Conservation Outdoors Recreation

Outdoors: The Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah

Helping Maintain National Forest Trails for All

Photo courtesy of Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah

By Emma Castleberry

Pisgah National Forest is home to hundreds of miles of trails that provide recreational access for the public to backpack, rock climb, mountain bike, fish, hike, swim, hunt and ride horses. Given Pisgah’s central position with easy access to a number of dense metropolitan areas, this national forest sees millions of visitors every year. Additionally, many parts of Pisgah National Forest are situated in a temperate rainforest, meaning these heavily used trails are also subject to flooding and water-related erosion.

Photo courtesy of Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah

The Pisgah Ranger District receives extremely limited federal funding for trail maintenance, which leaves the majority of this enormous task to devoted volunteer groups like the Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah (BCHP). “The Forest Service gets about five or six thousand a year to maintain these trails,” says Tom Thomas, president of BCHP. “That’s a fact, but it’s pretty much a joke. There are hundreds of volunteers spending hours and hours maintaining them because the Forest Service doesn’t have the finances to do it.”

The BCHP is one of more than 200 chapters of the Back Country Horsemen of America spread across 32 states. These groups are made up of passionate stock users like Thomas, who has been volunteering to maintain trails in this region for more than 25 years. The work of the BCHP is diverse, from building parking lots to clearing downed trees. They work collaboratively with a number of other groups including Pisgah Area SORBA, The Pisgah Conservancy and the Carolina Mountain Club to keep the trails and backcountry areas of Pisgah National Forest safe and accessible for all users.

“It’s a matter of being fair and equitable and leaving our national forests open to everyone that enjoys being there,” says Thomas. “We want to help facilitate that and make the trail safer for all the people that travel there—bikers, hikers and equestrians.”

Photo courtesy of Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah

The group is indispensable in wilderness areas like Shining Rock and Middle Prong, where motorized vehicles like ATVs can’t be used to transport the heavy resources like axes, saws and lumber needed for trail improvement. Thomas owns three horses and a mule named Tilly, all of whom are trained to pack. “You’d love her,” Thomas says of Tilly. “She thinks she’s a lap mule. She’ll come up and put her head on your chest and want you to scratch her ears. But she will also carry anything and everything.”

For example, building a log bridge or catwalk on a trail requires large and long pieces of lumber, usually six by six inches and 10 to 12 feet long. “You can imagine a person trying to carry these, but my mule can carry two of them at a time pretty easily,” says Thomas.

Courtney Carter learned about BCHP while deeply involved in the mountain biking community. “I really started to listen when I heard mountain bikers talk about them and how much they admired everything that they’re doing,” says Carter. Still an avid mountain biker, Carter was looking for a way to work with her horse, and BCHP provided the perfect opportunity. “The Back Country Horsemen give the horses a purpose,” she says. “We’re giving back to the community and using horses in a way they’ve been used for generations.”

Carter went to her first meeting last year and has been working to increase membership in BCHP, especially among younger folks. “With the big flood of people that we have coming into the area, we need volunteers in the woods,” she says. “I think it’d be great to get to a point where people are way out on the trail and see something [like a downed tree] and they’re like, ‘Oh, Back Country Horsemen can do this, I can just reach out to them.’”

Photo courtesy of Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah

Thomas, who is 75 years old, is heartened by the increasing numbers of younger members like Carter who are joining BCHP. “Some people say it’s the younger generation we need to worry about,” he says. “I say, you won’t have to worry about the younger generation. They’re the ones that are going to make the changes that keep us alive and well.”

For all the equestrians of BCHP, their volunteer work is a matter of reciprocity, common courtesy and devotion. “We feel it imperative that we give our fair share back to the national parks and forests in supporting our heritage,” says Thomas. “We love riding our horses and we’re out there doing something constructive that makes it safer for all that travel there. It’s something to be proud of.”

The Back County Horsemen of Pisgah meets on the fourth Tuesday of every month at the Mills River Restaurant in Mills River, 4467 Boylston Highway, Mills River. Dinner is at 5:30 p.m., followed by the meeting at 6 p.m. They also host work weekends the third Saturday of each month and impromptu work days throughout the month. Members are required to provide their own stock animal. Learn more at BCHofNC.org and by following Back Country Horsemen of Pisgah on Facebook and Instagram.

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