Creating a new hiking trail doesn’t happen every day in Western North Carolina. Wochit
(Photo: Courtesy of Foothills Conservancy)
OLD FORT — The distance between Morganton and Asheville just got a little shorter, and more scenic.
The ambitious Fonta Flora State Trail, which when completed will connect the two cities by foot and bike trail, got closer to its goal with the addition of 90 acres of conserved land between Black Mountain and Old Fort in McDowell County.
Foothills Conservancy, a nonprofit regional land trust based in Morganton, purchased the property from Melanie Goodson for $224,000 and conveyed the property to North Carolina State Parks on April 17, said Foothills executive director Andrew Kota.
The acquisition was a conservation partnership among Foothills Conservancy, Camp Grier, and Dan and Denisa Allison.
“The property came on the market. We wanted 90 acres, Camp Grier wanted a part that runs through their property, and the Allisons were interested in part of the property. We combined our efforts and each purchased a section with the agreement that private buyers would provide public trail easements across their land for use as part of the Fonta Flora State Trail,” Kota said.
The land is near the Heartbreak Ridge and Point Lookout Trail areas of the Pisgah National Forest. Acquisition of the Goodson property by Foothills Conservancy will ensure protection of scenic views along Old Highway 70 and water quality for Mill Creek and Jarrett Creek, both high-quality streams, Kota said.
Funds for the state’s purchase came from the Connect NC bond, approved by voters in 2016 to allow the state to borrow funds for projects associated with state park land acquisition and construction of facilities.
The newly conserved Goodson property in McDowell County is near the Pisgah National Forest and has sweeping views that will become part of the Fonta Flora State Trail.
(Photo: Courtesy of Foothills Conservancy)
“We hope this effort to secure trail property and eventually connect to nearby Pisgah National Forest trails will generate more tourism and economic benefits for Old Fort,” said Tom Kenney, Foothills Conservancy’s land protection director.
The land deal is a huge coup for the fledgling Fonta Flora State Trail, said Smith Raynor, state trails planner.
The trail, which was authorized by the General Assembly in 2015 as part of the N.C. State Parks System, is one of six state trails, which include the 1,100-mile-long Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the French Broad River Paddle Trail, and the newest Hickory Nut Gorge Trail, authorized in 2017.
But unlike state parks, government funding and staffing are not necessarily attached to state trails, Raynor said. The state relies on partners that manage the land through which the trails runs, such as the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and cities and counties, to shepherd the trail, raise money for trail building and provide paid and volunteer labor for trail maintenance.
In the case of the newly acquired Old Fort property, Foothills Conservancy will be the managing partner, seeking grants for trail building, Kota said. The process will take a couple of years before shovels actually hit the ground, he said.
But the excitement at forward progress on the Fonta Flora – named for a Burke County town that was washed away with the damming of three rivers to create Lake James – is palpable.
“The goal is to connect Morganton to Asheville with a loop around Lake James. Between those two cities, it’s not completely public land, so we need to purchase private property or negotiate easements,” Raynor said. “When we add land to state trails we only work with willing land owners. We don’t condemn property.”
The 90-acre Goodson property near Old Fort has been conserved and conveyed to North Carolina State Parks for inclusion in the new Fonta Flora State Trail.
That will mean a trail many years in the making. It also means trail planners aren’t sure how long the trail will ultimately be. The I-40 distance between the two downtowns is about 57 miles, but laying mostly natural surface trail could be up to 100 miles, Raynor said, depending on where the state is able to acquire land.
Tim Johnson, a former state park ranger who now works in Burke County Community Development, was one of the originators of the Fonta Flora Trail idea more than 10 years ago.
“The goal with the trail is to bring visitors into the area,” Johnson said. “The more sections that are completed along the corridor, the more likely folks are to stay longer. They might stay in Morganton and ride bikes to Asheville, spending more nights in hotels and eating at restaurants.”
He also said an easily accessible trail will encourage people to become more active outdoors and live healthier lives.
Burke County continues to be a “rock star” in moving the trail forward, Raynor said, but “as with all of our State Trails, partnerships are the only way to accomplish this."
So far, about 16 miles of Fonta Flora have been built, including 6.5 miles in Lake James State Park. The signature piece, now under construction, is a loop around the 6,800-acre Lake James, with views into the Linville Gorge Wilderness.
Tim Johnson, of the Burke County development office, discusses trail building as he stands on a section of the Fonta Flora trail that runs along the northwest side of Lake James Wednesday Jan. 4, 2017 on privately owned land.
Other bits of trail have been built or designated in Black Mountain, Marion, Morganton and in the Pisgah National Forest. Some sections include already established trails, such as Point Lookout.
“A number of people like to hike long distance trails, whether it’s the Fonta Flora or the MST, but we found that most users of state trails are people in local communities, so it’s most important to create routes that work for people in those communities,” Raynor said, citing the need to bring the trail close to towns.
The new chunk of soon-to-be-trail is a “gorgeous property” of low-elevation, mixed hardwood and pine forest, Kota said, adjoining Camp Grier, which is a conservation easement property that adjoins U.S. Forest Service land above Mill Creek, and has sweeping views across the Pisgah National Forest.
“It is very exciting,” Raynor said of the land addition. “A good regional or state-wide trail can really bring people and business in and revitalize a community.