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Carolina Mountain Club builds trail at North Canton Elementary

Carolina Mountain Club builds trail at North Canton Elementary

The tangle of trees and vines beyond the playground fence at North Canton Elementary School used to be a no-go zone for students, years of accumulated balls a testament to a long-time school rule against jumping the fence.  

“When they lost something, it was gone,” said fifth-grade teacher Nikki Paganelli.

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Nikki Paganelli’s fifth-grade students explore the new trail. Nikki Paganelli photo

Now, the 2 acres beyond the fence offer students a place to find something — insight into science and the natural world. A new 0.27-mile trail loops through the property, an outdoor classroom for students and an after-hours walking path for community members.

Paganelli had the idea that birthed the trail last summer, while participating in a week-long professional development course from the N.C. Forestry Association. The teachers were asked to come up with a goal to bring back to their school when the week ended. Paganelli remembered hearing about a school in Asheville that had built a trail on school grounds, and she thought something like that would be great at North Canton.

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The new trail loops through a previously unused 2-acre corner of the North Canton Elementary campus. Holly Kays photo

“I knew we had a ton of land that just wasn’t used at all,” Paganelli said. “And I was trying to figure out how are we going to get it built, because I don’t know the first thing about building a trail. At first, I didn’t even know if it was possible.”

Parts of the property were pretty steep, and Paganelli wasn’t sure it would be a suitable spot for a trail. Though she’s an avid hiker, she didn’t know much about trail building. However, she had once spent a day volunteering on trail maintenance with the Carolina Mountain Club, and she figured the club might be able to help.

She put out a call, and CMC’s members answered.

CMC’s Waynesville Wednesday Crew took the lead, with crew leader Chris Werbylo and member Priscilla Estes guiding the effort. Paganelli made the connection over the summer, and trail work started in earnest in late November, after the leaves had fallen and the understory had died back.

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CMC volunteers install steps during a winter workday. Priscilla Estes photo

“It was fun,” Estes said. “I’d never plotted a trail before and all you did was really you just — the land kind of spoke to you, told you which way to go. I wished my own land at my own house spoke to me that way.”

The first thing the crew did was to spread out and walk all around the property, flagging any points of interest they found. 

“And then we tried to connect the dots and see if we could make that into a trail,” Werbylo said.

The group showed up every Wednesday to lay out the trail, dig out the path, cut out invasive plants and build steps, guardrails, a bridge and cribbing along the edge of the 3-foot-wide trail. The result is a 0.27-mile path that takes off behind the fence that backs the playground. It hugs the contour of the slope before dipping down to cross an ephemeral stream channel and then climbs back uphill. Hikers can loop back in a lollipop toward the trailhead or shoot off uphill to the other trailhead on the opposite end of the playground.

The project was a successful one for CMC, Werbylo said. For the Waynesville-based Wednesday crew, it was a nearby spot, and the trail-in-progress was just a short walk from the parking lot, making it easy to get materials to and from the site. Moreover, the site was full of downed locust trees, whose wood trail builders favor for its resistance to rot.

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Wednesday Crew leader Chris Werbylo (from left), fifth grade teacher Nikki Paganelli and Wednesday Crew member Priscilla Estes stand on the newly completed trail. Holly Kays photo

“When we first started to talk about the trail, we thought we would have to purchase a bunch of lumber to build the bridge and the steps and whatnot,” Werblyo said. “But everything was right there.”

In fact, while the project is valued at $21,225, the cash price was quite slim. Nearly all that value — about $20,670 — was in the 689 volunteer hours CMC’s Waynesville Wednesday Crew contributed, with some help from the Friday Trail Maintenance Crew as well. The U.S. Forest Service values each volunteer hour at $30. Besides that, the project required about $555 for rebar, screws and soil stabilizer, which was funded from the school budget.

CMC finished the trail on Feb. 7. Now, Paganelli is thinking about how to incorporate it into her lesson plans.

“I teach fifth grade — that’s the first year that they have a science [End of Grade exam], so science is really important,” she said.

Current ideas include taking water samples from the creek bed, hunting for salamanders, tree identification, learning about ecosystems and using a big white oak tree for math activities calculating volume and circumference.

“I love science just because I love the outdoors,” Paganelli said. “So anytime I can get them outside is exciting to me, because I just prefer to be outside. And all the research shows that kids need movement, they need kinesthetic learning, so these are opportunities for us to get that.”

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Locust logs found on the property provided lumber for bridges, steps and cribbing. Priscilla Estes photo

She expects the trail to also be a hit for teachers who work with children with special needs — taking a walk outside can act as a sensory break, helping kids to calm back down and refocus. When school’s not in session, it will be available to the community too. For whoever wants to use it, the new trail will offer a nearby outlet to experience a sliver of the natural beauty that makes Western North Carolina a destination for many.

“A lot of these kids have never been to the [Blue Ridge] Parkway, they’ve never been to the National Park,” Paganelli said. “They haven’t even been through Pisgah, really so to let them know what they’re living around and how lucky they are to be in this place where we live.”

Help finish the trail

The trail is complete, but a community workday to put on the finishing touches will be held starting at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, at North Canton Elementary School.

Parents and community members are wanted to help spread gravel at the trailhead area, alleviating sometimes slippery conditions on these steeper sections of trail.

To volunteer, contact Nikki Paganelli at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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