How North Carolina’s DuPont State Recreational Forest is coping with a 10x increase in visitation

DuPont State Forest outside Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina has seen a 10x increase in trail traffic since it opened to recreation 25 years ago.
Ridgeline flow trail in 2016. Photo: Greg Heil

Western North Carolina reigns as one of the most renowned outdoor destinations on the East Coast. Visitors flock from across the country and around the world to visit the fabled Great Smoky Mountains, enjoy the thundering waterfalls of Transylvania County, and, of course, ride the rugged singletrack trails lacing the ancient Appalachian Mountains.

Of all the trail systems in Western North Carolina, DuPont State Recreational Forest is one of the most popular. This 12,400-acre forest now receives over 1.2 million visitors per year. To put that in perspective, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, less than two hours away, is the most visited national park in the USA. Compared to the Great Smoky Mountains, DuPont State Recreational Forest receives over 4x the number of visitors per acre.

The demands on the trail system here are immense.

A 10x increase in visitation

When the forest first opened for public recreation in the late 90s, it received about 130,000 visitors per year. It has experienced a shocking ten-fold increase in visitation over the last 25 years or so.

The problem is, the trails in DuPont were not originally designed or built to any particular standards, and they definitely weren’t built to handle the floods of traffic that they receive today. The forest has worked to retrofit many trails over the years to handle the traffic, but the pressures are still unsustainable.

On a Saturday or Sunday in the summer, “you can’t even find a place to park in any of the parking places,” said Todd Branham, avid local mountain biker and owner of Long Cane Trails, which has been contracted to build and improve many of the trails in DuPont. “It’s not about going out in that big forest and getting lost and like not seeing people once you get out of the busy parking lot. You see people everywhere. And it’s all users, and it’s gotten to the point where people are getting frustrated.”

A new master recreation plan to cope with the increase in traffic

To cope with this 10x increase in traffic, DuPont State Recreational Forest has been working on a comprehensive master recreation plan. This is the first of its kind in the forest, and they’ve taken cues from successful master recreation plans established all across the mountain west.

While developing the plan, the contractor the forest hired received extensive community input during four different meetings, including two in Transylvania County and two in Henderson County.

The different groups that use DuPont are (in order of popularity): hikers and trail runners, mountain bikers, equestrians, and hunters and fishermen. I learned from Landry that while foot sports remain the #1 use in the forest, the percentage of mountain bikers continues to rise, while the percentage of horseback riders continues to decline.

The forest also hired an outside contractor to conduct “a really in depth trail assessment,” according to Landry. “So they figured out where our hotspots were, figured out what trails are being used, what trails aren’t being used, brought that all together and made these recommendations.”

Recommendations from the draft master recreation plan teased in April

The draft master recreation plan was teased in April through a presentation at a public information session, and the final document is set to be released soon. At the time of this writing, Singletracks has not yet obtained a copy of the finalized draft master recreation plan, but Kirsten McDonald, Information and Education Supervisor for DuPont State Recreational Forest, does not expect there to be any major changes when the final plan is released.

“As they were looking at the trails, they were looking at three things to find sustainability,” said Landry. “Is it socially, is it safe? Does it have a positive experience for the user? Economic — how much is it going to cost to maintain this trail every year? And ecological — what is the impact it makes on certain trails? So some of them are really hard calls, right?”

In order to mitigate the risk of a negative user conflict, some trails in the forest are going to become off-limits to horses, and some are going to become off-limits to mountain bikers. “Mountain bikers get Hooker Creek, Ridgeline, Rocky Ridge, and [Grassy Creek Trail],” said Landry. Mountain bikers are going to lose access to Shoal Creek, Flatwoods, and High Falls Loop.

Additionally, some trails, such as Ridgeline, will become designated directional — it will only be open to mountain bikers going downhill and hikers going uphill.

We originally reported that mountain bikers were being shortchanged by the planned trail changes in DuPont State Forest, and if you look strictly at the numbers, that is indeed the case. However, “more is not better,” said Branham. “Quality over quantity. More is not the answer. I mean, there’s so many miles around here. It’s ridiculous. Like, that’s not the answer. It’s quality.”

The trails that the master recreation plan proposes for mountain biking and hiking traffic (removing horse traffic) are some of the best in the forest. Keeping these trails maintains some of the best mountain bike loop rides that DuPont has to offer.

Quality over quantity.

The curious case of the Ridgeline flow trail

“Ridgeline is just a flashpoint,” Landry admitted with a nervous laugh. “Ridgeline is going to be bikers downhill, hikers uphill, no horses.”

There have been negative user conflicts on Ridgeline in the past, so managing this flashpoint is of paramount importance. The ruling in the master recreation plan is a big win for mountain bikers.

When asked if he’d ever had any negative interactions in DuPont, Branham said, “I myself have seen the demon in his eyes coming up Ridgeline. There’s a gentleman that has a smaller little horse […] he enjoys going up Ridgeline because he has a right to. It’s dangerous as hell, but he has a right.”

While restricting horses from Ridgeline will be a big win, it still seems imprudent to allow hikers on a downhill flow trail. Flashpoint, indeed.

Branham points out that this flow trail is evidence of how accepting DuPont is of mountain bikers. “It’s kind of out of place,” said Branham. “They don’t have to have a downhill trail. There’s no other downhill trail like that anywhere in [the forest].”

Even though hikers are still allowed on this flow trail, they are allowed on all trails in the forest, so at least the rules are applied evenly. Simply getting horses off this iconic descent is a win.

New trail development on the Continental Divide property doesn’t include bikes

New horse and hike-only trails are slated for development on a new 717-acre parcel of land known as the Continental Divide property. “Looking at it, it is very conducive for equestrian use, and allows them to have a space where they’re not worried about bikers coming down the hill at them or from behind,” said Landry.

“The cool thing about that is with hiking, it will connect us eventually — this is a long-term plan — to other public lands in the area,” said Landry. “So the Palmetto trail is right there. You’ve got Jones Gap State Park that’s in South Carolina. So if the plans continue to go forward, we’ll be able to have a little bit more thru-hiking for some of our hardcore hikers out here.”

Unfortunately, no bike trails are slated for development on the Continental Divide property.

“It’s a win for mountain bikes.”

When Landry and the board of Friends of DuPont saw the draft master recreation plan, they said “Yep, no notes. We’re good. This is what we wanted.”

“We think it’s going to protect the forest,” Landry explained. “It will protect the trails, we’re hoping that it will lessen a little user conflict. From our perspective, it will certainly meet all the goals that we had in mind for the master plan.”

Branham agrees. “It’s a win for mountain bikes. It’s a total win, and it’s only gonna get better.”

Update July 9, 2024: This article was updated with additional input from DuPont State Recreational Forest.

 

More information