Walking on private land is alluring, a little naughty—and liable to get you in trouble. With thousands of miles of public trails here, I’ve never felt the need to push the envelope. But a lot of our public lands are bordered by private property, and local land conservancies are scrambling to protect some of those large parcels from development. Sometimes, they even invite you in for a look.
Bat Cave Preserve is one of those places a lot of hikers have heard about but don’t know how to get to. The 186-acre preserve is managed by The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org/northcarolina), and what you need to do is reserve a spot on one of their guided walks during the summer. The reward for this small bit of planning is a short, slow walk (less than 1.5 miles roundtrip) with a Warren Wilson College intern who’ll point out endangered plants and maybe a Yonahlossee salamander, informally called a crevice salamander, hiding in a hole.
Closer to the caves, the air becomes chilly, as if the air conditioning had been turned on. Inside, the temperature is a constant 45 to 50 degrees, and cold, moist air wheezes from openings in the boulders. (When hot air from the atmosphere gets sucked in, cold air gets blown out.) Bat Cave is considered the largest granite-fissure cave in North America, formed by rocks splitting and boulders moving. Most caves are created when water erodes rocks, creating a hole.
The guided hikes stop short of the cave entrance, however. “Bats hibernate in the cave in the winter, but they’re not in the cave in the summer,” Maria Sadowski, communications director for The Nature Conservancy’s North Carolina chapter explains. “Still, the caves are constantly shifting, and it’s not safe to go in.” Because of Bat Cave’s ecological diversity, access to it will always be restricted. And if you want to go, it’s best to sign up early—tickets for these walks sell out weeks in advance.
Margaret Flinsch and her family have owned Bat Cave since the 1920s. The Nature Conservancy got involved after the owner had problems with vandals and trespassers. She wanted the public to have controlled access, so she turned to the group for help.
Even though the Florence Nature Preserve is private, you can hike there without a guide. This 600-acre treasure, owned by the nonprofit Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (www.carolinamountain.org), is tucked away on the slopes of Little Pisgah Mountain, off U.S. 74A. Although there are only a few miles of trails, they’re all well-marked. Several rock outcrops, a rushing stream with small cascades, and a meadow traverse the property.
The preserve shows what a conservancy can do: All the land around it is in private hands and thus subject to development. Tom and Glenna Florence, who donated the property, also created the trails. The Carolina Mountain Club upgraded them and built several bridges. Kieran Roe, the land conservancy’s executive director, emphasizes that the Florence Preserve “is not a public park, because we don’t have that kind of management. We encourage hikers to become members and [to be] sensitive to our goals of preserving our natural resources.”
The conservancy is also a partner in land acquisition for the new Chimney Rock State Park. Thanks to a joint effort with The Nature Conservancy, World’s Edge—a high bluff above Lake Lure in Polk County, on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment—will soon be added to the park. To see World’s Edge, you need to join the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, so you can take part in one of the members-only hikes on the property.
High mountain trails
If Stan Murray of east Tennessee hadn’t founded the nonprofit Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (www.appalachian.org) in 1974, the Appalachian Trail around Roan Mountain would most likely be a ribbon snaking through large gated communities and golf courses by now. “Second-home development just started to sprout up when Murray had the idea of a land conservancy in the 1950s,” notes Cheryl Fowler, the group’s operations director. The conservancy purchased land from individual owners and held it until the U.S. Forest Service was ready to buy it. Murray, who went on to become president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, is now remembered with a plaque and a shelter on the mountain.
The SAHC also protected Cataloochee Ranch from the likelihood of future development. As you walk up the Hemphill Bald Trail at the eastern end of the Smokies, you’ll pass through a gate into a field with a commemorative rock and a bench.
Cataloochee Ranch, which sits on the edge of the Smokies, owns the property, now protected by a conservation easement. The ranch’s heirs will never be able to develop this land. The open access to Cataloochee Ranch, says Fowler, is an exception to the rule. “Most of the time, you can only hike on these private properties by joining and going on a conservancy walk.”
The Catawba, a major river in the Carolinas, provides drinking water for the city of Charlotte and beyond. At its headwaters, however, the creek-sized river still flows wild. The walk to the Lower Falls is moderate, but getting to the Upper Falls is very difficult. There are ropes for the rockiest part; on other sections, you’ll need to pull yourself with your hands.
Catawba Falls was always privately owned; hikers needed the landowners’ permission to get to them. But with absentee landlords holding thousands of acres, people hiked up to the falls without confronting anyone. In the late 1980s, the National Forest Service acquired the falls proper from the Adams family. But because a short access trail to the falls stayed in private hands, they remained out of reach for most people.
When the property was put on the market, the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina (www.foothillsconservancy.org) moved quickly to secure public access to the trail. Conservancies can usually react more swiftly to such opportunities than governments can, and Catawba Falls was no exception. When its loan is paid off, the conservancy intends to turn the property over to the Pisgah National Forest. At present, the conservancy allows daylight access to the falls, but no camping.
“The public has been very eager to enjoy Catawba Falls since we purchased the property quickly using a private loan,” says Tom Kenney of the Foothills Conservancy. “We appreciate McDowell County’s assistance [in managing] limited use while the U.S. Forest Service works to acquire the access property from us in 2009.”
As Will Rogers said, “Buy land: They ain’t making any more of the stuff!” And that’s exactly what these local groups are doing. But their work takes money. If you support the goal of protecting wild lands from development, you might consider helping out.
[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains (Milestone Press, 2007). She can be reached at email@example.com.]