Archived Outdoors

Ringing out the Year of the Trail: A highlight reel of trail news in 2023

A mountain biker curves along a trail in Berm Park, the mountain biking skills course within Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Nature Park. A mountain biker curves along a trail in Berm Park, the mountain biking skills course within Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Nature Park. Great State Trails Coalition photo

Declared to be the Year of the Trail more than a year before it even began, 2023 had a lot to live up to.

But over the last 12 months of land protection, trail building and organized hikes, 2023 has measured up to its name. 

The Chestnut Mountain trail system grows up

Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Nature Park was born in 2022 with a unique-to-the-region bike skills park and 0.6-mile access trail — but in the past year, its trail system has grown to include more than 17 miles of hiking and biking paths. Now, the town is turning its attention to front-country amenities like a picnic pavilion, restrooms and a concessions area. The simultaneous development of Pisgah View State Park  on the other side of the ridge in Candler also presents exciting opportunities for the future. The property line for the park, which is expected to open to the public in 2025, is separated from Chestnut Mountain’s land by only about a mile of privately owned forested ridgeline.

“I think there’s an opportunity to make a connection there, which would be pretty unbelievable,” said Canton Town Manager Nick Scheuer.

Trails aren’t just for landubbers

Since it debuted this year, the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail has offered a first-of-its-kind experience in the South, inviting people young and old to explore the underwater world of our mountain streams. The trail currently consists of 10 publicly accessible sites where people are invited to bring a snorkel mask, put their heads underwater, and observe the diverse aquatic life that often goes unseen.

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In WNC’s shallow streams, snorkeling is an all-ages activity. Mainspring Conservation Trust photo

“When you get under the water with your snorkel and stuff on, the fish think you belong there,” said Callie Moore, western regional director for MountainTrue. “They’re not afraid of you at all. And as long as you don’t thrash around and make a bunch of noise, you can just sneak right up on them.”

MountainTrue, Mainspring Conservation Trust and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission are all partnering on the snorkel trail effort. Sites are now available in Swain, Jackson, Graham, Macon, Cherokee, Haywood, Buncombe, McDowell and Wilkes counties, with hopes of eventually covering all 24 western counties and parts of northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee.

HCC gives hiking the college try

Haywood Community College cut the ribbon this year on the new Dahlia Ridge Trail System that weaves through its forested campus, offering a more accessible hiking option compared to many existing trails in WNC.

HCC Foundation Executive Director Hylah Birenbaum said the new trail is simply another way to fulfill the vision of A.L. Freedlander, who in 1966 issued the fundraising challenge that birthed the HCC campus.

“Mr. Freedlander wanted people to come on campus and enjoy the beauty of nature and the outdoors,” Birenbaum said. “We are an anchor for Haywood County, and we just want to bring people on campus, to add another avenue to enjoy.”  

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A blue arrow signals a bend in the path on Kingfisher Trail. Holly Kays photo

Of the 3.5 miles in the Dahlia Ridge Trail System, 2.5 miles are new or redesigned. The net elevation gain between the highest and lowest points of the trail system is only about 100 feet, making for a relatively easy hike that’s just a short drive away from any of Haywood County’s main population centers.

Hike like it’s 1923

The Carolina Mountain Club, Western North Carolina’s largest and oldest hiking club, turned 100 this year, celebrating a century of volunteerism, activism and enjoyment in public lands.

Since its founding July 16, 1923, CMC has been involved in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, completion of the Appalachian Trail, construction of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and preservation of Max Patch. Its members have built countless miles of trail and are currently responsible for maintaining 450 miles. The group leads four to six hikes each week and organizes 10 weekly trail maintenance crews.

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Carolina Mountain Club volunteers work on a trail along Big Laurel Creek. CMC photo

Hundreds of people came to CMC’s July 16 birthday party at the N.C. Arboretum in Asheville, but the event wasn’t focused on looking backward. The club is actively looking forward to its next 100 years, with projects to replace the Walnut Mountain Shelter on the A.T. north of Max Patch and help with trail design at the new Pisgah View State Park at the top of its list — along with a constant desire to make the club continually more welcoming and inclusive to the constellation of people who call WNC home.

The trails of Christmas future

The past 12 months saw the launch of several projects that will likely result in the creation of spectacular new trails over the years to come.

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The oldest building on the property was built in 1790 by Uriah Davis. Holly Kays photo

On the Buncombe/Haywood county line, a master planning process is underway for the new Pisgah View State Park, which the N.C. General Assembly created in 2019 and funded land acquisition for in 2021 and 2022. The 2,000-acre property, formerly known as Pisgah View Ranch, is a culturally and ecologically rich area that’s expected to offer a variety of options for hikers and horseback riders, and potential for a future connection to Chestnut Mountain Nature Park on the other side of the ridge. Park managers hope Pisgah View State Park will open to the public in 2025.

In Cherokee, the tribal government has approved a $2.7 million project contract for Fire Mountain Ignitor Park, which former Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Secretary of Operations Jeremy Hyatt called a “true, game-changing project.” It will feature two asphalt pump tracks totaling 20,000 square feet connected by a 750-foot asphalt “Snake Run,” as well as a bicycle playground for strider bikes and small children and an intermediate skills park with two flow lines. Asphalt is expected to start going down in early 2024, with completion by late summer or early fall.

Meanwhile, Maggie Valley celebrated a significant conservation victory this fall when 1,250 acres were added to the conserved lands within the town’s watershed. Now, 51% of the Campbell Creek Watershed and 31% of the Jonathan Creek Watershed, both of which supply the town’s drinking water, are conserved. The new acquisition allows for easier public access to this conserved property, meaning that, following a master planning process, there’s potential for new hiking trails to be built there — and even the possibility of tying into existing trails on Blue Ridge Parkway land.

The path through 2024

The Year of the Trail is drawing to a close, but trail development efforts in North Carolina are not. The 2023-2025 state budget ratified in September created the new Great Trails State Fund, which will offer grants for construction of new trails and extension of new ones, and supplied it with $25 million over two years. The budget also gave the Complete the Trails Fund an additional $5 million toward its mission of building out North Carolina’s 12 official state trails and appropriated $24.9 million for specific trail and greenway projects across the state.

“I can’t even say how thrilling it is to get this fund in the next General Assembly session,” Palmer McIntyre, coordinator of the Great Trails State Coalition, said during the Outdoor Economy Conference in September. “So we’re so excited … our legislature is tuned in to trails right now. They are seeing that that is a worthy investment.” 

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