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How North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest is coping with a tenfold increase in visitation

How North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest is coping with a tenfold increase in visitation

How North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest is coping with a tenfold increase in visitation

Ridgeline Flow Trail in 2016. Photo: Greg Heil

Western North Carolina is one of the East Coast’s most celebrated outdoor destinations. Visitors flock from around the country and the world to visit the legendary Great Smoky Mountains, enjoy the thundering waterfalls of Transylvania County, and, of course, hike the rugged singletrack trails that traverse the ancient Appalachian foothills.

Of all the trail systems in Western North Carolina, DuPont State Forest is one of the most popular. This 12,400-acre forest now receives more than 1.2 million visitors a year. To put that in perspective, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, less than two hours away, is the most visited national park in the U.S. Compared to the Great Smoky Mountains, DuPont State Forest receives more than 4 times the number of visitors per acre.

The demands on the trail system here are immense.

A 10-fold increase in visits

When the forest was first opened to the public in the late 1990s, it received around 130,000 visitors a year. In the last 25 years or so, the number of visitors has increased tenfold.

The problem is that the trails in DuPont State Forest were not originally designed or built to any particular standard, and definitely They were not built to handle the traffic they receive today. The forest has worked to condition many trails over the years to handle traffic, but the pressures are still unsustainable.

On Saturdays or Sundays in the summer, “you can’t even find a place to park in any of the parking spots,” said Todd Branham, an avid local mountain biker and owner of Long Cane Trails, which has been contracted to build and improve many of the trails in DuPont State Forest. “It’s not about going out into that big forest and getting lost and not seeing people once you get out of the crowded parking lot. You see people.” everywhere. And they are all users, and we have reached a point where people are getting frustrated.”

A new management plan to deal with increased traffic

To address this tenfold increase in traffic, DuPont State Forest has been working on a comprehensive management plan. This is the first of its kind on the forest and is inspired by successful management plans established throughout the mountain west.

While developing the plan, the forest received a lot of community input during three separate meetings. “We had a ton of people come to those meetings,” said Sara Landry, executive director of Friends of DuPont. “We had one in Brevard, one in Hendersonville and one in Mills River.”

During the meetings, they held focus groups for each of the different user groups. The different groups that use DuPont State Forest are (in order of popularity): hikers and trail runners, mountain bikers, horseback riders, hunters, and anglers. I learned from Landry that while on-foot sports remain the number one use on the forest, the percentage of mountain bikers continues to increase, while the percentage of horseback riders continues to decrease.

According to Landry, the forest also hired an outside contractor to conduct “a very thorough trail assessment.” “So they determined where our hot spots were, they determined which trails were being used and which weren’t, they put all that together and came up with these recommendations.”

Recommendations from the draft management plan presented in April

The draft management plan was presented in April through a presentation at a public information session, and the final document will be released soon. At the time of writing, Singletracks has not yet obtained a copy of the final draft management plan, but Kirsten McDonald, information and education supervisor for DuPont State Forest, does not expect there to be any major changes when the final plan is released.

“When they were looking at trails, they were looking at three things to determine their sustainability,” Landry said. “Is it social? Is it safe? Does it have a positive user experience? Economical? How much is it going to cost to maintain this trail every year? And ecological? What is the impact it has on certain trails? Some of these are really tough decisions, aren’t they?”

To mitigate the risk of negative conflict between users, some forest trails will be off-limits to horses and others will be off-limits to mountain bikers. “Mountain bikers will be able to access Hooker Creek, Ridgeline, Rocky Ridge and Grassy,” Landry said.

Additionally, some trails, such as Ridgeline, will become designated as directional: open only to mountain bikers going down and hikers going up.

We originally reported that planned changes to DuPont State Forest trails were hurting mountain bikers, and if you look strictly at the numbers, that’s the case. However, “more is not better,” Branham said. “Quality is better than quantity. More is not the answer. I mean, there are so many miles around here. It’s ridiculous. That’s not the answer. It’s quality.”

As a professional trail builder, Branham has seen the trend toward quality over quantity across the country. Some land managers are willing to pay three times or more the standard rate to build a technical, interesting, and engaging trail. The same lessons apply to DuPont: With these trail changes, the forest is trying to create high-quality cycling experiences.

The trails that have been designated for mountain bikers (particularly those where horseback riding has been eliminated and now only accessible by bike and walking) are some of the best in the forest. Maintaining these trails allows for the best circular mountain bike rides DuPont has to offer.

Quality over quantity.

The curious case of the Ridgeline flow trail

“Ridgeline is a hot spot,” Landry admitted with a nervous laugh. “Ridgeline will be downhill bikers, uphill hikers, no horses.”

There have been negative conflicts between Ridgeline users in the past, so managing this point of conflict is of utmost importance. The decision on the management plan is a great victory for mountain bikers.

Asked if he ever had any negative interactions at DuPont, Branham said, “I’ve seen the devil in his eyes going up Ridgeline myself. There’s a gentleman who has a smaller horse … he enjoys going up Ridgeline because he has the right to do it. It’s very dangerous, but he has the right to do it.”

But not anymore.

While restricting horse travel on Ridgeline is a big win, it still seems reckless to allow hikers to follow a flowing downhill trail. While some trail signs indicate that the trail is currently multi-use, many mountain bikers (and even DuPont State Forest documents when they put out the last redevelopment to bid) insist that it is a flowing downhill trail.

A point of conflict, indeed.

Branham says the trail is a testament to DuPont’s embrace of mountain bikers. “It’s a little out of place,” Branham said. “They don’t need to have a downhill trail. There’s no other downhill trail like that anywhere (in the forest).”

Although hikers are still allowed to travel on this flow trail, they are allowed to… All the paths in the forestSo at least the rules are being applied uniformly. Just getting the horses out of this iconic descent is a victory.

New trail development on Continental Divide property doesn’t include bikes…yet

A new 717-acre parcel known as the Continental Divide property is slated for development of new horse-only and hiking trails. “On the surface, it’s very conducive to equestrian use and allows them to have a space where they don’t have to worry about riders coming down the hill toward them or behind them,” Landry said.

“The nice thing about this is that with hiking, it will eventually connect us — this is a long-term plan — to other public lands in the area,” Landry said. “The Palmetto Trail is right there. There’s also Jones Gap State Park in South Carolina. If plans move forward, we’ll be able to do a little more hiking for some of our more serious hikers.”

Unfortunately, there are currently no planned bike path developments on the Continental Divide property. However, that could change in the future.

According to Branham, the current management plan is just the first step in a multi-phase management plan. There is still room on the Continental Divide property, so there is a chance some bike trails could be built there in the future. Who knows, maybe even some e-bike trails. We’ll have to wait and see.

“It’s a victory for mountain bikes.”

When Landry and the Friends of DuPont board saw the draft management plan, they said, “Yeah, no notes. We’re good. This is what we wanted.”

“We think it will protect the forest,” Landry said. “It will protect the trails and hopefully reduce some of the conflicts between users. From our perspective, it will certainly meet all of the goals that we had in mind for the master plan.”

Branham agrees. “It’s a win for mountain bikes. It’s a total win, and it’s only going to get better.”