and bicycle traffic and posting signage at all trails crossing park boundaries. But now, in an extended Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, restrooms are open and must be cleaned frequently, and the Mount Mitchell summit tower — the park’s main attraction — is accessible to guests Monday through Friday but closed weekends to prevent overcrowding (although visitors are still welcome to walk up to the summit, Bischof notes).
Additionally, the parking lots are limited to half-capacity, meaning that as guests flooded in on recent sunny weekends, he sometimes had to close the gates for several hours at a time. “When you’re standing out there not letting folks into the park, and they’ve traveled long distances, they’re frustrated,” he says. “I generally don’t get a lot of people who want to send me Christmas cards on those days.”
But he emphasizes that park employees are extremely happy to welcome visitors again. “We just try to remind folks to be patient with park staff and patient with one another,” Bischof says. “I’ve seen a handful of folks who are upset because the bathrooms are closed because we’re cleaning them. And as someone who cleans the bathrooms, I can speak for the rest of the staff, when I say that we’d prefer not to have to be cleaning them. It’s just one of those necessary things.”
This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.