Offering hundreds of miles of trail just outside our doors, the public lands of Transylvania County and its adjacent counties are a crucially valuable resource for us all.

These trails grant access for hikers, horsemen, bikers, fishermen, wildflower hunters and photographers, following rivers, rising through rich forest coves to red spruce groves and the magnificent high-elevation balds on the spine of the Pisgah Ledge that look out to distant mountain ranges in all directions.

With the Pisgah National Forest, Dupont, Gorges and more in our backyard, we are in a key hub of our nation’s environmental and recreational treasures.

But how do these trails come to be? How are they maintained? What goes into a new trail project on the Pisgah? Too often, as we walk these trails, our eyes on the trees, ferns and vistas, we take for granted the extraordinary work and collaboration necessary for these trails to exist as they do. It is helpful to take a closer glimpse into the process of trail management on our public lands, an effort of collaborative maintenance and planning among the forest service, non-profit partners and public user groups, to get a sense of what makes these important avenues of access into the forest possible.

The Pisgah Ranger District trail network is a mix of inherited trails located along old logging roads and rail-beds, single-track routes and newly designed contour and connector trails offering access through heavy forest, traveling along river bottoms and traversing steep slopes.

Many trails that evolved from these older routes were not established with the concepts of sustainable trail design and thus require significant annual maintenance to preserve their integrity and prevent resource damage.

Classic examples are fall-line trails and creekside floodplain trails, both very common in Pisgah.

Fall-line trails run straight down mountain slopes and ridges, the trail itself becoming the only avenue for drainage. Put simply, unchecked water is the death of trails. Adequate drainage is necessary to every trail and fall-line trails allow no possible drainage route other than the trail itself, which leads to gullying and, at-times, especially with heavy use, massive trail degradation.

Trails following creeks and river bottoms face a different but equally challenging maintenance problem. With no significant elevation change or side-slope, existing within a regular floodplain, these trails see puddling, mud holes and periodic inundation as a common occurrence.

These areas, flat and not amenable to drainage, require an elevated, hardened tread to exist outside of bogs and to offer passage. Turnpikes, causeways, bog bridges and other such trail structures offer solutions. Water management is the key, whether in steep terrain or flat, low or high-elevation; trails need to shed water and shed it efficiently while working with the local terrain.

All trails, even those that are well-designed and sustainably constructed, require regular maintenance to ensure adequate drainage, tread retention and a clear trail corridor through brushing and chainsaw work to clear blowdowns. With nearly 400 miles of trail, maintenance operations across the Pisgah require the hard work, collaboration and participation of the forest service as well as a large number of non-profit and volunteer partners.

Volunteer trail maintainers are at the heart of the Pisgah Ranger District’s trail maintenance operations providing the labor, time and skill to clear down trees, brush, out grown-in trails, maintain drainage structures, repair and replace trail bridges, and build new trail structures like staircases and turnpikes when needed. Coordinating directly with a forest service trails and wilderness technician, these volunteers carry out work plans focused on regular maintenance and trail improvements throughout the forest.

They represent the full breadth of forest users and our local community, with trail volunteers on the forest representing hiking clubs (Carolina Mountain Club), equestrian users (Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah), mountain bikers (Pisgah Area SORBA), rock climbers (Carolina Climbers Coalition), local community members and trail enthusiasts (Pisgah Cowboys) and general supporters (The Pisgah Conservancy).

In addition, local non-profits contribute funding and staffing to improve forest service capacity for trail management on the Pisgah Ranger District directly.

The Pisgah Conservancy employs a trail specialist, a full-time position that works side by side with Forest Service employees on the Pisgah Ranger District to improve the trail system, develop projects, as well as coordinate and train volunteers.

Meanwhile another position, the TPC trails and recreation technician, provides a full-time field going resource as the needed boots on the ground for trail maintenance and recreation projects on the Pisgah.

FIND Outdoors has recently raised and provided funds for trail projects related to storm damage from Tropical Storm Fred. Pisgah Area SORBA has received State Recreational Trail Program Grants for trail projects on Black Mountain and Butter Gap trails, while The Pisgah Conservancy has provided funds for and contracted environmental reviews, heavy trail maintenance and new trail construction projects on the Forest.

Maintaining so many miles of trail, so various in their needs spread so far across the forest with remote access being the norm is a massive community effort spearheaded by the Forest Service in collaboration with non-profit partners and volunteer trail maintainers.

But what goes into a new trail project on the Pisgah? What steps are necessary to bring a desired trail idea to fruition, to build a new trail on the Forest?

Next month’s article will delve into the specifics and break down the necessary steps required in developing, planning and implementing larger scale trail projects. Until then, get out and hike, bike or ride your favorite trails and be sure to give some thought to the efforts that make them possible.

Jeff Maitz is the trail specialist with the Pisgah Conservancy working directly with the Pisgah Ranger District to help manage and improve its trail system. Devoted to trails, he spent 15 years on trail crews across the country for the national park service before joining the Pisgah Conservancy in 2020.

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