Brevard’s Bracken Mountain Recreation Area, which features a trail leading from behind Brevard Music Center into Pisgah National Forest, makes Brevard the only city in the southeastern United States to offer multiple trail access into a national forest. Opened in 2012, Bracken Mountain boasts 7.1 miles of prime hiking and mountain biking trails, all built with the help of more than 75 volunteers. Like the trails themselves, the story behind their creation has been a long and winding one.
In 2000, the city of Brevard was experiencing a serious budget crunch.
“My first budget season looked gloomy and terrible,” remembers Jimmy Harris, who, in addition to owning the local hardware store, has served as Brevard’s mayor for 16 years.
One night, after another sobering council meeting, a member of city council came up to Harris and said, “I know how to fix our budget problem.” The council member proceeded to tell Harris of a prime city-owned property that was ripe for development and that few people knew about. The council member even had a willing buyer, a local developer. The property, just under 400 acres, included Bracken Mountain to the north of the city, and adjoined Pisgah National Forest.
Until that moment, Harris hadn’t been aware of the property. He decided it was time to take a walk. He enlisted city council member Mac Morrow as his guide. Morrow was familiar with the terrain and also knew some of Bracken Mountain’s history. He knew that black walnut trees had been harvested from the mountain during World War I to make aircraft propellers, and that Transylvania County’s first free slaves had once owned some of the property.
Morrow and Harris climbed Bracken Mountain. Reaching the summit, they stopped and looked around. They saw the same thing that had sparked the developer’s imagination. A pristine forest dense with hardwoods and hemlocks, rhododendron and mountain laurel, prime habitat for wild turkey, deer and bear. And jaw-dropping views. Looking out to the east, the ancient rock monolith Looking Glass Rock,…… erupted from the forest floor. To the south, the cupola of the Transylvania County courthouse gleamed in the sun. Indeed, a prime site for an upscale housing development and a solution to all the city’s budget problems.
“Just before we were turning around to go home, snow began to fall,” remembers Morrow of that January day. “It was magical.” With the snow dusting their jackets like a benediction, the men came down the mountain with their minds made up.
Over the next four years, Harris and Morrow preached the gospel of Bracken Mountain – not as a piece of property to be sold to the highest bidder, but as a place to be preserved for the enjoyment of the community in perpetuity. Harris’ motivation for putting preservation above development was simple.
“I don’t want to be Mayor forever,” said Harris. “But I want to live here forever.” He realized on that day at the top of Bracken Mountain that any development of the property would scar Brevard’s view shed. And that even though it was owned by the city, the land belonged to the community. From that moment, saving Bracken Mountain became a community crusade.
“We wanted to protect the property from development,” said Dee Dee Perkins, a former city council member and local business owner who embraced the cause. “But we also wanted to figure out what its highest and best use could be.” Like any true community collaboration, no one seems to remember who first came up with the idea to “build a bridge into the national forest,” as Morrow describes the trail.
“The ideas sort of evolved,” he said. “We thought a trail would tie the natural with the cultural.” With the help of then City Manager Rick Howell, conservation attorney John McCloud and several others, the city was able to preserve the property with a conservation easement through the North Carolina Clean Water Trust Fund.
Only one obstacle remained. The property was landlocked. A fifty-foot right-of-way would have to be secured from an adjoining landowner to make the trail contiguous from Brevard to Pisgah National Forest. Unfortunately, the owner lived in New York City and wasn’t inclined to grant the right-of-way. But Harris’ persistence won him a chance to plead his case in person. Harris got the first flight out to New York, only to be told upon arrival that the owner had changed her mind. She wouldn’t meet him. But some feverish pacing in front of the owner’s building, several frantic phone calls, and Harris’ resourceful cultivation of a family intermediary resulted, one week later, in a signed agreement. The final piece was in place.
The Bracken Mountain Trail is what is known in the trade as a “hybrid” project, bringing together the talents of a professional trail building company with a volunteer work force. Long Cane Trails, one of only 100 trail building companies in the nation, was chosen by the city of Brevard as their professional partner.
“The whole idea was to get the community involved in the ownership of the trail,” says Todd Branham, founder of Long Cane Trails. “When they see what it takes to build something like this, they become passionate protectors of and advocates for the trail.”
On December 2, 2011, a groundbreaking ceremony was held near the proposed trailhead behind the Brevard Music Center. The first volunteer day was held on January 14, 2012, and more than 40 individuals showed up to help. It was not easy work.
Volunteers, under guidance from Long Cane Trails, first “taped the line,” marking the trail path with orange tape. Corridor clearing crews used chain saws to do the major clearing on either side of the taped line. Swamping crews followed and cleared out the cut brush and timber. Long Cane Trails then came in with their mini-bulldozers and skid steers to sculpt the trail, trim back slopes and design the angles. Finally, volunteer finishing crews used hand tools to trim roots and add finishing touches. Daniel Cobb, Planning and Assistant Zoning Administrator for the city of Brevard, spearheaded the volunteer effort. Over 1,300 hours were donated by volunteers to bring the project to completion.
LAY OF THE LAND
Since the beginning, the Bracken Mountain Trail has been envisioned as a gateway from one world to the next: a dirt ribbon from the small town culture and charm of Brevard to the epic wildness of Pisgah National Forest. Yet, a tour of the trail sparks an epiphany: Bracken is a destination unto itself. The trail is like an artist’s signature, as it squiggles between stands of hardwoods and pine, ascends hills, swoops into fern-blanketed glades, and dots its way across waterfalls. In the coming months, residents of Brevard and visitors will be reminded that while most trails take you from point A to point B, only a special few have the ability to transport you. SideBar
BRACKEN MOUNTAIN – BY THE NUMBERS
•7.1: Total length of trail, in miles
•1,200: total elevation gain across the trail, summiting at the pinnacle of Bracken Mountain before dropping into the Fish Hatchery in Pisgah National Forest.
•1: Rank of Brevard, upon Bracken Mt. Trail completion, of cities in the southeast with multiple trail access into a national forest.
•100: Total number of professional trail building outfits in the country. Long Cane Trails, one of these companies, used sustainable building and design principles to lay out and sculpt the Bracken Mountain Trail.
•1,300+: Total number of volunteer hours donated by 75 individuals to complete the trail.
•420: Total miles of trails in Pisgah National Forest that the Bracken Mt. Trails makes accessible to visitors, including 280 miles of peerless singletrack mountain biking and multi-use trails.