Pursuing the Pinnacle: Mountain bikers push to create new trail system in Sylva
For the past decade, Sylva’s Pinnacle Park has had Sae Smyrl envisioning a lofty future for the hiking area. A mountain biker for the past 40 years, Smyrl would walk the trail and think how great it would be to ride his bike through the 1,100-acre forest. Bikes are allowed on the existing trail, but it’s way too steep for the sport to be fun.
A plan is now afoot to make Smyrl’s dream a reality, with the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycling Association pursuing a goal to bring some 30 miles of biking trail, featuring loops of various difficulty levels, to the Fisher Creek watershed.
“Current residents would have more places to take themselves and their families to enjoy the beauty of that watershed,” Smyrl said. “Mountain bikers who travel from across the country to go to Tsali Recreation Area would have something else to stop here in Sylva for. This would in turn be an economic benefit for the local businesses and could affect future growth of Jackson County and Sylva.”
That’s the pitch that Smyrl and J.P. Gannon, also a SORBA member and a hydrology professor at Western Carolina University, made to the town board last month when they first discussed the idea publicly.
The response was quite favorable.
“I think it’s something that everybody wants,” said Commissioner David Nestler.
“We’ll see a plan before it gets implemented and we’ll all get to review it, but I think it’s amazing that there will be this many biking destinations in this area,” added Commissioner Greg McPherson. “It can only be a benefit.”
Pinnacle Park is just half an hour away from Tsali Recreation Area, a big-name trail network in the mountain biking world that’s located on the Graham County side of Fontana Lake. And only 15 minutes away is a 10-mile mountain biking system that WCU completed in 2013.
Tapping the potential of Pinnacle Park to host mountain biking trails would enhance the area’s collective reputation as a mountain biking destination, spurring travel and tourism in Sylva, supporters of the plan say. For example, Gannon said, Rocky Knob Park in Boone features 8 miles of trail on 185 acres, with an economic impact study showing a $2.8 million benefit to the local economy over a one-year period.
“We’re talking not insignificant amounts of money brought into the town,” Gannon said.
Funding the project
The cost to build the trails wouldn’t be insignificant either. On the high end — hiring a professional trail builder to manage the project from start to finish — the project could cost $30,000 per mile of trail, Gannon estimates. Based on densities at other, similar parks in the Southeast, he foresees full build-out reaching about 30 miles of trail, meaning the project could cost up to $900,000.
It’s a lot of money, but not unattainable. Especially because Sylva has a fund dedicated specifically to projects benefitting Fisher Creek — to the tune of $3.2 million. The Pinnacle Park property used to comprise the town watershed before it outgrew that source of water. These days the property is part of a conservation easement managed by Mainspring Conservation Trust, and the $3.2 million is what’s left of the $3.5 million Sylva received for selling its development rights to the land. The money currently earns about $6,000 per year in interest.
“This is what this money is for,” Nestler said. “This is what you’re supposed to spend it on.”
That money — or part of it — could be used to fund the project, in conjunction with grant funding, possibly coming from the federally funded Recreational Trails Program.
Finding a productive use for the Fisher Creek Fund has been a priority of Nestler’s since the campaign season that got him elected last year. This spring, the town turned in an application for an $85,000 N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant that would create a plan for cleaning up and enhancing recreation opportunities at Scotts Creek, which runs through Sylva. Nestler had advocated using the Fisher Creek Fund money to carry out the plan. However, he sees no conflict between his plan and SORBA’s.
“The two are tied together. Part of cleaning up Scotts Creek is to realize better recreational opportunities for that watershed, and that fits right into this,” Nestler said of the Pinnacle Park concept. “It’s not an either-or in my book.”
SORBA’s goal is not to oust the hikers who are already making the arduous trek up to Pinnacle Rock and Blackrock. They’d be fine with keeping those trails hikers-only, with options available to reduce conflict between bikers and hikers on any new trails created.
Ultimately, they see the project as a way to expand opportunities for bikers while improving what’s offered to hikers.
“The trails that are there because they’re so steep suffer from a lot of erosion, and it’s purely because of grade,” Smyrl said.
The hiking trails at Pinnacle are basically old logging roads that have been repurposed for hiking. While volunteers with the Pinnacle Park Foundation have put a lot of work into rehabilitating the trail at the bottom of the mountain, further up the path is wide, steep and straight — when it rains, water pelts the ground and runs right down the mountain, carrying the trail with it.
“As soon as you get away from that parking lot you have pretty much an optimal erosion situation,” said Gannon, who studies such issues academically. “The trails are steep and they’re wide and there aren’t places for the water to drain.”
Those issues could be fixed pretty readily, Gannon believes, with the same equipment that would be brought in to build mountain biking trails. Right now, he’s pretty sure, Fisher Creek gets brown with dirt rather quickly in a downpour. The plan would include narrowing the existing trails and improving drainage on them to prevent future erosion.
As to building new trails, he said, there are a variety of techniques available to prevent erosion and future maintenance needs. That’s why it would be important to hire a professional trail-building company to do the work, Gannon said — they understand how to route trails away from water and add in the dips and turns necessary to keep bikers from gathering too much speed and skidding out.
Support for the plan seems to be running high, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any concerns. For one thing, it’s unknown how residents of Fisher Creek Road, the steep and lightly used road that ends at the Pinnacle Park parking lot, would feel about a plan that’s bound to increase visitation to the park in their backyard.
“Typically if you live at the top of a road like Fisher Creek, you live there for a reason,” Nestler said. “You don’t expect much traffic.”
However, he noted, the park is public land, so opening it to more members of the public would be consistent with that purpose. And it’s likely that the plan would boost values for surrounding property owners, so it would benefit them in that respect.
In the long run, Smyrl said, SORBA would like to see a second trailhead built to disperse traffic to and from the area, but that could be a ways in the future, and traffic to the existing trailhead would likely increase regardless.
Environmental impact is also a consideration. Whenever you have more people traveling through more areas of a property, there’s potential for impact to the area. Gannon says he’s already been enlisting folks with that expertise to help with the planning.
“Ideally when we get to the stage where we’re planning out exactly where the trails are going to run, we would have them walk that corridor and make sure we’re not being detrimental to any of the rare native plant species,” he said.
Kathy Mathews, a plant systemics professor at WCU, is one of those people. An avid mountain biker herself, she’s also concerned with ensuring that any new trails would protect the area’s plant communities, especially the diversity inhabiting the rich cove area at the bottom of the mountain and the unique communities of the rocky outcrops on the property. However, she’s fully in support of the trail concept.
“With careful planning and knowing which of the more sensitive areas to avoid, I think there’s plenty of room in the watershed to build separate mountain bike trails that would not harm the plant community,” she said.
Overall, said Jay Coward, the Pinnacle Park Foundation’s chairman and stalwart volunteer, building the trail is more likely to help the park than to hurt it.
“I don’t think having more people in Pinnacle Park is going to harm it at all,” he said. “I think in the long run it will help people become more environmental in their outlook.”
These days, Smyrl’s daydreams of mountain biking at Pinnacle Park are out in the open, the subject of serious conversation and planning. But they’re still far from reality. The next step is to get a plan made for trail development, something that will probably cost $5,000 to $10,000, Gannon said. The town is currently working to get bids on completing such a plan.
From there, it will still be years before any bicycle tires hit the currently nonexistent trail.
However, Smyrl believes it’s going to happen, and he’s hoping to see it happen within three years as opposed to the 11 years conventional wisdom suggests. There’s a team behind the plan, full of both enthusiasm and know-how, and he’s looking forward to seeing what transpires.
“I’m extremely thrilled about it,” he said.
An informational session about the potential for building mountain biking trails at Sylva’s Pinnacle Park is planned for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17, at Mad Batter Food and Film in Sylva.
Hosted by the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycling Association, the evening will include a short overview of the plan, a chance to ask questions and deliver comments and a call for volunteers to offer their expertise in seeing the project through to completion. In addition, Nantahala SORBA is always looking for members to help maintain and expand mountain biking opportunities in the area — membership signups will also be offered.
Food and drink will be available for purchase, but because a crowd is expected it’s advisable to arrive early.