By Lee Noles
Imagine majestic views of sprawling mountains. Walks on untouched beaches as clear crystal waves fall upon the shore. Think about kayaking a meandering river as red maple and oak trees reach into the Carolina blue sky.
Well, a family from Union County experienced all that and more for just under $250.
Morgan and Gregory Bartos and their four children joined the North Carolina State Parks Passport Program and visited the 41 state parks in a year’s time. The family, who lives in Indian Trail, was rewarded with gift cards and a care package from the state park system.
“I always tell families you can do this,” Morgan said. “It’s not that crazy. It may sound overwhelming but isn’t that what life is? You set your goals and you work hard to get there.”
The idea developed after the Bartoses looked at the park’s website at the end of 2018. After talking, the couple realized it was the perfect opportunity to get their children, who were all under the age of 8 at the time, a chance to explore nature.
They started at the Mayo and Haw rivers near the Virginia state line in January 2019. More parks followed, including Grandfather Mountain and the desert-like environment of Jockey’s Ridge. They completed their journey in October 2019 at Crowder Mountain – the only park they visited prior to starting the passport program.
The parks hold a special place for each family member, but one stood out the most for Morgan Bartos.
“It has to be Fort Fisher,” Morgan said. “With it being on state property, there was no trash and the water is cool and clear. It was just a beautiful beach.”
The family planned visits based on the time of the year by going to parks with water activities during the late spring and summer months. Parks in the mountains were better fits for the fall and early spring. Morgan said water bottles and an extra pair of warm clothes were few of the essential items needed during the trips that totaled more than 6,600 miles.
“You sort of had to just learn along the way,” she said of planning.
Documenting their journey was also important as the family brought a camera to record hikes, mountain climbing and their canoe trips down the assortment of waterways. Morgan regularly updated a blog on their visits which totaled $246. Most of the cost went to recreational activities like renting canoes and paddleboats and admission fees but didn’t include gas or food.
In comparison, the cost for a one-day ticket to Disney World and the company’s other theme parks in Orlando for someone 10 years or older is $109. A ticket to a Carolina Panthers’ game starts out close to $100.
“That is such a great deal,” Morgan said of the state parks. “I am so passionate about this. I tell families they should go and do this. It is all right in our own backyards. They should take advantage of this. They really should.”
The Bartoses liked how the parks kept their children excited by giving each one a passport. When they visited a new state park, a ranger would stamp the booklets to verify they have been there. After completing the 41 visits, the family emailed the state park representatives who then sent the care package that included a free annual pass and six gift cards to an outdoor store. The cards were used to purchase a tent for a trip to a state park in South Carolina this past May.
Morgan said she hopes her children – Sophia (8 years old), Zoe (6), Henry (5) and Eva (2) – would build an appreciation for the state as well as the natural environment it offers. She also wants them to realize the importance of sticking with something they started.
The months since finishing the program have been challenging as COVID-19 has dampened the family’s opportunities to visit the National Park System. The Bartoses have been to one in Ohio and have six more on their list in the coming year. The couple is expecting their fifth child in two months. When their daughter arrives, the family has no doubt the parks will be on their to-do list.
“When you enjoy something, and you get used to it, there is a pull to go back out there and do it again,” Morgan said.
Want to go?
Visit www.ncparks.gov/passport-program to find out more about the passport program.