In the coming year, three the of the most popular mountain biking trails in the Pisgah Ranger District—Avery Creek, Buckwheat Knob and Black Mountain—will receive some much-needed maintenance. Pisgah Area SORBA (Southern Off Road Biking Association) will devote $190,000 to maintaining and rerouting several of the region’s most beloved trails with funds from the Recreational Trails Program (RTP), beginning in March.
In recent years, the Pisgah National Forest has become one of the country’s top destinations for mountain biking. In the forest’s Pisgah Ranger District, which encompasses more than 160,000 acres southwest of Asheville, there are more than 300 miles of trails, many of which have become bucket list rides, drawing athletes from all over the country. The riding is steep, technical and largely unsustainable, with certain trails forming deep ravines from constant use and erosion—a fact that Pisgah Area SORBA, Western North Carolina’s largest bike club, is systematically trying to address.
“Most of Pisgah’s singletrack is actually old logging roads, so it wasn’t designed with sustainability in mind,” said Jeff Keener, the former president of Pisgah Area SORBA and an active board member, adding that usage has gone through the roof. The combination of thousands of bikers and hikers using the same trails, and poor trail design, has made many of the ranger district’s most popular trails an environmental hazard.
“Some bikers say we’re dumbing down Pisgah, or making the trails too easy,” Keener said. “We all like to ride technical trails, too, but a lot of trails in Pisgah just aren’t sustainable in their current state. If you walk up Black Mountain, it’s rutted out to your hip or shoulder. Just 15 years ago, it was only knee-deep. That erosion runs right into the streams, and it has to be stopped.”
The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) was created in 1991, and is an important source of trail-project funding in the United States. In North Carolina, land managers and trail clubs have used RTP grants to build portions of the Yadkin River Greenway, the Fonta Flora State Trail and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, to name a few. In North Carolina, Pisgah Area SORBA has used RTP grants to maintain and improve some of Pisgah Ranger District’s most iconic singletrack. Since 2013, the club has won more than $528,000 in RTP grants, using those funds to address drainage issues on classic Pisgah singletrack like Lower Black Mountain Trail, and reroute other classics like Spencer Gap. This year the club will use RTP funds to maintain Avery Creek and Buckwheat Knob, and reroute Upper and Middle Black Mountain Trail.
Trail maintenance sounds like a win for local bikers, but every time one of Pisgah’s mountain bike trails gets slated for work, a vocal subset of local bikers cry foul. Pisgah is known for steep lines and rocky, rooty tread. Both Avery Creek and Upper and Lower Black Mountain are advanced rides with near-constant drops, tangles of roots and rock gardens to navigate. It’s the kind of riding that has put Pisgah on the map. It’s also the kind of riding that can wreak havoc on local streams and water sources if left unchecked.
Todd Branham agrees. Branham, who grew up riding Pisgah’s singletrack, is now a trail-builder and race director who organizes a handful of high-profile mountain bike events in Pisgah Ranger District. “Yeah, these trails being worked on will piss some people off. But this work is long overdue. Pisgah needs a face-lift. The top of Black is a gorge in places and needs to be fixed,” Branham said.
According to Keener, the next trail slated for maintenance, Avery Creek, is essentially a drainage ditch. Spencer Gap, which was the last bucket-list trail to receive a reroute in 2015, had been in a similar state, dumping mud directly into the town of Hendersonville’s water supply. Pisgah Area SORBA used RTP grant funds to reroute more than two miles of Spencer Gap, much to the dismay of some.
“If we didn’t reroute Spencer, the forest service was going to shut it down,” Keener said. “We would have lost that trail forever. We’re approaching a similar scenario with some of these other trails. If we don’t fix Avery and Black, in a few years, the forest service will have to close them completely.”
After Pisgah Area SORBA addresses Avery, Buckwheat Knob and Black Mountain, they’re planning to turn their attention to another high-profile trail, Butter Gap, in 2020. The plan is to reroute a significant portion of the trail and add mileage, creating a loop and connecting the trail to a wildlife education center. It’s a move that will make the trail, and Pisgah in general, more sustainable for future riders, while likely causing a stir among certain members of the community. But Keener thinks it’s inevitable.
“People don’t want anything in the forest to change, but it has to. Otherwise we’ll lose the trails forever.”