Walking the flats

At the end of the busy Wal-Mart parking lot on Swannanoa River Road stands a pair of decorated metal doors. I pass through them and enter a different world: a half-mile greenway that parallels the river, lined with trees, grass and benches. It’s flat, pleasant and paved. Some walk their dogs or strut briskly by, but many others along the trail are sitting, talking or smoking.

Your tax dollars at play: The Nickajack Bridge on the Little Tennessee River Greenway in Franklin. photo by Danny Bernstein

Honestly, for this longtime hiker, it’s a little boring—until I see a mother duck with her six ducklings cross the trail. On the riverbanks, a large goose presides over her family and a cardinal flits through nearby bushes. I wouldn’t see any of that in thick woods.

A greenway is a linear open space along a corridor such as a river, stream or rail-bed, established for conservation, recreation and even transportation purposes. Greenways help preserve important natural landscapes, provide links between fragmented habitats and protect wetlands. They can connect parks and historic sites with business and residential areas.

But with thousands of miles of trails in Western North Carolina, what can greenways offer that hiking trails don’t? Linda Giltz, a land-use planner at Land-of-Sky Regional Council and chair of the Asheville Greenway Commission, explains that greenways are closer to where people live and tend to be more integrated with neighborhoods. Hiking trails, on the other hand, may be narrow, of variable quality and not easily accessible by all people.

Greenways also tend to traverse easy terrain, as many of them follow rivers. Generations of city folks have used sidewalks for their daily walks, but Giltz points out that greenways are perceived as safer from traffic and more attractive than sidewalks. They’re also wider, and of course they’re better for biking.

Recently, I walked the Little Tennessee Greenway in Franklin, in Macon County, an awesome four-mile greenway with many amenities including benches, restrooms and picnic tables. Since I had to retrace my steps to my car, I walked eight flat, easy miles and met a number of friendly people.

Greenways attract many walkers who would not ordinarily go into the woods. An older couple walking their dog said that they probably do 1,000 miles a year on the Little Tennessee Greenway because they walk it every day. The greenway offers open sky, wetlands, historic bridges and yes, noise from a little traffic on the side streets paralleling the path—a change of pace from forest trails. It also provides a respectable place for teenagers to walk or sit away from adult eyes, unlike a park full of young children on swings.

The Little Tennessee River Greenway (www.littletennessee.org) was born when Franklin residents saw the potential in a long stretch of empty land along the river. At the same time, Duke Power, through its local utility, Nantahala Power, needed a right of way for its transmission line through Franklin. The power company contributed the land in perpetuity as a greenway. For the purposes of restoring the riverbanks and building trails, the project received major grants, matched by Zickgraf, the largest employer in Franklin and a big financial supporter of the greenway. According to Kay Coriell, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Greenway (FROG), the greenway is managed by her organization with some county funds as well as profits from the FROG gift shop. The group’s volunteers put up bird boxes, organize walks and educational programs, and continue to advocate for improvement and extension of the greenway.

Fifty miles east of Asheville, Morganton’s Catawba River Greenway stretches almost five miles, passing through the city and connecting several parks. Best of all, it also grazes the back of a strip mall that houses a couple of snack bars and a restaurant. (I bought an ice-cream cone halfway through, perhaps undoing any good I might have done by taking a walk.)

Asheville is home to roughly five miles of disconnected greenways, though the city’s master plan calls for an expansion of its parks, greenways and cultural-arts programs. Last winter, the city held public-input sessions on the plan and the public will have a chance to comment on its final draft. Al Kopf, superintendent of planning and development for Asheville Parks and Recreation, explains that greenways are also true transportation corridors. “They’re like roads and have to be engineered for bikes. Wal-Mart was required to put in a sidewalk but they found it cheaper to put in a greenway. Greenways are more versatile.”

Buncombe County recently approved a Greenways Master Plan, which envisions greenways along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. But building greenways is slow work. You have to get the land, clear it and obtain funds to actually build it. The cost paved greenway is estimated to run between $250,000 to $800,000 per mile, depending on the terrain.

One of Asheville’s existing greenways is the Glenn Creek Greenway. Less than a mile long, it parallels Weaver Boulevard and offers a pleasant walk from the Botanical Gardens at Asheville to Weaver Park. With a little effort and some imagination, you can walk through the gardens, head up to the UNCA campus trails for a little climbing, then come back down along the creek and cross Merrimon Avenue into Weaver Park. The greenway has been snazzed up with pressed leaves in the cement. Wildflowers line the path—not something you’d find on a sidewalk. Long-term plans are to connect this piece with the Reed Creek Greenway along Broadway, which leads toward downtown.

Whenever the weather is just too beautiful for me to stand getting on the treadmill at the “Y,” I go down to Beaver Lake. I’m lucky that I can walk there and do a wide, five-mile circle. I know I’m not exerting myself as much as if I were at the gym or climbing a mountain, but if the walk is longer than five miles, I count it as exercise for the day.

Beaver Lake is not a public greenway; it’s owned partly by the Lake View Park Homeowners Association and partly by the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society. Dog-walkers pay a fee for the privilege, but others use it much like they would a public greenway. It’s a busy place year-round.

Back on the Swannanoa River Greenway, a couple walks hands-in-hand, each holding onto to a dog with the other hand. Then the woman hands her partner the leash, leaves the greenway and heads into Wal-Mart. If the supermarket giant built this greenway in order to attract more customers, it’s obviously working.

[Hike leader and outdoor writer Danny Bernstein is author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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