A mountain Assault: Black Rock Trail Race to aid Community Table

If you are looking for a trail race — with the emphasis on “race” — the Assault on Black Rock Trail Race might not be for you.

But, if you are willing to walk, crawl or yes, run, your way to the top of a very tall mountain for fun and in the name of a really good cause — supporting Jackson County’s Community Table soup kitchen — this is the event for you, so mark March 19 as a day to spend in the woods.

The Assault on Black Rock is the brainchild of Brian Barwatt, a climber who loves to hike up Pinnacle Park, a 1,100-acre tract of land owned by the town of Sylva and previously used as a watershed. The pinnacle is 5,008 feet in elevation, and Barwatt said the estimated 8.3-mile race (he believes the distance might actually be just over 7 miles in reality, signs to the contrary) gains 2,700 feet on the way to the top.

“It is a really hard trail run,” Barwatt said. “It would take a topnotch trail runner to actually run it all.”

But, don’t despair: Barwatt has asked Jackson County Emergency Medical Service personnel to stay for up to eight hours that day — plenty of time for even the slowest of the slow to get to the top and back down again. Even sliding down on your rear end if you must.

Barwatt said he wants to support the Community Table, which feeds the hungry in Jackson County, and introduce people to the beauties of Pinnacle Park. Prizes will be awarded to top finishers. Pre-registration is $25 (www.active.com, there is a $3.25 fee); race-day registration is $30. The race is at 9 a.m. March 19, starting at Fisher Creek parking lot in Sylva.

828.506.2802 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit www.communitytable.org for registration forms.

— By Quintin Ellison

Exploring Sylva’s secret garden

Jay Coward is no stranger to Pinnacle Park.

When the work day ends, Coward often trades in his attorney’s suit and tie for hiking attire and escapes into the 1,000-acre wilderness at Sylva’s doorstep. An intergral player with the Pinnacle Park Foundation since the early ‘90s, Coward notices every spiderwort bloom, every bit of trash and every burgeoning erosion issue in the forest. Hiking with Coward, you begin to understand why so many longtime Sylva residents have put so much work into keeping it wild. He first visited the Fisher Creek watershed on a church retreat as a young boy.

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think,” Coward said. “It’s got two of the most beautiful peaks in the Southern Appalachians –– the Pinnacle and Black Rock.”

With the preserve safe from development in perpetuity as a result of a 2006 conservation agreement, the question these days is how to get it ready to deal with more people as discovery of the secret enclave is inevitable.

The History

Pinnacle Park is a 1,000-acre tract, bounded by steep ridges, that drains the east and west forks of Fisher Creek. The creek was dammed up and served as the source of Sylva’s drinking water.

During a period of prolonged drought in the mid-‘80s, the watershed failed to meet the town’s needs, which were also expanding.

At one point, things got so bad that National Guard tankers were forced to deliver water to the hospital. The crisis led to the mothballing of the old watershed in 1992 and the creation of the Tuckaseigee Water & Sewer Authority, which now pulls drinking water from the river.

The same scenario played out in Bryson City, Canton and Murphy, as small watersheds were no longer able to support water demands of their growing populations during drought seasons.

Bill Gibson, the head of Region A at the Southwestern Planning Commission, was watching closely, fearing what may happen to the vast tracts now that they were no longer needed as a source for drinking water.

Gibson said he first heard the idea of preserving Sylva’s old watershed from Tom Massie, who was assistant county manager for Jackson County at the time. Massie and Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver were behind the push to save the watershed from logging or development.

That same year, 1992, the town of Sylva passed a resolution to preserve the area for conservation, preservation, and recreation. But Coward wanted more certainty than a verbal pledge that could be reversed by the next slate of elected leaders.

“We really needed more than just a resolution,” Coward said. “Because we knew the board might not get re-elected.”

Coward worked with Gibson and others to form a broad-based board of directors for a new nonprofit, The Pinnacle Park Foundation, and they leased the watershed from the town for 25 years, ensuring a new town board couldn’t come in and overturn the policy of preservation.

But the concern persisted that future town leaders would see the old watershed as an asset to be exploited. Some people wanted to log it. Others saw it as a property ripe for development. As a town commissioner at that time, current Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said the town needed to get more out of it than a nice view.

Those arguments came to a head in 2005, and the town contracted Peter Bates, a forestry professor at Western Carolina University, to survey the property and determine its value. Bates’ team spent the better part of the year studying the old watershed. It found that while there were a few stands of good timber, the area was so steep and inaccessible that it would cost more to log than it would yield.

“Based on that opinion from him, the whole idea of logging went away,” Coward said. “Plus by that time, we had significant enough ammunition to go to the town board and say, ‘Let’s get a conservation easement.’”

In 2006, with the assistance of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, Sylva entered a conservation agreement that would permanently restrict development and logging and keep it wild forever. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund gave the town $3.5 million in exchange.

“It was a sustained feeling and policy. A sustained set of ideals that transcended people and changes in the board. It never died,” Gibson said of the movement.

The Park

“The idea of having a park like this is a pretty unique thing for a little town,” Coward said.

Most towns don’t have the resources to deal with a 1,000 acres of wild green space. Pinnacle Park is a steep, rocky piece of land traversed by two old logging roads. One road travels along the west fork of Fisher Creek toward the ridgeline and Pinnacle Peak; the other follows the east fork up toward Black Rock and a rough trail that continues on to Waterrock Knob via the old foxhunter’s camp.

Both of the old roads — which are now foot trails — are gateways to tremendous tracts of public land, full of beautiful views and waterfalls, but they’re also very, very steep. Some stretches have a slope of 70 percent, poor for walking and worse for erosion control.

Ever since the Pinnacle Park Foundation was formed, it has had the challenge of maintaining and developing its trail system. The town has helped and so have civic organizations like the Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts, but much of the effort has been undertaken by Coward, who walks the land like a protective parent.

“Every long movement has to have one really pugnacious, patient guy who will do the same things over and over again,” Coward said.

On a recent trip to the park, Coward pointed out recent developments on the trail system’s lower section, which weaves in and around the old dam that anchored the watershed.

The trails in that part of the park, which Coward said are close to being considered handicap accessible recreation trails, were opened with help from the Rotary Club in 1999.

Last year, the town contributed $25,000 to the park. The money went to improve the parking area, which was severely undersized and inadequate; build footers for bridges over the creek; and create a more robust system of sediment control on the old logging road that is the principal path in the park.

As Coward crossed the creek, he spotted a Busch Lite box at the edge of a deep pool. He scrambled down the bank, retrieved it and told a story about the pool.

“One of the residents nearby came to me and said, ‘I saw naked people swimming around in there,’” Coward said. “And I said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”

The man scratched his head.

Pinnacle Park is more open and accessible than it’s ever been before, but it’s still underdeveloped. Erosion and kudzu are ever-present concerns. The lower trail system needs four bridges before it provides real accessibility for people who won’t be able to enjoy the upper reaches of the park.

Meanwhile trail signage is limited, the park lacks an official map, and its main thoroughfares are too steep for most people.

But for Coward, the hard part of the battle has been won already.

“I think the philosophical achievement is just to set the example of what you can do. You can preserve a wilderness area. We did,” he said.

The Future

Too many people have put too much work into Pinnacle Park for it to remain inhospitable to the public.

At the same time, the wildness of the place, its lack of strict regulations, and even its very steepness are part of what make it great.

If you live in Sylva, you can drive to the park and be out of your car in 15 minutes. In another 30 minutes you can be sitting under a waterfall. And, unlike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you can bring your dog along, too.

Recognizing the park’s unique place in the public land structure in Jackson County, Emily Elders, Jackson County Greenways director, worked to get the county in line to offer some of its resources to the effort to develop the park.

“A lot of local people grew up fishing, hunting and hiking it, and it’s an opportunity to carry over that respect for the place to preserve a natural site in its wild state,” Elders said.

Elders has access to the N.C. DENR’s trail-building teams and has worked with area director Tim Johnson to map out a strategy for making the trails at Pinnacle more friendly to the environment and hikers both.

Coward also has ideas about where trails should be, and the town recently formalized a camping policy that will go into effect after three designated campsites are completed. Those are big steps in and of themselves.

In short, while Pinnacle Park has a long list of needs, it’s also a few baby steps away from being in pretty good shape to handle a moderate amount of locally driven traffic, particularly in its lower reaches.

As Coward got back into his truck in the new, roomy gravel parking lot, a truck pulled up and two young backpackers unloaded.

“We came up to do some paddling and stopped at Black Rock Outfitters and asked where we could camp,” said Derek Bradley 22, of Marietta. “And they said, ‘There’s the Pinnacle.’”

Coward whipped out a topographic map of the watershed he had in his truck. There are no maps sold or distributed locally. He showed Bradley and his friend Brendan Meyers what their options were, and the two spry young men headed up the trail headed for the one and a half hour walk to the Pinnacle.

“The Pinnacle, because it juts right out into the community is sort of an intimate place,” Coward said. “Black Rock is windswept. It really ought to be called Pinnacle.”

And just like that, Coward touched on the secret of the park. It’s an unlabeled green space with close ties to the people and the place.

The park still has plenty of secrets to unfold, like the falls on the West Fork, but for now, its mystery remains a part of its development.

“If it’s just sort of under the radar, it keeps the impact down a little bit,” Coward said, smiling slyly.

How to get there?

The Pinnacle Park trailhead lies at the end of Fisher Creek Road. To get there from Sylva, take Skyland Drive all the way out of town and cross under the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway. Make your second left onto Fisher Creek Road and continue to the end.

Master plan underway for Sylva’s Pinnacle Park

Pinnacle Park, a favorite recreational haunt in Sylva that was once home to the town’s watershed, will benefit from a county effort aimed at mapping and restoring its trail system.

Last Thursday Sylva’s town board signed off on a cooperative deal that would enlist Jackson County’s recreation staff and greenway volunteers to create an inventory of the park’s trail system, including GPS mapping and recommendations for restoration efforts.

Sylva commissioner Sarah Graham, who represents the town on the Jackson County Greenways Project commission, said the new agreement is an unexpected boon that would speed up the pace of developing the parks’ trail system.

“They’re offering a lot of help. I think we’ll get a ton of benefit out of this. It just goes hand in hand with what we’ve been talking about in becoming a walkable town,” Graham said.

The county and town had been working closely on a greenway master plan.

The 1,100-acre Pinnacle Park is within a 10-minute drive for Sylva residents and is a popular destination for hiking, biking and trail riding. The tract once served as the town’s source of drinking water. The town placed it in a conservation easement in 2007 with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in exchange for a $3.5 million grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Pinnacle Park, while a favorite among locals in the know, is home to but a few rough trails. Until recently it lacked trail markers and decent parking, improvements which the town has already tackled over the past year with the help of volunteers with the nonprofit Pinnacle Park Foundation.

The town has been making minor improvements from trail signs to foot bridges in a piecemeal fashion by using interest money accrued from the environmental trust fund grant. The new arrangement will add county resources to the mix and speed up the timetable for a finished trail system.

“Slowly over the years we’ve budgeted money out of the interest to improve the park,” Graham said. “It’s just an amazing opportunity to speed up the timeframe for the park’s improvements.”

Emily Elders, recreation project manager for Jackson County, said Pinnacle Park was identified as a priority in the Jackson County Greenways Project master plan adopted in August.

“Pinnacle is one of those places that’s close in so it’s accessible and it was something we felt was really important so we made it a priority in the master plan,” Elder said.

 

Fixing up trails

The existing trail system, which has developed more or less spontaneously needs significant work, according to Tim Johnson, regional trail representative for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Johnson provided a report on the current state of the trails, which included a to-do list. Elders said a hands-on action plan is exactly what her volunteer base needs.

“He really recommended that we look at adding some of these things because trail-building is its own profession, and we wanted to lend them the resources we have,” Elders said.

Under the agreement, Elders and the county’s recreation facilities manager, Bryan Cagle, will work in consultation with Johnson to GPS map the existing trail system, identify areas in need of repair or cleanup, and make recommendations for new trails and trail closures. Some of the existing trails have as much as 70 percent slope, which isn’t ideal in terms of safety or erosion control.

The board’s vote also included the stipulation that the county include the Pinnacle Park Foundation in its planning efforts. Elders said the Pinnacle Park Foundation board has already signed off on the mapping of the park and will be closely involved moving forward.

For Elders, the cooperative agreement is a way to mobilize a volunteer-base that has had little to do as the Greenway Project works to secure easements for plots along the Tuckaseegee River .

“It’s actually a really good opportunity for us as a greenway group because we have this master plan with all of these long-term projects and the process can start to feel drawn out,” said Elders. “It really helps to have a project under way in an existing space to get our volunteers involved again and keep the public momentum going.”

Elders started as a full-time project coordinator for the county in September 2008, and since then, she has been able to work directly with the municipalities involved in developing the greenway system.

She said the collaboration between the Town of Sylva and the county on Pinnacle Park has been an example for how the greenway project can come to fruition.

“It’s been really excellent. Both boards have been really involved in the planning process,” Elders said. “We’re trying to work with each of the town boards to implement the master plan and get the projects in place.”

According to the plan Elders presented to Sylva’s board, the Jackson County Greenway Project will present a vetted plan to the town for the Pinnacle Park trail system no later than March 1, 2010.

 

How to get there

Make a left on Fisher Creek Road a short distance out of town. The road gets rough and steep, but keep going until it dead-ends at the trail head.

Sylva wants to diversify Pinnacle Park usage

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Sylva Town Board members want to see hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers sharing the trails in Pinnacle Park, 1,100 acres of land located at the northern part of town.

Pinnacle Park's future

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Sylva Town Board members are brainstorming for ways to manage Pinnacle Park, 1,100 acres of land located at the northern part of town that is widely used by locals for hiking and camping.

Hike to Pinnacle Peak

There are two ways to hike to Pinnacle Peak, renowned for its 360-degree views from the Plott Balsams.

Option one: This route climbs steeply up the face of the mountain. Head north out of town on the Old Asheville Highway (the road that parallels Scotts Creek). Make a left on Fisher Creek Road a short distance out of town. The road gets rough and steep, but keep going until it dead-ends at the trail head.

Page 3 of 3
Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.