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Many View Chimney Rock Quarter Million Visitors Come To Great Big Old Rock Yearly

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At 315 feet high, it's just a stone's throw bigger than a football field stood on its end. The 500-million-year-old granite monolith is one of the first things people think about when they identify with Rutherford County

There are as many ways to see Chimney Rock as there are sets of eyes for looking.

Ornithologist see and hear the birds.

Geologists see every crack in every rock.

Botanists see which tree every twig comes from.

"And I see the trash and watch to make sure everybody is having a good time," Mary Jaeger-Gale, top dog and General Manager with Chimney Rock Management, said of a place where she has worked for 38 years. "I want the park to be pristine, clean and everybody to be having a good time."

It may well be the cornerstone of Rutherford County tourism with a quarter million visitors from all over the world.

It is one more big rock.

At 315 feet the rock itself is a stone's throw longer than a football field stood on its end.

In 1948 a 26-story elevator was installed giving people who might otherwise never visit a mountaintop the chance to visit and look out on the glories of nature. The State Of North Carolina replaced the aging elevator recently. In 1948, it was the tallest elevator in North Carolina.

State crews are upgrading the parking lot at the top as well as the retaining walls that recently gave in to torrential rain.

Jaeger-Gale runs a multi-ring circus of services and staff supervision. "We really are a family oriented place, as much about family as we are about getting the work done," and much of that can be attributed to the fact that for 105 years one family owned and operated the park.

The last of the Morse family to hold the helm was Todd Morse, who last year published a book, For The Love Of Chimney Rock.

In the book he writes, "I learned repeatedly during my time at the park, stress is just a brittle part of life, and often plays an important role in teaching us what truly matters, what is permanent and what is transient, what is meaningful and what is inconsequential, what we need to release and what we need to hold onto."

Morse's book is inspired by his family's sale of the park to the State of North Carolina in 2007, and that paragraph shows the poignant emotional growth that took place for him as he let go of a 105-year-old family legacy.

The numbers get a little staggering as you consider Chimney Rock.

Geologists estimate the 315-foot granite monolith is 500 million years old.

Jaeger-Gale is a sold-out enthusiast. "Where else can you go to get everything the mountains have to offer: waterfalls, hiking trails, geological formations, views, the river, the lake? I travel all over because I love to meet new people. I spent three weeks in Africa this summer, but when I get home, when I take a boat out on Lake Luke, I just have to think this is not a bad place to come home to."

A bit understated, but on target. Not a bad place to come home to. Maybe it's even one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Fall colors are at full tilt and the easy drive makes it accessible.

Morse says in his book that the Cherokee believed Hickory Nut Gorge was inhabited by little people who played tricks on the first people. One of the medicine men shape-shifted into a mole, an eagle, and a strong wind to push rocks down on the little people and make the gorge safe for the Cherokee.

Chimney Rock is just under a thousand acres of the more than six thousand that comprise Chimney Rock State Park including Rumbling Bald and Eagle Rock. Many of the acres are not yet accessible to the public yet but the park service is working on it.

"Education is a huge part of our mission here," Jaeger-Gale said. "Since the Lake Lure Classical Academy is right here, we give those kids passes. It's very important that they see themselves as future sustainers. People tend to take a place like this for granted, but these kids need to know a lot of people are working very hard to keep it like it is."

She started her 38-year journey when Todd's father, Lucius, hired her for a "summer" job that she never left. She was teaching at Flat Rock Middle School and Lucius recruited her to do public relations.

"I don't know anything about P.R.," she told the then park manager.

"You teach, don't you? That's P.R."

She calls the 400-plus steps, recently rebuilt by the state, from the parking lot to the top of the rock, "The Ultimate Stairmaster. I even called Stairmaster and asked them about it. They said it would be okay to call it The Ultimate Stairmaster." Folks who don't want that experience can always use the elevator.

Trails that were closed when the state took over have been reopened to meet state standards. People who didn't like having the trails closed have started returning. Things are looking up.

Is it ever a mystical experience?

She laughed. "Every day here is a mystical experience. Things are always changing. We talk about it a lot. There will always be change. We will deal with it."

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