By Emma Castleberry
Old Fort is a town uniquely positioned to provide incredible outdoor experiences to residents and visitors. The town is bordered on three sides by Pisgah National Forest, which makes up about a third of the total land base in McDowell County. It’s unusual for a town’s limits to touch public lands in this way. “While public land is abundant, the existing trail systems around Old Fort were generally disconnected and hard to reach,” says Lisa Jennings, trails and recreation manager for the Grandfather Ranger District, Pisgah National Forest, and a leader in the G5 Trail Collective. “When we began looking at these lands, we realized that there was a huge opportunity to make a more connected and accessible trail system that would benefit the town. But the most important part was the participation of the community of Old Fort. The community truly came out to support the project, not only with ideas and dreams but with resources, time and funding.” This became the G5 Trail Collective, a volunteer-driven community initiative with the goal of maintaining existing area trails and building more recreational trails on public lands in the Grandfather District of Pisgah National Forest.
More specifically, the G5 Trail Collective is a program of Camp Grier, a 700-acre non-profit summer camp that sits between Old Fort and the National Forest. In 2019-2020, the G5 Trail Collective raised $250,000 from the community for the planning, design and permitting for a 42-mile trail project. This past June, the first six miles of those trails were opened to the public. With an additional $500,000 annual fundraising goal, the group hopes to open six miles of new singletrack trail every year for the next five years.
The G5 Trail Collective has had a long and winding evolution. It started when two crucial leaders began to pursue big ideas. Lavita Logan is coordinator for People on the Move Old Fort, a program of West Marion Community Forum, Inc., which seeks to address engagement within communities of color and build interest in the challenges facing the town. Logan met Jason McDougald, executive director of Camp Grier, at an Old Fort Community Forum, and the two partnered together for a project that was about much more than connecting trails—it was about connecting people. People on the Move for Old Fort awarded the G5 Trail Collective its first major trail planning grant to get the trail project off the ground. “What we are aiming for is more diversity on the trails,” says Logan. “The trails are designed for everyone including youth, adaptive athletes and those new to hiking and biking, and so there’s a little something for everyone to come out and enjoy the natural areas.” Partnering with Stephanie Swepson-Twitty of Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation for fundraising support, this vision is moving forward in Old Fort.
“The G5 Trail Collective is responding to a critical need being expressed by the local WNC community and visitors alike: we need more recreational trails on public lands in Western North Carolina,” says McDougald. “Our success is driven by volunteers and our model is showing that with the right capital investments, community partners and public land managers we can build modern sustainable trails and recruit the needed volunteers to maintain them, and it will result in healthier and more economically vibrant rural small towns.”
To learn more, visit G5TrailCollective.org. The group is always looking for donations and hands-on volunteers. Interested individuals are also encouraged to join the Outdoors for All National Summit, October 13–15. For more information, visit OutdoorsForAllOldFort.org.