By Emma Castleberry
Trail design and alignment has started on the first section of the Wilderness Gateway State Trail (WGST), a long-distance backcountry trail that will likely end up being more than 100 miles long, crossing Catawba, Burke, McDowell and Rutherford counties. The WGST is proposed as an east/west route through wilderness areas of the South Mountains that will connect local, urban areas such as Hickory and Morganton with regional natural spaces like Valdese Lakeside Park and South Mountain State Park. It will also intersect with regional and state trails like the Fonta Flora State Trail, the Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail, the City of Morganton Greenway, the Peavine Rail Trail and the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. “The vision for the WGST entails three primary purposes: conservation, recreation and tourism,” says Andrew Kota, executive director of Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. “It is an excellent opportunity to boost the outdoor recreation economy in a rural yet highly accessible part of North Carolina through outdoor recreation in a landscape-scale wilderness setting that is, for the most part, currently undiscovered by the public.”
The North Carolina Division of Parks & Recreation Trails Program recently granted $243,700 to Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina to contribute to building the first of 10 segments that will make up the trail. “It is useful to conceptualize a long-distance trail in sections or segments for planning and prioritization purposes,” says Kota, “because of the various circumstances present on the landscape that the trail is proposed to cross, as well as to determine the needs in the various sections to enable trail establishment, to break up the work into phases and to identify willing trail sponsors for each section.”
These grant funds, specifically, will be used to construct a 6.8-mile section of Segment 3, which will be 30 miles in its entirety. Located in the Box Creek Wilderness, most of this segment will be within McDowell County with a small portion in Rutherford. The funds for this section of trail will also support construction of a pedestrian bridge, a parking area and kiosk and wayfinding markers. Trail design for this and other segments is already underway with the help of Benchmark Trails, and this section of trail could be completed in 2022. “Our design approach entering this exciting project was first to gain a detailed analysis of the significant features that the property has to offer,” says Deno Contos with Benchmark Trails. “These include stunning mature hardwood forests, clean water, creeks and cascades, and rich flora and fauna. Once initial analysis is complete, we design the new trail alignment to seek out these features and highlight them through thoughtful layout to maximize the user’s experience, while also protecting these areas by using sustainable trail design and layout practices.”
“The WSGT is a big vision, but it’s highly feasible because of the partnerships that are in place and that can be developed to make it a reality,” says Kota. “This project has so many opportunities for direct connections to local businesses, towns and other regional trails. The trail can help transform this region.”
For more information, visit FoothillsConservancy.org.