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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO -- Gabrielle Woest, front, and Deborah Johnson take a selfie with some mountain goats while hiking Colorado's Quandary Peak.

In a world so full of problems, I’m reluctant to add another one to the list. But the challenge I’m about to mention is really more a blessing than a burden, so here it is:

On my last two trips to state parks, the places were so full that I had trouble finding somewhere to park. Think of it: In what we’ve been told is a country of couch potatoes, I’ve recently seen so many people at a couple of state parks that the parking lots were overflowing. Maybe America has more pep in its step than we think.

I first encountered the phenomenon last fall, when I took my teenage son and his friend to Louisiana’s Port Hudson State Historic Site near Jackson. Its Civil War battlefield is worth the trip, but what my son really wanted to do was hike, and a six-mile trail there accommodates the ambitious. Thanks to a regional track meet on the grounds, Port Hudson was teeming with young athletes. Even with the unexpected company, we still enjoyed the day.

Then last month, on a Saturday that had started gray and cold, we packed a picnic sack and headed to Clark Creek Nature Area, a Mississippi hiking trail north of St. Francisville, just over the state line. This time, we knew we’d have the run of the place. After all, how many others would want to roll out of bed on a frigid weekend morning to walk in the woods?

Plenty, it turned out. The lot was so crowded that patrons parked along the gravel road near the trail head, and no special event had drawn them out. The crowd consisted mostly of 20-something hikers, decked out in designer gear, ambling like ants up the steep slopes of the trail, unworried by the need to catch their breath.

I’d brought along binoculars to bird-watch, but I prefer people-watching. In front of me, a young couple had stopped to study a map at a trail fork, leaning into each other with an intimacy common to couples still in the first blush of romance. He suggested going left to reach the nearest waterfall, while she gently countered that the shortest route was to the right. They went right. “I kinda want to go left,” she whispered. “It’s always so fun to see how wrong you are.”

Although Mississippi isn’t known for waterfalls, Clark Creek has 50 — most of them tiny, but a couple with 30-foot drops. We lunched at the first fall as a growing sun chased away the cold, and I grew warmer while I walked, walked, walked back to the car.

“We should get a souvenir T-shirt for getting back alive,” a middle-aged woman panted as she reached the parking lot. “A T-shirt? We should get ice cream,” her friend responded. Another hiker of a certain age was reaching into her trunk for Advil.

Also feeling my years, I was ready for a reward myself. But maybe making it back to my car was reward enough.


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.