Fanning the flames: Cherokee plans Fire Mountain Trails expansion
Cherokee’s Fire Mountain family of outdoor experiences is set to add a new member after the tribe announced its intention to build a pump track and bike skills park, along with 8-10 miles of trail.
“It’s going to be the first project we’ve done that’s going to be forward-facing out into the public,” said Jeremy Hyatt, secretary of operations for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “We want to make it really spectacular as people drive out of the park and make it a place for them to stop. But more importantly we want to lower the entry point.”
Hyatt envisions the park welcoming kids, families and novice adults to enjoy the park and strengthen their bike skills.
- Fire Mountain Trails attract up to 2,000 people per month during the height of the season. Donated photo
‘New to the entire region’
The bike skills park and pump track will be located on a flat piece of ground that’s currently an underused parking lot between Native Brews and the Qualla Boundary’s border with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. 441. It will feature a competition-level asphalt pump track as well as a bike skills park, which will also use asphalt or chip seal.
“This is going to be something that Western North Carolina does not have,” Hyatt said. “This is going to be new to the entire region.”
Unlike the new bike skills park at Chestnut Mountain Nature Park in Canton, the planned park in Cherokee will not feature downhill jumplines or require an uphill hike to access. In contrast to the existing Fire Mountain Trails, it will sit right off the highway and offer a succession of graduating features, starting with small, benign obstacles that children can navigate without fear — along with more difficult obstacles for intermediate riders.
“It's not a dirt trail system up in the middle of the woods. This is a municipal park type of atmosphere with lots of stuff going on,” Hyatt said.
Hyatt’s also planning to build 8-10 miles of new trail on a nearby piece of property above the tribe’s water treatment plant, which sits behind New Kituwah Academy. The land is too steep to build housing without paying exorbitant development prices, and because it protects the tribe’s water source such development wouldn’t be wise anyway, Hyatt said.
Of the new miles, Hyatt said he hopes to see 5 or 6 offer a multi-use, easy to intermediate experience.
“Then we would like to do maybe 4 more miles of bike-optimized gravity trails,” he said. “Turn the heat up a little bit, so to speak. Make part of it accessible to everyone but yet part of it accessible to those who want something more advanced than the offering we already have.”
Even more advanced, he said, than what’s currently available at Fire Mountain.
The International Mountain Biking Association is planning and building the project, which is still in the initial design phase. Hyatt has some basic concepts in hand, but everything is subject to change as the design process proceeds and IMBA groundtruths the feasibility of its initial ideas for trail placement.
As of now, construction is slated to start in early 2023 with completion in late 2023 or early 2024, and cost estimated at $2.1 million. However, factors such as inflation, cost escalation and supply chain issues could move those benchmarks.
- A mountain biker crosses an obstacle similar to the beginner-level features under discussion for the planned bike skills park. Donated photo
While the original trail system, disc golf course, pump track/skills park and trail expansion will all bear the Fire Mountain name, none of the segments are connected via trails or greenways. They’re all within about a mile of each other as the crow flies, but private property issues prevent direct connections. Though Hyatt would like to see more connectivity in the long term, he’s also focused on improving the tribe’s road, sidewalk and bike lane infrastructure so bikers of all ages can safely use the existing roadways to travel between trails.
“I would like to work toward getting better access to these areas so that kids don’t really have to get in a car and have anybody take them,” he said. “Maybe they can take their bicycle from town.”
While the project will be a “forward-facing” endeavor likely to boost Cherokee’s profile as an ecotourism destination, economic development is a secondary — though important — goal for Hyatt. Improving health and quality of life for tribal citizens is his primary aim.
“These are projects that are not just projects that are economically driven,” he said. “They’re driven for quality-of-life purposes for our tribal citizens and the future of our tribal citizens. Every day you’re seeing new people on a bicycle or grabbing a disc and going to the disc golf course.”
In the summer, close to 2,000 people per month visit Fire Mountain Trails, which opened in 2017, and the trail system hosts a bevy of races and competitions each year. Hyatt does not yet have any visitation estimates for the Fire Mountain Disc Golf Sanctuary, officially open since May, but said he’s working toward hosting the first tournament there in October. The course has a 4.5/5 rating on the disc golfing site Udisc.
“From the river overlook, to the natural stone staircases, to the massive tee pads, to the picturesque greens, you’re lulled into thinking there is a god and maybe he or she lives here,” reads a five-star review posted in July. “Three hours later you’re 10 over par and you don’t care.”
- A biker zooms down a feature at Fire Mountain Trails. File photo
A growing network
The Fire Mountain expansion is not the only major trail project underway in Cherokee. In 2019, Sylva and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians purchased a collective 912 ridgetop acres in the Plott Balsams, and last year the two governments finalized an agreement to enter a joint master planning process to develop the property as a trail system for hikers and mountain bikers. Once the plan is complete, the EBCI will fund and execute development of its 471-acre portion, while Sylva will take care of its 441.5-acres. The trails will be the highest east of the Mississippi open to mountain bikers.
EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle said the parties are now working to finalize the contract with Asheville-based Equinox Environmental, which will complete the plan based on the initial concept completed by the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycling Association.
Sylva Commissioner Ben Guiney said he’s excited about what the new system will add to the diverse set of new and incoming outdoor recreation options in the region. With Tsali Recreation Area, Fire Mountain Trails, the mountain bike trails at Western Carolina University, the upcoming Fire Mountain Expansion and the Plott Balsam project, mountain bikers will have enough options to keep them busy in Swain and Jackson Counties for a while. Add in the area’s multitude of hiking and paddling options, and it becomes an even more attractive spot for an outdoor adventure vacation.
“The network is getting bigger,” Guiney said.
The town and the tribe want to keep the planning process to $40,000 worth of work, aiming for a three-to-four-month process that will wrap up by the end of the year. That will allow the governments to start applying for grant funding in 2023.
These projects are important for tourism, local enjoyment and environmental preservation, Owle said.
“That connects us to our outdoors and helps us preserve the landscape as more and more folks come in and develop mountainsides,” Owle said. “It’s going to happen, and developing in this manner, for mountain bikes, general hiking, a disc golf course, any partnership with the tribe, it’s for the betterment of the community and ultimately helps us to protect our nature while also getting to enjoy it.”