Though it has been a statewide campaign, the initial steps of celebrating Year of the Trail in NC during 2023 started in Burke County. In March 2021, Beth Heile asked Rep Blackwell if he would sponsor legislation designating 2023 as NC Year of the Trail. Seems simple, but it was still a risk as initially some called it a fluff bill and wondered why waste time.
That argument was easily overcome, as the Great Trails State Coalition, the organization leading the effort for Year of the Trail, shared the plans for the year. The goal was to inspire people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds to try trails. And, for existing trail users to find new trails and try a different trail type. In addition, the plan was to boost outdoor recreation tourism across the state through Year of the Trail events in all 100 counties. And, finally, promote safe and responsible use of trails, with the Outdoor NC Principles since we learned during the pandemic that some trails were over loved.
Today, trails are the backbone of our state’s growing $14.6 billion outdoor recreation economy. Sustainably built, trails no longer end up washed out and overgrown. A trail easement agreement is written so that it lasts forever. Trails are for a lifetime and to build on this one year trail celebration, the next step is to brand NC as the Great Trails State.
With the success across the state, you would be hard pressed not to know it is the Year of the Trail in North Carolina. There have been over 1,700 events in 91 of the 100 counties, 28,000 followers on #GreatTrailsNC social media, 172,000 visits to a website dedicated to events, stories, and a toolkit, 17,000 newsletter subscribers, a PBS NC original documentary “Ten to Try: Trails,” and 3 statewide radio ads (one with Richard Petty).
Burke County has many trail stories to tell that have been highlighted in statewide reaches. The largest was the National Weather Channel interview about Year of the Trail with Beth Heile showing “Valdese, NC” prominently on viewers’ televisions during the segment. With education being a key component of Year of the Trail, the attainable story that Heile has been able to tell is the economic impact that trails can bring to rural NC through her work with Valdese Lakeside Park and the Burke River Trail. Heile has been on four podcasts and presented at two state conferences sharing the story that it is not too late to start a trail in your area and that the economic development opportunities are real.
In 2020, Rep. Blackwell envisioned a trail along the Catawba River that would bring economic development opportunities to small towns along the route as the trail moved through the quaint downtowns. Work on the 20-mile Burke River Trail has already uncovered chances for new housing and businesses. The first two miles are on the ground as the Valdese Greenway, the western terminus will be an extension of the Morganton Greenway and the eastern terminus will connect to the Wilderness Gateway State Trail at Henry River Mill Village. The Burke River Trail Association (BRTA) is the nonprofit coordinating the efforts of completing the trail. It will be a combination of natural surface, crushed cinder, sidewalk and paved trail as it wanders along the riverbanks and to town parks and attractions. BRTA will work with landowners to obtain trail easements (which allow the public to walk on private land) and assist in grant funding to develop the trail.
With accounts of a frequently full parking lot, there had not been a formal count of how many people visited Valdese Lakeside Park, where they came from and what spending they did before or after the park. A visitation and economic impact report was completed for Valdese Lakeside Park in May, 2023. The 330 acre park that has been open as a forest since 2018 and amenities being added starting in 2021 records an average attendance of 375 each day and an annual impact of $1.24M to Valdese. The report backed up the belief that trails have a positive economic impact on communities.
Burke County Trail Focus
With approximately 260 miles of trail on the ground in Burke County and more to come, there is plenty to showcase and celebrate with Year of the Trail. A key element in trail development and construction is partnerships. Regular meetings between nonprofit organizations plus state and local governments keep the lines of communication open to share ideas and expertise, coordinate connections and co-locations and be a support network. In the county, we have a national forest, two state parks, four state trails, one national historic trail, one regional trail, two large acre parks and local government trails. (Pictured is the June meeting of the county’s trail partners.)
First Day Outdoors kicked off NC Year of the Trail. NC State Parks has always held First Day Hikes. However, the beauty of trails is that they are more than just hiking, walking, strolling and running – but also mountain biking, horseback riding and paddling. A part of the GTSC message was to remind people of all the types of trails in NC. January 1 events were held at South Mountains State Park with a TRACK Trails adventure for families, at Lake James State Park highlighting Fonta Flora State Trail and at Valdese Lakeside Park with a three mile hike.
The next big event was Discover Burke Trails Weekend, an effort led by Discover Burke County tourism office and joined by trail partners across the county and NC State Parks. The anchor event was Saturday, March 11 held at CoMMA in Morganton with 750 people in attendance to access food trucks, outdoor equipment vendors, trail organizations and an afternoon of speakers including Jennifer Farr Davis talking about completing the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Earl Hunter, Jr sharing his goal with his company Black Folks Camp, Too, and Randy Johnson who created the original trails at Grandfather Mountain. NC State Parks sent an airstream camper with information on their PATH program – Parks and Trails for Health – an initiative designed to encourage physical activity in North Carolina’s parks, greenways, and other outdoor spaces. Bookended around that event were hikes, paddles and rides at trails in the county. A unique adaptive recreation event was held by Valdese Parks and Recreation Department to showcase wheel chairs and kayaks created for those with mobility issues.
There were 77 registered Burke County events on the greattrailsnc.com list of trail activities across the state in 2023 with more than 2,500 attendees. Some highlights included Friends of the Valdese Rec’s 365 Mile Challenge (150 people registered to walk one mile a day on trails in Valdese for the year and 61 have finished as of this writing), wildflower hikes, paddle trips, bike rides and volunteer workdays, plus ribbon cuttings for new trails.
Several Trail Ribbon Cuttings were held during 2023
- Valdese Greenway Upgrade to all crushed cinder
- Lakeside Loop at Valdese Lakeside Park
- Upper Catawba River Paddle Trail Launch in Valdese
- Oak Hill Park Hiking and Mountain Biking Trails
- Story Book Trail at Valdese Lakeside Park
State Trails in Burke County
- Fonta Flora State Trail – 100 Miles Morganton to Asheville – Approximately 24 of the 33 completed FFST miles along the three-county route are in Burke County. Hikers and bikers can access 20 miles of Fonta Flora State Trail between Lake James State Park and Harris Whisnant Road and 4 miles along the Morganton Greenway.
- Mountains-to-Sea Trail – as the name states with a few miles in Burke access from Wolf Pit, Linville Gorge and Table Rock.
- Overmountain Victory State Trail – 225 miles of the planned route of the National Historic Trail that passes through North Carolina. The trail follows the paths that the patriot militia took as they mustered to fight the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. Completed miles in Burke County are the Morganton Greenway and a section of trail in Lake James State Park.
- Wilderness Gateway State Trail (WGST) – Several hundred miles from Catawba County to South Mountains State Park to Chimney Rock State Park with a loop through Valdese where the Valdese Greenway will soon be designated as WGST.
As GTSC members were speaking to state legislators about the benefits of trails – health (physical, mental and social), recreation, transportation, conservation and economic development, they also explained the lack of trail funding. Being educated on trail locations (and lack of in some areas), shovel ready projects and economic opportunities helped legislators see the impact trail funding could have across the state. In the 2021 long session, as Year of the Trail was passed into legislation, $29.5 Million in funding was announced for state trails. Funding for Burke County came with $50,000 capacity funds for each State Trail nonprofit. For our area that is Friends of Fonta Flora State Trail (F3ST) for Fonta Flora State Trail, OVNCST-Friends for Overmountain Victory State Trail (the NC segment of the National Historic Trail), Foothills Conservancy of NC for Wilderness Gateway State Trail and Friends of Mountains to Sea Trail for the Mountains to Sea State Trail. Each nonprofit also received access to funds to get trail on the ground. The final piece is a competitive grant process that all Burke County municipalities are eligible for called connecting communities to make a connection to a state trail. The details will be released in the coming months.
During the success of Year of the Trail, legislators learned they needed to fill in the gaps for trail funding to include more than just state trails. In the 2023 long session, the NC General Assembly approved a new $25M Great Trails State Fund that will be open to local government and nonprofits.
Next Up – Great Trail State
Already thinking of 2024, the GTSC held Great Trails State Day on October 21 as a way to encourage North Carolinians to get out on trails. The Burke County event to celebrate the day was Friends of the Valdese Rec’s 1000 Mile Challenge. The goal was for park visitors to collectively log 1000 miles at Valdese Lakeside Park hiking, biking and paddling from dawn until dusk. Activities to entice visitors took place during the day with coffee and doughnuts, hotdogs for lunch and pizza for dinner. Guided hikes and adoptable dogs to walk were also on the schedule. The day ended with 1526 miles and was one of the biggest events across the state! As GTSC moves into branding NC as the Great Trails State, the objective is to have the NC General Assembly pass legislation declaring the third Saturday in October as Great Trails State Day annually. Legislators have been instrumental in the steps needed in North Carolina becoming know for its trails. (Sen Warren Daniel and wife Lydia on Great Trails State Day with Heile in Valdese)
Find Your Next Trail
There is a trail for each of us and the Year of the Trail campaign inspired people of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds to try trails. In addition, it encouraged trail users to try new trails or a different type of trail. Find your next trail in Burke County –
Looking for a park with trails and other amenities?
Valdese Lakeside Park – 8 miles trail, parking, restrooms, overlook, kayak launch/fishing pier, dog park, story book trail
Oakhill Community Park and Forest – 2.5 miles hiking, 5 miles of beginner, multi-use mountain bike trails, parking, porta-johns
Western Piedmont Community College – Trails network on campus
Looking for a Paddle Trail?
Upper Catawba River Paddle Trail
Looking for Fonta Flora State Trail access in Burke County?
Fonta Flora County Park – 126 NC-126, Morganton, NC 28655
Wolf Pit Parking – Wolf Pit Rd / NC-126
Linville River Trailhead – 5575 NC 126 Nebo, NC 28761
Looking for Overmountain Victory State Trail access in Burke County?
Morganton Greenway is OVST
2 miles in Lake James State Park
Looking for Mountain Bike Built Trails?
Lake James State Park – 2.8 miles beginner and 10.4 moderate
South Mountains State Park – 5.5 miles moderate, 8.9 miles strenuous
Oakhill Community Park – 5 miles beginner
Looking for a Hiking Group?
Foothills Outdoor and Recreational Group – search on Meetup
Latinos Aventureros en las Carolinas – private facebook group
Every Wednesday and Saturday at Valdese Lakeside Park – FVR facebook
Burke Trails – Explore, Volunteer, Share Facebook – Learn More about Burke Trails on our Facebook Group
Looking for must-sees?
1) Cove Creek Bridge FFST – 200 foot span
2) McGalliard Creek Suspension Bridge – on Valdese Greenway – 160 foot span
3) White Creek Covered Bridge FFST
Great Views without a steep hike
1) Meditation Point or Fishing Pier at VLP for long views down lake to Table Rock
2) Linville Board Ramp – FFST – for longviews of Lake James
Views with a bit of a hike
1) Table Rock
1) High Shoals Falls SMSP
2) Linville Falls
3) McGallilard Falls
1) Story Book Trail at VLP
2) Holly Discover Trail at LJSP
3) Duck Hunting Season at VLP – find and rehide rubber ducks