Natural Connection: Statewide 'Year of the Trail' celebration aims to get more people invested in the outdoors
The General Assembly declared 2023 the “Year of The Trail,” in hopes of getting more people to appreciate the state’s outdoor gems. But will it get beyond a marketing effort to a real investment in building and maintaining routes?
In 1923, Raymond Torrey built the first sections of the Appalachian Trail. That was also the year the Carolina Mountain Club formed, and the year longtime club member Lewis Blodgett was born many miles away in Long Island, New York. This year, all three turn 100.
Blodgett, who served in World War II, was 32 when his peacetime career as a National Weather Service meteorologist brought him to Asheville in 1955. That’s when he met Jane, a woman who “was interested in hiking, being outside, just like I was.” They married a year later, built a brick rancher in southeastern Asheville, and raised four children.
Lew Blodgett moves a fallen branch during a trail work day in March 2008. Blodgett family photo
The ever-changing spider web of trails covering Western North Carolina became a map of their life together, channeled first through Boy Scouts adventures when the kids were young, then later with Asheville-based CMC, whose 1,200 members organize hiking excursions and maintain area trails. The club’s purview includes maintaining 94 miles of the Appalachian Trail’s route along the North Carolina-Tennessee state line and 130 miles of the east-west Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
The CMC has built or helped build many of the state’s most beloved routes: the 31-mile Art Loeb Trail , which crosses through the Shining Rock Wilderness to connect Bethel and Brevard, the now-iconic Max Patch portion of the Appalachian Trail and the 720 off-road miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, including the 300 continuous miles from Clingmans Dome to Stone Mountain State Park.
Blodgett and his wife joined the club in 1972 as their oldest was starting college and dedicated the next decades of their lives to help build trails across the region. In the late ‘70s, they adopted their own section of the MST and would travel to the Rattlesnake Lodge section several times a year to repair tread and clear overgrowth. They later added the Appalachian Trail between Sams Gap and Street Gap to their family of adopted trails.
Jane passed away in 2008, but Blodgett continued working with the trail maintenance crew and embarking on hours-long backcountry hikes.
“It was recreation, and probably healthy recreation,” Blodgett said. “We just enjoyed being out like that.”
Blodgett is a man of few words and not prone to sentimental reflection, but his fellow club members are eager to fill the gap. A 2013 newsletter celebrating his 90th birthday described him as a “quiet, sturdy hiker” and “a devoted family man” who was “well known for his meticulous lopping and pruning of any and all rhododendrons and laurels that intruded within 2 feet of any trail.”
“I know where Lew has worked on a trail,” wrote Ann Hendrickson. “The work is meticulous and perfect. Maybe in another 30 years I will get there too.”
Until earlier this year, Blodgett was still going out for low-intensity maintenance sessions around Asheville with fellow club member Roy Davis, 81. They’d spend about an hour at a time, smoothing tread and lopping weeds near area trailheads.
“The trails that are that close are usually already in fairly good shape,” Blodgett said, “but you can always make a trail a little better.”
Hikers ascend Pilot Rock Trail in the Pisgah National Forest. Great State Trails Coalition photo
Any dedicated CMC member will tell you there are two kinds of people: those who want to hike trails, and those who want to maintain them. The maintainers are often retired left-brain types — engineers, scientists and the like. They enjoy the concrete sense of accomplishment trail work affords, and the problem-solving challenges it presents. When it rains, which way will the runoff drain? Where should the water breaks go? Should the steps be built of stone or wood?
“If you have an addictive personality, you can get drawn into maintenance,” said Davis, who is a retired engineer. “At the end of a day, you can normally see the results of your work. That’s pleasant.”
North Carolina is using the 100th anniversary of these outdoor milestones to make a pitch not just for more trails, but for more people like Blodgett. As the state’s population grows, so does the need for new trails, new maintainers — and more resources to get the work done.
Palmer McIntyre, a conservation planner for Greensboro-based Piedmont Land Conservancy , planted the seed that grew into the Year of the Trail in 2017, when she led the launch of a regional initiative to raise awareness about trails and build connections between them.
But the group quickly found that resources for such projects were lacking — inspiring creation of the Great State Trails Coalition in 2020. This group of 79 organizations, agencies and supporters is asking the state to step up its investment in trails across North Carolina.
Trail building in North Carolina has long been a shoestring operation, a tradition that solidified in 1977 after Howard Lee, then secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, made a surprise proposal to build what became the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at a national symposium held in Lake Junaluska. Lee had not cleared the proposal with his boss, Gov. Jim Hunt, who was not happy about being blindsided. Hunt told Lee that no state money would be coming to fund his big idea.
It was volunteers like Blodgett, Davis and thousands of others across the state who made it happen. In 2022, Friends of the MST — the nonprofit behind the trail’s development — recorded more than 44,000 volunteer hours, valued at $1.3 million. Friends of the MST has only six full time employees, but its volunteer force is equivalent to 28 additional staff members.
Many of these volunteers are retirees who choose to spend their golden years plodding through the woods, tools in hand.
“If it were easy,” Davis said, “it would not be nearly as interesting.”
But the average age of these crews is “somewhat of a concern” for the club, he said.
“A trail can be lost in not very many years if it’s not maintained,” Davis said. “The growth of vegetation along the trail, fallen trees and the erosion of trails — any trail takes constant maintenance.”
Bernstein stressed that CMC is not “an old people’s club” — especially on weekends, plenty of young people come out to hike and maintain trails. They just tend to be “episodic” volunteers, she said, who participate as their schedule suits, rather than showing up each week for a full day of work.
Still, building more trails will require recruiting more people to maintain them.
“We want to continue to expand networks of volunteer participation in trail construction and maintenance, but also provide vital funding where it’s needed,” McIntyre said.
This desire to see more people using and maintaining trails — and more resources to make it happen — spurred the Great State Trails Coalition to press for the Year of the Trail designation. McIntyre now directs that campaign.
A hiker takes in Falls Creek Falls from the Mayo River Trail in Rockingham County’s Mayo River State Park. Great State Trails Coalition photo
The group found a willing partner in Rep. Hugh Blackwell, who represents Burke County. Blackwell became a trails enthusiast ”sort of by chance” after he began walking the greenway trail in Morganton for exercise. Then he developed a bothersome aching in his legs, which his wife, an occupational therapist, attributed to walking on asphalt. Now he uses the unpaved surface trails at the new Valdese Lakeside Park in his hometown.
“I haven’t had a problem with my legs since,” Blackwell said, “And I have become much more knowledgeable of what we’ve got here and became convinced that it’s something that other people ought to have in their backyards.”
The Year of the Trail legislation secured easy passage during the 2021 session; there was only one vote against it. While it didn’t include funding, it expressed the legislature’s intention for 2023 to encourage residents to “take advantage of their local and regional trail networks, do their part to further enhance North Carolina’s trail networks, and pay tribute to everyone who has labored to maintain and enlarge these public amenities.”
Three months after the Year of the Trail designation, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a budget that included unprecedented funding for trails and conservation. Two key programs collectively received nearly $200 million over two years, more than doubling their budgets.
The budget also created a new fund with $29.5 million to complete North Carolina’s 12 official state trails — the legislature’s first direct appropriation toward that effort. This included $5 million for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, by far the longest of the 12. Friends of the MST is still in the early stages of deciding how to spend that money but plans to prioritize projects that will get hikers off roadsides and onto dirt trails.
The Great State Trails Coalition hopes to see such investments continue well beyond 2021.
Ask any trail enthusiast what’s so great about trails, and they’ll offer a tumble of reasons: physical health, mental and spiritual rejuvenation, conservation, a social outlet.
D. Reid Wilson is one such trail enthusiast. He’s also the state Secretary of Natural and Cultural Resources and has hiked at least 100 miles on state parks and trails each year since joining the office in 2017. By the end of April, he’d already logged 33 miles, plus 13 more by bike.
“I just love being out there,” he said. “It’s good for the soul, good for the heart, good for the muscles. Puts a smile on the face.”
The pandemic pushed more folks to discover those benefits. N.C. State Parks logged record visitation in 2020 and again in 2021. The count fell a bit in 2022, but at 19.4 million still came in higher than any pre-pandemic year.
For Wilson, that’s “clear evidence” that people love trails and need more of them.
Brent Laurenz, executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, can also attest to the restorative power of time outside. He lives in Raleigh, a city of nearly half a million people, but in 10 minutes he can be at a trailhead, feeling far away from the traffic and stress of the city. He goes often, either alone or with his two kids.
“You really just feel isolated from all that and feel like you’re out in nature, and you’re enjoying it,” he said. “It’s really peaceful and lovely, and it’s a nice way both to get a break and to get out and enjoy the outdoors.”
For others, trails can form the bedrock of an entire social life. That’s true for many members of hiking clubs like CMC, which offers multiple hikes and trail maintenance opportunities each week.
“For me personally, it’s always been my social life. And for many people it is,” said Danny Bernstein, a longtime member of CMC who wrote a new book on its history. “You find a group within a group, or a group of people who then become friends and hike together, go on vacation together.”
“Being a member of a team is important to most of us,” Davis agreed. “To be a member of a crew that gets out and does work, it’s certainly very important to me.”
For Bernstein, the social circle she’s cultivated is valuable, but the most important function of trails is ensuring that public land remains in the public’s hands.
Prior to the late 1970s, CMC’s hikes often explored privately owned forests. Now many places where members like Blodgett once walked are covered by parking lots and condos. Trails show people the value of publicly held spaces.
“If nobody used the trails,” Bernstein said, “people would start saying, ‘Why are we keeping this land open? It should be brought back to private.’”
In Canton, the momentum is toward conservation. Last year, the town cut the ribbon on Chestnut Mountain Nature Park , 450 acres set aside for a mountain biking skills course, up to 18 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, overnight shelters, picnic areas, a greenway trail and space for events.
The land was once used as a rock quarry and intended for development as an indoor ski resort or motor speedway, but the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy bought it in 2020 and donated it to Canton, a total cost of $3.5 million.
“We are making a statement what our priority is,” Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers told the crowd at the grand opening April 22, 2022. “We are embracing outdoor recreation and tourism and the idea that our natural resources should be preserved and can be used.”
After acquiring the land, the town and its partners received $910,000 in grants for trail building, creek restoration and other recreation amenities. Asheville-based YouTube star Seth Alvo raised another $250,000 for the mountain bike park, and the town has invested more than $200,000 to build two trails, purchase an adjoining property and perform maintenance. The trails and overlooks are still under construction and expected to open in June, while other amenities won’t be done until this winter. The town is still looking for grants to fund two additional mountain biking trails and one hiking-only trail.
“We’re building a legacy park,” Town Manager Nick Scheuer said at the 2022 event. “It’s going to be here forever and can be enjoyed by future generations.”
Canton’s leaders envisioned outdoor recreation as a complementary economy to its main industry — making paper. The paper mill at the heart of downtown has been central to Canton’s identity, and Haywood County’s economy, since 1908. But owner Pactiv Evergreen announced in March it was closing the mill for good , sending shock waves through the community.
The town’s outdoor assets like Chestnut Mountain and the Pigeon River could be instrumental to its recovery — granting a prophetic quality to Smathers’ words at the grand opening: “Our past, our present and our future are where we find the audacity and strength to climb that mountain, to seek out those trails, to do better and to know that better days are ahead. This park, Chestnut Mountain Park, is a living tribute and a reminder of how tough we are, and how those days are just within our reach — if we continue with the hike.”
Canton is not alone in its focus on outdoor recreation to improve not only quality of life, but also the local economy. Trails can draw tourists, increasing local spending and spurring creation of breweries, hotels, restaurants and gear shops.
The outdoor recreation economy accounted for 1.9% of gross domestic product in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economy Analysis, or about $454 billion. In North Carolina, it made up 1.8% of GDP and employed more than 130,000 people.
“Especially in rural areas, trails are drivers of economic activity,” McIntyre said. “They’re why people come to places, and why they stay in places and eat in places.”
She pointed to Elkin, a town of 4,000 people 45 miles east of Winston-Salem, as an example. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail and Yadkin River State Paddle Trail all converge there. Seeing an opportunity, the volunteer Elkin Valley Trails Association began working to improve existing trails in the area and build miles of new ones.
The town started hosting bicycle and foot races to showcase the area, and now a new 114-unit boutique hotel , Three Trails, is a testament to Elkin’s new outdoor destination identity.
Now, as hiking weather arrives across North Carolina, McIntyre and her colleagues hope the Year of the Trail will get more people using the trails — and advocating for their future.
A robust calendar of events offering opportunities from Murphy to Manteo invites people not only to hike but also to learn how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, and a multi-pronged marketing plan seeks to entice novice hikers. The Great State Trails Coalition has raised more than $1 million — of which about half is state funding — to support these efforts and others. Much of that budget goes toward video development. Subjects include trails’ impact on communities and how to enjoy trails safely and responsibly. A partnership with PBS North Carolina will create and broadcast digital stories exploring 20 trails around the state.
Scheduled hikes show off top-billed treasures like Grandfather Mountain and the Appalachian Trail, but also highlight lesser-known areas such as Cane Creek Mountains National Area in Alamance County, Lake Waccamaw State Park on the coast and under-the-radar sections of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail through the western region.
“There’s a lot of little local trails that are super wonderful and special, and they’re probably close to you and don’t require as far of a trip, and it’s still a wonderful trail experience,” McIntyre said.
This points to the ultimate goal for Year of the Trail — ensuring that more people have more access to local trails.
“I think everybody should live in a place that is within 10 minutes of outdoor recreation and connection to nature,” Wilson said, “but in lots of communities and a good number of marginalized communities, they don’t have a local park or a trail because the community can’t afford that.”
As the legislative session began, the Great State Trails Coalition announced an ambitious legislative platform for 2023: a $50.5 million ask for a competitive grant pool for community trails.
Proposed state budgets indicate that’s not likely to happen this year but show strong bipartisan support for trail building. Proposals from Gov. Roy Cooper and the House of Representatives would create a new fund to fuel trail projects across the state and supply it with $25 million — and continue funding two key trails and conservation programs at significantly higher levels than they’d received prior to the Year of the Trail declaration. The Senate budget also includes the new fund and elevated funding for the programs, but significantly less money than the other two proposals.
McIntyre’s thrilled — now that the trails program has been established, the door is open to ask for more money in the future.
“We’re looking at other states doing this, and they don’t have this kind of funding,” she said.
The Coalition wants local governments to put skin in the game, too. A study from N.C. State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education found that every dollar invested in trails returns $1.72 annually in local business revenue, sales tax, and health and transportation benefits. If all levels of government start recognizing the impact of trails and the return on investment they offer, McIntyre said, everyone will be better off for it.
Lew Blodgett rests in a meadow above Street Gap on the Appalachian Trail while working on his adopted trail section in October 2008. Blodgett family photo
As Blodgett neared his 100th birthday, he began to heed family members’ concerns about his safety on the uneven surfaces of the trails he has long helped maintain. He took a tumble a few months ago, and though he wasn’t injured, it was a wakeup call. At the end of January, he decided to stop doing trail work.
“I’ve noticed that I guess when you get to be 99, things aren’t quite as easy as they used to be,” he said prior to celebrating his 100th birthday last week.
Blodgett is instead sticking to level paths in area parks and keeps his cane close by for balance. He plans to keep attending the Carolina Mountain Club’s off-trail events.
As he sits on the red-upholstered, carved-wood couch in the house that’s been home for nearly 70 years, Blodgett looks wistful as he thinks about the trails he can no longer hike. But he’s glad to hear other people are out there, carrying his love of the outdoors into the future.
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Celebrate National Trails Day
Every year on the first Saturday in June, tens of thousands of hikers, bikers, paddlers, horseback riders, trail clubs, government agencies, land trusts and businesses come together for National Trails Day, a day of public events aimed at advocacy and trail service. This year, there are multiple opportunities to celebrate locally on June 3.
• Join the Partners of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness for a National Trails Day Celebration, starting 10 a.m. at the Memorial Loop near Robbinsville. Several hikes will be offered as well as special activities and maybe some giveaways too. Learn more at joycekilmerslickrock.org.
• Take a 5.5-mile hike climbing 1,700 feet to the iconic Looking Glass Rock in the Pisgah National Forest during a hike departing from the Hart Theatre in Waynesville at 9 a.m. Organized by Haywood County Recreation and Parks and led by guides Lisa and Vickey, the hike costs $10 with registration at haywoodcountync.gov/recreation .
National Trails Day events are planned nationwide. To find others, visit americanhiking.org/national-trails-day/find-an-event.