Big changes on the way at DuPont State Recreational Forest

SOMETHING TO SEE: Triple Falls is one of six waterfalls that draw visitors to DuPont State Recreational Forest. Photo courtesy of DuPont State Recreational Forest

When DuPont State Recreational Forest opened to the public in 1997, organizers had one major concern: attracting visitors to the former DuPont chemical company property in Henderson and Transylvania counties.

Turns out, that wasn’t a problem at all. In 2023, the forest welcomed 1.2 million hikers, mountain bikers, runners, equestrians and others, making it one of the most popular public lands in the Southeast.

“That’s more visitors per acre than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States,” says Kirsten McDonald, the forest’s information and education supervisor. “We have international visitors and people who come here from throughout our country, throughout the state, throughout the region.”

People are drawn to the 10,300-acre forest because it is easily accessible via Interstate 26 and features six waterfalls, along with three lakes and more than 80 miles of trails and roads. But it was not designed to accommodate more than a million people a year, so officials are planning big changes and improvements to keep the site sustainable and safe.

That will mean closing little-used trails, improving existing ones and opening new pathways. It also will make some trails and roads off-limits to mountain bikes or horses — a significant change at a place where the vast majority of trails are now open to all users.

“We inherited all of these trails [from the DuPont chemical company and a private developer], so what we need to do is analyze which trails are sustainable, which ones need to be relocated or need to have a different user group on them so that our visitors can be here safely,” McDonald explains. “We need to balance the needs of the forest as an ecosystem with all of the recreational wants.”

DuPont operated a manufacturing plant on the land from 1958 until the mid-1990s. The company also used its land holdings in the area to provide a private recreation area for employees and clients.

Developing a plan

In 2021, the N.C. General Assembly provided $750,000 to the forest to create a master recreation plan. About $200,000 went to Asheville consulting firm Mattern & Craig, which has spent more than a year helping solicit input from the forest’s users, including mountain bikers and equestrians. Mattern & Craig will provide the state with a final report in June.

The public got a preview in April. Among the recommendations:

  • Hikers, runners and dog walkers would continue to be welcome on all of the forest’s trails and roads.
  • 10 miles of trails — including Shoals Creek, Flatwoods and Farmhouse — would be open to equestrians but not mountain bikers; 5.6 miles would be open to bikes but not horses. That would include the Rocky Ridge, Grassy Creek and Hooker Creek trails. Under current rules, all but 2 miles of DuPont trails are open to all users.
  • Some trails would become directional. For example, the Ridgeline trail would allow bikers to go downhill and hikers uphill.
  • 5.2 miles of trails would be closed based on low usage, poor condition and other factors.
  • Some trails would be added. That includes the “Continental Divide” area, 717 acres acquired in 2021 that would house some horse/hike-only trails.
  • Some existing trails would be refurbished.

“You’re going to have individuals who are upset with one change or another,” says Sara Landry, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of DuPont Forest. “Maybe their favorite trail is closing or whatnot. But I think that the feedback that we’re getting is, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty fair and balanced. And more importantly, it protects the forest.'”

McDonald agrees.

One trail recommended for closure is Sandy Trail. “It’s one of my favorite trails in the forest, but I understand why it needs to be closed,” McDonald says. “Whenever there is high water in Grassy Creek, it floods out the trail, erodes it out. Whenever it rains, we have silt and sand washing into the river. It’s damaging the environment and it’s killing the trout.”

Tyler Donaldson of Mars Hill has mountain biked at DuPont for more than a decade. As a board member of the Pisgah Area SORBA, a mountain biking advocacy group, he attended some of the public input sessions for the master plan and sees the benefits of designating some of the trails for specific uses.

“I think that does cut down user conflict and people being scared, horses being scared, things like that,” he says. “So if that’s what they end up doing in the end, I think that that could be a good thing. Do I want to see anybody lose access to trails? Not at all. But I’m open-minded to the fact that there is conflict, and so I would rather it be a situation where people can recreate the way they want without having to worry about interrupting someone’s good times.”

Timing, funding

So when can DuPont users expect to see the changes?

Some of them, such as shutting down little-used trails like Nook’s Trail, would be relatively easy to implement, McDonald says. Forest officials would simply take down the trail sign and remove the path from maps. But the more ambitious plans will take more time. Building out the “Continental Divide” area, for instance, would involve putting in new trails and parking lots.

“[The proposals] range from things that we can implement today to things that will take a five- to 10-year sort of time frame,” she explains.

Directional and designated-use changes will not take place until 2025 at the earliest.

Funding will be another challenge. The $550,000 of remaining state money from the 2021 legislation will not be nearly enough to make all the proposed changes, McDonald says.

Friends of DuPont Forest will play a key role in raising money, and the group is already looking into what grants might be available to pay for new trails.

“We’ll be talking with our members about fundraising campaigns,” Landry says. “We know we’re going to need to be a strong partner in that and match the state if we’re going to get these projects done. And we’ll be leaning on the [Henderson and Polk county] TDAs,” referring to tourism development authorities.

McDonald says officials will have to prioritize the recommendations, putting safety and protecting the forest first. Ultimately, that could mean some projects getting pushed back because of a lack of funding.

Eventually, though, the changes will dramatically transform the site, which came into existence through the group of volunteers, conservation groups and elected officials who were determined to conserve the DuPont land in the 1990s.

“It’s such an inspiring story how it all came to be, but there wasn’t necessarily a plan,” Landry says. “It was, ‘We’ve got to save this forest.’ And then it was kind of figuring it out as it went along. We can be a lot more strategic about it and address how people actually use the forest.”



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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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One thought on “Big changes on the way at DuPont State Recreational Forest

  1. Nancy Minard

    Where are the trails for motorized recreation? As it has a long history on the property. When trails are properly built and maintained motorized recreation can be a valuable asset. As a long time US Forest Service Volunteer working on motorized trails I know it can be done. A great example of it being done right is the Hatfield McCoy trail system in W. Virginia. I have used public trails my entire life. I gave over 25 years in service to public trails. No as an aging baby boomer I still want to enjoy being out in the forest. With diminished mobility motorized recreation is my only choice. I can’t tell you how important it is to my and many others, well being to be able to still get outdoors and recreate.

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