The town of Sylva has nearly completed its goal of eternal preservation of the 1,100-acre Pinnacle Park in the Plott Balsam range but is still mulling over key decisions about the type of recreation they will allow in the park.

Pinnacle Park, while a favorite among locals in the know, is home to but a few rough trails, a shoddy parking area along a dead-end road and no signs announcing the destination, let alone directing people there. Nonetheless, it is sought out as a hiking and camping refuge, especially among those willing to make the steep trek up the face of the mountain to the Pinnacle, a rock overlook with sweeping views.

Town leaders will be deciding in coming months what they want the future of the park to look like. One decision is what type of recreation should be allowed, namely whether horseback riding, mountain biking and camping should be in the mix along with hiking and fishing. Another decision is whether to improve the park, such as adding signage, expanding parking, constructing new trails and fixing existing ones.

Alderman Stacey Knots said she would like to see the park become more user-friendly — more trails and better marked. Not only is getting to Pinnacle Park a word of mouth endeavor, but knowing where the trails lead takes either a leap of faith or passed on knowledge.

“I definitely want to have signs and make it more like a park, more of a destination,” Knotts said. Knotts envisions maps of the park being available at the Jackson County visitor center and chamber of commerce.

Now, only the fittest of hikers huff up the steep trail to the Pinnacle. Knotts would like to see the addition of trails that would be more accessible to everyone.

Alderman Maurice Moody and Mayor Brenda Oliver agreed. Both Moody and Oliver support an expansion of the trails and making the park more accessible to the public.

One draw of Pinnacle Park is its close proximity to town, making it a popular place for walking the dogs after work or a quick weekend escape, said Bill Gibson, a member of the Pinnacle Park Foundation and director of the Southwestern Commission.

“Pinnacle Park is very popular with a lot of people who want a good cardiovascular workout, or people who want to take a leisurely half-mile walk to sit along the creek and read some poetry or paint,” Gibson said. “Already you have a parking lot full of people and it is not even advertised.”

Pinnacle Peak is one of the favorite hiking destinations of Tobias Miller, the trail manager on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park who lives in Sylva. Miller has vast trail experience given his job overseeing trail maintenance and construction in the park, as well as at national parks out west before his move here. Despite the steep terrain of Pinnacle Park, Miller said the construction of new trails that more closely follow the contour of the land is possible.

“There is a lot of potential in my perspective to be able to make some trails that are more palatable to regular folks, some loop trails that don’t go straight up and down the mountain,” Miller said. “Obviously everyone wants to get up to see that view from the Pinnacle, but there are some possibilities for two or three mile hikes along the creeks.”

Miller, who deals with competing recreation interests on a daily basis, said town leaders have some big decisions to make moving forward.

“It depends what you are aiming for. Are you trying to make it a pristine wilderness park or are you trying to make it more accessible to users? Those are two different paths,” Miller said. “For a lot of users it is kind of their little secret place. They might not want to see it developed.”

But Miller said he has long considered Pinnacle Park an “underutilized” resource because people simply don’t know about it.

Pinnacle Park is near and dear to those who do take advantage of it. One pastime is bouldering on large rocks about a quarter-mile up the trail. A less fortunate pastime is overnight partying by high school and college kids, a concern of neighbors who live near the trail head.

Although four-wheeling is not allowed in Pinnacle Park, it still goes on.

“People occasionally go in there with jeeps and four wheelers illegally,” Gibson said. “No matter how many piles of rocks we put up or how many chains we put up, somebody comes in and tears them down and takes their jeeps in there.”

Miller has noted the same problem.

“You can put up whatever barrier you want but they will ford it every time,” Miller said. “Possibly as more users start to use the area and they don’t want that kind of use, they could self-police it.”

Big decisions

The most controversial use up for debate seems to be horseback riding.

Whatever decision the town makes now, it will be hard to shake later, Miller said.

“From my perspective, it is very important to decide what they want to do right off the bat. It is precedent setting,” said Miller. “I think some public scoping should be done as to what people want. I don’t think they should make this decision in a vacuum.”

Gibson questioned whether the watershed is too steep to support horseback riding or mountain biking.

“In most cases I am a proponent of horseback riding and mountain biking where it is appropriate,” said Gibson said. “But having spent a lot of time on the watershed, I would think the slopes are too steep. I would not take my horses up there.”

Miller also believed the trail is inappropriate for horses due to the terrain, but there are other factors as well. The parking area is too small for horse trailers to park, let alone turn around. There would need to be hitching posts where the horses are unloaded and saddled up, which would lead to the accumulation of horse manure in the parking lot.

At the Pinnacle, there would also need to be hitching posts where people would want to dismount and soak up the view. This would also lead to an accumulation of manure.

Mountain bikes are easier to accommodate and generally don’t create wear and tear on the trails like horses. But the current trail is still too steep for bikes, said Miller, a self-described mountain bike enthusiast. Building trails to accommodate mountain bikes in the future would be possible, though, Miller said.

Miller recommended that town leaders develop a master trail plan, possibly designed and laid-out by a professional. The town could then partner with volunteer groups to implement the trail plan over the years.

Mayor Brenda Oliver said she agrees with the idea of creating a master plan for Pinnacle Park that will guide recreation and conservation. Oliver said she also looks forward to the town partnering with the Pinnacle Park Foundation that will provide support.

Timely move

The town is the process of placing the 1,110 acres into a conservation agreement, permanently protecting the tract. The conservation agreement will keep future town leaders from ever selling the tract, developing it or logging it.

In exchange for protecting the tract, the town is getting $3.5 million from the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Part of finalizing the conservation easement is deciding what forms of recreation to allow. If the conservation agreement bans certain forms of recreation, they will be banned forever, said Sylva Town Manager Jay Denton.

“It would pretty well be ‘no’ for the rest of eternity,” Denton said.

If horseback riding is outlawed in the conservation agreement, it would never be allowed. On the other hand, if horseback riding is allowed under the conservation easement, the town would still have the option of outlawing it. Such a policy would not be permanent, however, and would be up to the whim of each town board.

“If this board doesn’t want it they don’t have to have it, but future boards still can,” Denton said.

So far, hiking and fishing are a given. Four-wheeling is definitely out. That leaves horseback riding, mountain biking and primitive camping yet to be decided.

What town leaders think

Mayor Brenda Oliver

“I do not want to see horses on the existing trail. Horse hooves do make the existing trail deteriorate much faster and cause erosion. I would like to see us develop some more suitable trails for horses in the future,” Oliver said.

Alderman Ray Lewis

Lewis said the trails are too steep for horseback riding.

“I am going to be against horseback riding, because horseback riders can tear up the trails as much as four-wheelers. It would really cause it to wash.”

Lewis is undecided on mountain bikes, but thinks they could be accommodated more easily than horses.

Alderman Harold Hensley

“I really hadn’t given much consideration on that. That’s going to have to be worked out,” Hensley said.

Hensley said he didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other, but off the top of his head, he wasn’t against horses or mountain biking.

“I wouldn’t be one of the people to say no horses,” Hensley said. “I wouldn’t have a problem with (mountain biking).”

Alderman Maurice Moody

“I think it should be accessible to as much of the public as possible,” Moody said. That does not include four-wheeling, but does include camping, horseback riding and mountain biking. Moody said some trails, such as the steeper ones, should be for hikers only, but there could be the potential for mountain biking and horseback riding on other trails. Moody said they could have a set-up like Tsali with mountain biking and horseback riding on alternate days.

Alderwoman Stacey Knotts

“I would want to here some opinions of people who use that park, on what they would like to see happen, ” Knotts said. “I don’t want to say no, but it’s hard for me to envision that the way the trail is now. It is very steep. It may be totally inappropriate for horses to be on those trails.”

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