The Transylvania Times -

By Eric Crews
Staff Writer 

'Missing Link' Would Complete Epic Trail

 

Local hiker Matt Kirk has completed the 350-mile Southern Appalachian Loop Trail.

For around five years, staff at the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy have been working on gaining access to a tract of land in southeastern Transylvania County they've dubbed "The Missing Link."

Bordering DuPont State Recreational Forest, the 2-mile-long swath of undeveloped forest stretches to the South Carolina border, where more than 10,000 acres of protected forests are located.

According to Peter Barr, trails and outreach coordinator with the CMLC, the land has the potential to complete the final public connection to an extensive interstate trail network measuring more than 350 miles known as the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail.

This tract of land is also part of a contiguous corridor of more than 23,000 acres of conserved natural lands-many within CMLC easements-along the southern Blue Ridge Escarpment.

The Southern Appalachian Loop Trail, also known as the SALT, rose to notoriety last year when long-distance hiker Matt Kirk published information about his 2012 hike of the loop to a popular outdoor recreation magazine and website.

Since then, interest in the SALT has grown as Kirk and Barr have worked together to raise awareness of the importance of preserving the last missing link of the trail as it winds through the privately owned property near DuPont State Recreational Forest.

Conservation Work

Barr said in the past five years the CMLC has worked on conserving large tracts of land near DuPont forest for the benefit of current users and future generations.

"The CMLC's biggest focus in Eastern Transylvania and Western Henderson counties is to buffer DuPont State Forest," Barr said.

Over the years, they've worked to add a few hundred acres of land to the forest itself, while also helping to secure conservation easements on more than 3,000 acres that are directly adjacent to DuPont.

"We've worked to buffer the edges of the forest to help keep the views from the forest intact," he said. "As we're buffering the state forest with those lands that are still privately owned but under conservation easements, we started realizing that the protected lands stemming south of DuPont are getting really close to the state line in South Carolina, where there are a long chain of protected lands, including Caesar's Head State Park, Jones Gap State Park and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness."

Barr said he and others at the CMLC realized that if they could link DuPont forest to those protected lands in South Carolina it would give outdoor recreationalists access to more than 100 miles of state forest in South Carolina.

"We realized that we were beginning to create this corridor of conservation south of DuPont that was really close to that 100-mile corridor of protected lands in South Carolina," he said. "That's when we birthed the idea of protecting and preserving land to make the connection from DuPont.

"With DuPont being such a hotbed of outdoor recreation, and then having all of the recreational opportunities in South Carolina, we realized that connecting the two would be a very desirable link among really popular outdoor recreation destinations."

A Hike Is Born

In the summer of 2012, Kirk made his first successful "thru-hike" of the SALT, but it didn't start then.

The idea of Hiking the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail, which incorporates sections of the Foothills, Bartram, Appalachian, Mountains-to-Sea and other regional trails, dates back to 2004 when Kirk began to piece together a linkup of all of the trails.

"All of these trails are in really close proximity to one another," Kirk recalls. "Long story short, my first attempt was to try and do it in 10 days. I developed blisters and got really beat up. I started in Brevard and made it to Fontana Lake before I decided to abort the hike and hitchhike back to Brevard.

"Although it was a failed attempt, the idea stuck with me for the years that followed, and eight years later, in 2012, I decided to give it another attempt."

Kirk, who admits to being a bit of an extreme hiker, said he still wanted to make the 10-day time.

On his second attempt, he was successful.

"It was beautiful," he said. "It was nice to see an eight-year-old dream realized and to be able to complete the loop and to see it in its continuity all the way through.

"It's a beautiful route. It goes through some remarkable landscapes that are so wonderful and are such an asset to Transylvania County."

Kirk is no stranger to long-distance hikes, having completed the Appalachian Trail on three separate occasions, as well as many other notable hikes in the southeastern United States, yet he still believes there is something that makes the SALT especially unique.

"This particular hike stands out as being one of the most memorable that I've ever done," he said. "You go through so many diverse landscapes, from below the Blue Ridge escarpment with a lot of waterfalls and rare species that is basically a temperate rain forest that is something totally unique to this area...to then climb out of that area and climb up to 6,000 feet in elevation...that's something that only this particular part of the Appalachians can boast about."

Furthermore, Kirk said the hike's path follows in the footsteps of John Bartram, an early American botanist, horticulturist and explorer who has been called the "greatest natural botanist in the world."

"He was one of the first Europeans to appreciate and take note of the wonderful diversity of the flora and fauna of this region," Kirk said.

Kirk said one of his favorite things about the 350-mile hike is that because it is a loop it requires no shuttle to complete, unlike most point-to-point hikes.

While Kirk was able to complete the hike in the way he envisioned it by asking permission from the landowner, he hopes that the day will come when others will be able to follow in his footsteps and complete the hike without having to ask permission to access one of the key sections of the trail.

"I hope that sometime soon the hike can be completed and this can be something for this community, as well as people from outside the community to celebrate," he said.

As the trail enters Transylvania County at Richland Balsam, the highest point in the Pisgah Ranger District, Kirk said the scenic beauty is unparalleled.

Hiking from the grassy balds of the balsams, the trail meets up with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail before joining up with the Art Loeb Trail.

Kirk opted to hike into Brevard via the Bracken Mountain Trail, but other options abound, not only near Brevard, but along the entire length of the trail.

"This is the route that I followed, but there are definitely places where the route can be modified as the hiker sees fit," he said. "That's one of the best parts about it."

Kirk also said being able to stop off into Brevard midway through the hike is a real treat.

"It's a nice thing from a hiker's perspective to be able to come right into a town to resupply," he said.

After refueling in downtown Brevard, Kirk made his way along many roads and streets, including U.S. 276 and Becky Mountain Road, and went over Rich Mountain where he linked up with the trail system in DuPont State Recreational Forest.

But at that point the publicly accessible Hiking options stop and hikers looking to traverse the section of forest from DuPont to the South Carolina line have few options – other than U.S. 276. While Kirk had permission to hike through the property, the landowner hasn't granted access to all hikers and the property is currently for sale. Kirk, along with his colleagues at CMLC, hope their ongoing efforts to conserve the property will be successful.

"By purchasing and conserving this land, I believe it would be a win-win situation for everyone," he said. "It would protect the wildlife, the natural her-itage of the region and also enhance the property values of the land in that area. It will also help enhance the economy and health of the people of Transylvania County.

"It has the potential to form a wilderness corridor linking the 10,000-plus acres of DuPont State Forest with the 10,000-plus acres of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area in South Carolina.

"In doing so, it would essentially form a continuous corridor of over 23,000 acres of conserved, natural lands. Not only would it be the last connection for a public foot path that would allow people to legally hike between these two places without having to use roads, it would also provide habitat for animals and plant species for generations to come by preserving the natural heritage of the region."

Along the way, the hike showcases some of the most beautiful areas across the region, from the lush forests near Gorges State Park to the high-elevation balds near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

And although the trail traverses some of the most scenic areas in Western North Carolina, Kirk still believes "The Missing Link" is just as special.

"This two-mile corridor that we are talking about between the southern tip of DuPont State Forest to the state line of South Carolina is the last section that is not publicly accessible because it is on private land," he said.

"The fact that we have these two tremendous and massive natural areas and the fact that they come so close to one another and there hasn't been any development of the land be-tween them, we should really strive to protect that and to make it accessible for people who want to hike on this property," he said.

Next Steps

Kirk and Barr agree that the best option to take in helping to move the process forward is to join the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and help them in its efforts.

Barr said letting local government officials and leaders know how valuable having trail connectivity is in their community is also important.

"Trail connectivity is so important because connecting publicly accessible land creates so many more recreational opportunities and will continue to increase the draw for tourism and outdoor enthusiasts to this region, which will then in turn support local businesses and drive the local economy," he said.

"The more that local governments know how outdoor recreation and land conservancy in our area improves the quality of life for residents, but also fuels the economy from people coming from outside the region."

Take A Hike On ‘The Missing Link’

On Sunday, Jan. 19, Barr and Kirk are helping to host a unique opportunity of “The Missing Link” as the CMLC leads a guided 2.2-mile-long hike of the property.

The moderate hike begins at 2 p.m. and will be finished by 5 p.m.

The two-mile portion of the "missing link" portion of the trail is shown above.

Participants are required to be in good physical condition and capable of completing a two mile hike over uneven, forested terrain. Dogs will not be allowed on this hike. Hikers should wear sturdy walking shoes (no flip-flops), bring several layers of clothing in preparation for cold temperatures, pack plenty of water, as well as a snack/lunch to eat during the hike. Hikers who attend are required to participate in the entire duration of the hike.

This hike is open to the public, as well as CMLC members. Space is limited on the hike. Reserve a spot at…. CMLC’s Online Hike Sign-Up Form. Hike meeting locations and additional details will be sent out to participants via email one to two days prior to the hike. Reservations for a spot on the hike will be taken on a first-come, first-serve basis.

 
 

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