Outdoors: Build it, walk it, bike it

About 10 years ago, I took a walk in Richmond Hill Park, back when trails were few and visitors fewer still. Leaving my car at the end of a local road, I set out down an unmarked trail threading between the pines. An old man, tall and in his 80s, was my guide. I’ve been an athlete most of my life, but I struggled to match his long strides.

A city park for everyone: Pisgah Area SORBA, a local mountain-biking group, is working with the city on extending the trail system at Richmond Hill Park. Photo by Ben Blitch

I’ve forgotten his name, but his mission, I recall, was nothing less than saving the city-owned parcel from such proposals as mowing down its mature hardwood forest to build a golf course. In 1998, the parcel comprised more than 180 hilly acres bordering the French Broad River’s western shore. Although the site was mostly unknown to city residents, the golf-course proposal hit a sand trap: citizen resistance.

“It’s a beautiful place, with mature hardwood forests, natural wetlands, and clear tributary streams emptying into the French Broad River,” Brownie Newman wrote in a 1998 commentary in Xpress (too far back for our online archive, alas). “With a little work on the property’s trails, this land could be an incredible asset to the city,” argued Newman, who was then executive coordinator of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group.

Fast-forward to 2003, when the Asheville City Council approved selling about 12 acres to the N.C. National Guard to build a new armory and turning an adjacent portion into ball fields. An on-site disc-golf course built by volunteers had to be relocated to the rear of the property. Fast-forward once more, and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources called a halt to construction because of “inadequate control of runoff for the grading site” (see “What Went Wrong,” Sept. 14, 2006 Xpress). Since then, there’s been continuing debate about the property’s future and rumors of explosions on the hill; in 2007, a rare salamander was discovered in the park’s wetlands.

The new armory facility has yet to be completed, and the ball fields were nixed by a Sept. 12, 2006, City Council vote that put an end to further grading on the site. But the Southern zigzag salamander (Plethodon ventralis) is hopefully still inhabiting its wetland home. And the dream of a park with hiking and biking trails may yet come to pass.

On Saturday, Feb. 7, a group of volunteers will meet at the park and start work on reclaiming a loop of old roads. They’ll be led by members of the Pisgah Area chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, in partnership with the Asheville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department.

“Have you ever wanted to build a new trail system? Wished for a good place to introduce your kids to the woods? Wished there was someplace you could safely [go] mountain biking or just get outside?” the Pisgah Area SORBA flier reads.

I have.

Coordinator Mike Brown says the bike group has been contemplating a Richmond Hill trail project for several years. The group has worked closely with the city and disc-golfers to make sure the project protects the environment while maintaining (and encouraging) a multiuse approach to the park, he emphasizes. “We may be mountain bikers, but we want this to be a park for everybody—bikers, hikers, bird watchers, families. Everyone’s welcome,” Brown declares.

Richmond Hill lies right near the heart of Asheville, with access just beyond the historic inn of the same name. The park “is priceless and should be recognized for what it is: Asheville’s premier urban forest!” UNCA environmental studies/biology graduate James Wood exclaimed in his June 20, 2007, Xpress commentary, “An Exceptional Treasure.”

I remember walking among the trees and trying not to slip as I hurried after the old man who was calling for the same thing a decade ago. He’d probably never heard of the zigzag salamander or never ridden a mountain bike. But I’ll bet he would approve.

Starting Feb. 7, workdays will be held every other Saturday through April. Wear sturdy clothes and bring your own food and water for the 10 a.m.-to-1 p.m. trail-building adventure. Participants will need to sign a city liability waiver. Future efforts will focus on creating a second, more family-friendly loop, as well as a new trail that will challenge the most skilled and ambitious athletes. For more information, contact Mike Brown at 450-0405. For directions to the park, visit the Web site, www.pisgahareasorba.org.

Send your outdoors news and ideas to Margaret Williams at mvwilliams@mountainx.com, or leave a message at 251-1333, ext. 152.

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About Margaret Williams
Managing Editor Margaret Williams has been at Xpress since 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987.

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