By Sean Connor
Six miles down, 36 to go.
That’s the current status of the Old Fort Trails Project, a collection of hiking, biking and horse trails planned outside the McDowell County town in the Pisgah National Forest. The first phase of the project, aptly named the Old Fort Gateway Trails, opened to the public in June.
The work has been powered by the G5 Trail Collective, so named for the five counties of the national forest’s Grandfather Ranger District. The nonprofit collaboration of local outdoor recreation businesses, community groups and the U.S. Forest Service eventually aims to complete 42 miles of trails that will stretch from Deep Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Curtis Creek Road in Old Fort.
The collective’s overall goal, according to Lisa Jennings, recreation and trails manager for the Grandfather Ranger District, is to “maintain the existing area trails and build more recreational trails on our public lands.” It’s also about promoting the idea that getting outside, moving and taking advantage of Western North Carolina’s trails will lead to healthier, happier communities.
On the right path
Lavita Logan, project coordinator for People on the Move Old Fort, played an integral role in making the first phase of the trail system a reality. She says the project was a great fit for her community collaborative’s mission of bringing back a sense of pride in the community, making public spaces a priority again and creating more opportunities for Black leadership in Old Fort and surrounding areas.
Logan explains that she and POTMOF advocated for the G5 Trail Collective to begin its project by constructing “beginner-friendly” trails close to Old Fort itself. The Gateway trailhead is less than a 10-minute drive from the heart of town, and all seven paths accessible from the parking area are rated as easy or intermediate.
“I’m getting really good feedback from the community about the new trails,” says Logan. “Even first-time hikers are having a great time,” she continues, with many saying they’ll get out on the trails again soon.
That accessibility matters to Thomas Spear. The Leicester resident, who has used a wheelchair since he was 18, is an avid fisherman and handcycler. He says he’s long taken advantage of accessible fishing spots in the Curtis Creek area, and he’s now able to mix it up by biking the adjacent trails when he feels like having a workout.
Spear gave back to the project in November by volunteering for a trail work weekend held at Camp Grier, an Old Fort summer camp that’s a major backer of the G5 collective. He and other volunteers helped to clear fallen leaves, fix drainage issues and maintain the overall complexity of the new trail system’s terrain.
“Camp Grier is really the main hub for all the events,” says Spear. “There’s always such a diverse group of people who just love the outdoors, and it’s cool to meet all those folks and be a part of that.”
Regular workdays will be scheduled for the system moving forward, including one on the Hickory Branch Trail on Saturday, Dec. 10. More information is available at G5TrailCollective.org/volunteer.
The second phase of construction will take place on the yet-to-be-named “A” section of the trail system, located west and northwest of the existing routes. That work is currently in the funding stage, and groundbreaking dates are yet to be determined, according to Jason McDougald, Camp Grier’s executive director. “We may not start construction until the summer of 2023,” he says, “but [the “A” section] trails are the ones that are shovel-ready now.”
McDougald and Jennings estimate that the entire project will be completed around 2027. The G5 collective’s phased development, however, means that new sections will be opened to the public as they are finished.
That progress depends on ongoing support for the project. The collective initially raised $250,000 from the community in 2019 and 2020 to get the trail network off the ground; those funds have been spent on project planning, design and permitting. The Dogwood Health Trust was the major funder of the Old Fort Gateway Trails, contributing another $490,000 toward the paths and a parking lot off Curtis Creek Road.
According to McDougald, the collective “needs $500,000 a year for the next six years to complete the remaining 36 miles of trails,” with a goal of adding six new miles per year. He encourages supporters to donate through the project’s webpage at G5TrailCollective.org or by contacting him directly at Jason@CampGrier.org.
Jennings describes the completed trail network as a “stacked-loop system” with multiple trailheads. She says that approach will give users many paths from each entry point, as well as convenient ways to access more parts of the project by car.
For an extreme adventure seeker, McDougald adds, it would be technically possible to hike the entirety of the planned system without driving from one part to another. But, he says, such a person would have “to be a total boss and like to climb.”