How a North Carolina Community Managed to Build High Quality MTB Trails in a City Park

A lottery winner helped fund the new trails at Rocky Branch Park near Charlotte, North Carolina and the project greatly benefitted from a master planning process.
Rocky Branch Park now has something for everyone in Belmont, North Carolina. Photo: Craig Brickser.

Belmont, North Carolina is a small town just west of Charlotte off I-85. Like other small towns in the region, its economy once revolved around textile mills before the industry declined. Today, it is a bedroom community for people who commute to Charlotte for work, and an access point for outdoor recreation.

Thanks the new Rocky Branch Park trail system, the product of a master plan developed with the help of different community stakeholders, Belmont is connecting its residents to hiking and biking opportunities that also flow into the neighboring town of Cramerton. To find out more about the park and its new trails, Singletracks spoke to Craig Brickser, the principal of Community Trail Design, Ed Sutton with Trail Dynamics, and David Baker and Sarah Kaufmann, members of the Tarheel Trailblazers and residents of Belmont.

A simple request led Brickser to discover the hidden treasures of Rocky Branch Park

When Brickser first saw the park, it had a lot of hand-built and technical singletrack trails. Photo: Craig Brickser.

Brickser, whose company was formerly based in Charlotte, had been living there for a few years when Belmont first appeared on his radar. In the fall of 2018, Jon Wilson, a mountain biker in Belmont, contacted Brickser, telling him the Tarheel Trailblazers had an idea for a new trail in Rocky Branch Park and wanted to get his thoughts on it.

According to Brickser, Rocky Branch Park was easy to overlook and overshadowed by much larger regional trail systems in the Charlotte area. It was a small community park at the end of a street with a tiny parking lot and an inconspicuous trailhead. 

At the time, it had a few miles of short, hand-built singletrack loops that braided through the 40-acre greenspace with some creative obstacles built by long-time local volunteers. Brickser said it was a neat little park, but it lacked much in the way of curb appeal. Most importantly, the park didn’t connect to anything else in the surrounding area.

The park is bisected by a small urban tributary of the Catawba River known as Rocky Branch Creek and has a series of small knobs and upland ridges above the creek bed. The topography of the park is typical of the Piedmont of North Carolina.

Wilson asked Brickser to ride the park with him one afternoon. During the ride, Brickser observed how close in proximity the park is to Cramerton and the Carolina Thread Trail. That set off a light bulb in his head and an idea was born.

After the ride, Brickser felt a new trail would not be a good idea for the park

When Wilson and Brickser sat down for beers at a local taproom after the ride, Wilson told him that another local rider who had won the lottery was willing to donate a sum of money to design and build a new trail in the park. Since the park had a lot of technical trails, Wilson was thinking about building a flow trail to diversify the riding experience.

Based on what he’d seen in Belmont, Brickser felt that the trail they wanted him to build would be a struggle to integrate with the existing trail system that was densely woven throughout the park, and he didn’t think it would provide the locals with a good return on their investment.

The park lacked parking to accommodate more riders, and the layout of the existing trails left little room to build a new trail without impacting several existing loops. Plus, riders would have to navigate a sea of intersections and loops to reach it.

Brickser instead challenged the local community to think bigger

Brickser (center left) challenged local riders to re-imagine the park as a whole. Photo: South Main Cycles.

Brickser asked Wilson if they had thought about putting the money toward creating a master plan for Rocky Branch Park. He knew his suggestion would be a tough sell. “No one had really engaged in that level of public process to make decisions for trail improvements, but several of them were familiar with other local city planning efforts used to achieve various outcomes.”

To Brickser, it was a very ambitious idea. “It was a delayed gratification scenario. They wouldn’t get trails right away, but they would get awesome trails in the future.” Based on his experience, he knew that having a master plan would open doors for fundraising opportunities and make the overall project more attainable.

Brickser saw the potential at the park to approach capital improvements from a return-on-investment standpoint, but it was an experiment that was unproven in the area. So, to sweeten the deal, Brickser agreed to do the master plan for pennies on the dollar because he was genuinely interested in the outcome of the planning process and did not want his fees to become a hurdle.

The local club liked Brickser’s idea and formed a committee to help make it become a reality

A steering committee was created to create a concept plan for the park. Photo: Craig Brickser.

Local riders bought into Brickser’s idea and agreed to let him begin performing an assessment and concept plan for the park while they formed a steering committee. The committee was led by the Tarheel Trailblazers, who had a memorandum of understanding with the city and would be the administrators of any funded trail projects in the park. 

Baker and Kaufmann were part of the committee. Baker, who has an engineering background and had previously worked with the city planning board, was the chair, while Kaufmann, who has an accounting background, assisted with fundraising. Kaufmann said the committee was “a result of a grassroots effort to identify a group of community members who had an interest and passion for doing something with the park.”

According to Baker and Kaufmann, the committee got to work making contacts within the local community and city government, as well as helping create new branding for the park and designing a website for it.

Brickser helped create a master plan for Rocky Branch Park to help the committee sell the idea

Brickser canvassed the entire park during the planning process. Photo: South Main Cycles.

While the committee did its work, Brickser focused on creating the master plan. Brickser canvassed the park with GPS and parcel maps, developing a basemap of existing conditions and a landscape zone analysis to determine which areas had the potential for certain trail experiences.

Due to the confined space of the park, Brickser found that some of the existing trails conflicted with private property lines. Additionally, he saw that the existing trails could benefit from improved sustainability by re-routing them away from floodplains and streams. Brickser also saw there were several safety hazards that needed to be addressed.

Brickser’s initial concept for the park centered around using a linear greenway connection through the park as a simple thoroughfare that connected riders to various hubs and singletrack loops along the way. This multi-use corridor would also connect to the Carolina Thread Trail and fill a major gap in the Carolina Thread Trail’s connectivity to Belmont.

By creating a concept plan that was more inclusive with a spectrum of trail offerings, Brickser believed more investors and stakeholders would be willing to help fund improvements to the park. “Mountain biking on its own can be a tough sell. It is often looked at as an exclusive activity. By providing trails that cater to more than just bikes, we could capture broader support and build an outdoor-focused community while funding amazing mountain biking opportunities.”

The committee used Brickser’s work to get community buy-in

Kaufmann said that the documents Brickser created as part of his plan made it easy for the committee to go talk to others about the plan. “It’s hard to get people to buy into something they don’t know, can’t see, and has never before existed.

Also, Kaufmann mentioned that “there were a lot of people who had poured time and effort and had an emotional connection to the park. Part of the challenge was convincing them to pour more money into the park to optimize it. Brickser’s materials gave us the confidence to go talk to others.”

The committee went to city council meetings, held community meetings, built a social media presence, and asked for feedback through online surveys. They also used the plan Brickser created to help raise money to fund the construction of new trails and other improvements within the park.

With the help of the Tarheel Trailblazers’ advocacy, the community’s master plan and vision for Rocky Branch Park was adopted as part of the city’s parks and recreation master plan at the end of 2019.

With the master plan complete, work soon began on the trails

A new multi-use trail runs through the heart of Rocky Branch Park and connects it to the Carolina Thread Trail. Photo: Craig Brickser.

Shortly after the plan’s adoption, the committee began actively fundraising for the first phase of construction. The committee then selected Nature Trails, LLC to build the first phase of the plan, which was the creation of the multi-use crushed gravel linear greenway corridor, a beginner loop, and an intermediate loop. Work began inside the 40-acre park in early 2021.

During the building process, the town of Cramerton wanted in on the action and formed a partnership with Belmont in the Spring of 2021 to connect Rocky Branch Park to both towns. A 1.25-mile multi-use trail was built between the two towns in the park. Cramerton’s trailhead was positioned a mile from its downtown riverfront.

The new trail system is designed to improve the loop structure of the trails, address private property infringement, and create gateways, hubs and nodes that promote connectivity with the Carolina Thread Trail, Stuart W. Cramer High School, and Main Street Belmont.

The committee chose Brickser to complete the revisions to the park with the creation of an advanced skills area

Brickser and Sutton combined dirt and wood into three amazing lines that comprise the expert level trails at Rocky Branch Park. Photo: Craig Brickser.

After others had built new beginner and intermediate mountain bike trails in the park, the committee hired Brickser to complete the park’s revisions by building an advanced skills area. Brickser’s idea for the build was to combine dirt features with wooden features into three seamless lines. To help make his idea become a reality, he called in Ed Sutton and his Trail Dynamics crew to help with the build.

Sutton said that “Craig set the stage with his flawless dirt work, and we filled in the gaps with a variety of wood features. The craziest thing we built was the Tarantula starting platform. It stands 15 feet above grade and is the biggest single wood structure we’ve ever built.”

Trail Dynamics built the large wooden platform that is the gateway to the advanced skills area at Rocky Branch Park. Photo: Craig Brickser.

According to Sutton, the idea for starting the three trails from the one platform was two-fold. “Trails are getting more advanced, and the risk of injury is getting greater. The single entrance gives everyone a chance to see the risk management signage and know what they’re getting into.” Additionally, since there is not much elevation in that area, the wood platform provides some gravity for riders to get their speed up going into the trails.

Sutton told Singletracks there are three advanced trails, ranging in length from 600-1000 feet, but extremely rich in technical features, that start from the platform. There are also two return trails that bring riders from the end of the three trails back to the platform.

The advanced skills area should be close to opening, if not open, by the time this article is published.

Rocky Branch Park can be a model for trail and park planning in small communities

Thanks to a vision by members of the local community, Rocky Branch Park is now a place where mountain bikers of all skill levels and other user groups can access the outdoors. Photo: Craig Brickser.

For Brickser, Rocky Branch Park was a very rewarding project to work on. “I can’t think of another project in the Charlotte Metro Area that went through a master plan process. It’s the first example of having a master plan vision for a trail system.”

Sutton views the project as an example of what future trail building might look like. “Most people live in populated areas, so it’s becoming important to build quality trails in small spaces.” He observed that many riders at the park rode to it from their homes in the surrounding area.

Additionally, the work done in Rocky Branch Park has opened it up to more user groups than before. Kaufman said that they now have seniors, families, and youths regularly using the park, as well as mountain bikers who weren’t previously visiting the area. Plus, Baker said that the work in the park has become part of a bigger vision for both Gaston County, and the surrounding region.

 

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