By Emma Castleberry
Oak Hill Community Park & Forest, a unique new park just 10 minutes from downtown Morganton, will celebrate its grand opening on Saturday, October 14, at 10 a.m. Foothills Conservancy, which owns the land, will present tours of its conservation work on the property, as well as guided hikes and a guided mountain bike tour.
There are 7 miles of trails at Oak Hill, a 652-acre parcel of land just on the edge of Morganton’s city limits. Foothills Conservancy purchased the land in 2020 and has launched a number of projects on the property, envisioning it as “a nature-based park free of charge open to the public for people to connect with nature,” says Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy.
Kota drove by this tract of land for years when dropping his sons off at their elementary and middle schools on either side of the property. “That’s how accessible it is,” he says. He noticed that some of the hilltops were being clear cut and learned that the previous owner, a land speculation company, was dividing the tract into small lots to sell for development. “We effectively stopped that and conserved the last remaining core of that property before it was chopped up and fragmented into residential homesites,” he says.
Since purchasing the property, Foothills Conservancy has launched a number of forest management projects, including stream restoration and reforesting clear-cut areas with more than 3,000 native hardwood trees. Future plans for the park include a backpacking area, a community event center, agricultural spaces for use by local farmers or businesses and a covered pavilion for environmental education programming.
Of the 7 miles of trail, 2 miles are exclusively for hiking, while the remaining are multi-use. The mountain biking trails at Oak Hill will offer a hard-to-find experience for beginner users where they can come out and build skills. “Now that mountain biking has grown and more families and older users are involved, they want an experience where they can still ride and have some thrill but also feel safe and comfortable,” says Shane Prisby, trails program director at Foothills Conservancy.
Nikki Malatin, one of the owners of Foothills Gear Garage in Morganton, says the park serves as a “transition area” between groomed in-town parks and the more rugged natural areas surrounding Morganton. “Many people want to experience the wild beauty of our area, but venturing into the national forest may be intimidating,” she says. “The park will have a natural setting, but still be close to town. Also, Oak Hill will be a family- and school-friendly venue.” Malatin adds that Oak Hill’s position, situated within a 5-minute drive of three schools, provides “the opportunity to safely and efficiently engage students in outdoor education.”
Oak Hill Community Park & Forest was intentionally named, as it is meant to be an inclusive and collaborative community asset. “It really is a showcase for everything we do as an organization: conservation, stewardship, environmental education, recreational access and new programs we’re exploring, as well how we can conserve land and see that land put into multiple uses and benefits for the public at large,” says Prisby. “It’s a way to invite people into the work that we do, and tell a story and make it personal for people.”
Oak Hill Community Park & Forest is located at 820-NC 126, Morganton. Learn more at FoothillsConservancy.org/oakhillpark.