MORGANTON — Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina recently received a $243,700 grant from the North Carolina Division of Parks & Recreation Recreational Trails Program to build the first segment of the Wilderness Gateway State Trail in McDowell County.
Designed for multiple uses, the Wilderness Gateway State Trail will be a long-distance backcountry trail spanning a proposed east-west route through the South Mountains, passing through four Western North Carolina counties. The entire WGST is broken into 10 segments, each of which are intended to connect local urban areas with regional natural spaces.
The RTP grant funds will be used specifically to construct a 6.8-mile portion of Segment 3, a planned 30-mile-total section of trail that lies largely within McDowell County and dips into Rutherford County. Its route is located in the 7,000-plus acre Box Creek Wilderness, protected since 2016 by a conservation easement held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Winding between U.S. 221 and U.S. 64, the trail presents a unique opportunity to eventually connect this wilderness to local businesses and downtown areas through links with other regional trail networks.
Foothills Conservancy has worked closely with North Carolina State Parks staff to develop a conceptual route for Segment 3, taking into careful consideration topography, scenic viewpoints, road access and the preservation of significant natural communities. Funding from the RTP grant will not only help establish miles of linear trail in Segment 3, but will also afford the construction of a pedestrian bridge, a parking area and kiosk and wayfinding markers. Trail design for this and other segments is already underway through the help of Benchmark Trails.
“The Division of Parks and Recreation is excited to see the first section of the Wilderness Gateway State Trail built on Box Creek Wilderness,” said Smith Raynor, state trails planner for North Carolina State Parks. “The state trails throughout North Carolina could not exist without the devotion of local trail sponsors and the groups that manage the state trails. Foothills Conservancy has done a spectacular job of working with the division to plan a sustainable trail. We are excited to see this important first step for the Wilderness Gateway State Trail come to life.”
In addition to its recreation potential, Box Creek Wilderness supports vast biodiversity. A biological survey conducted in the area indicates more than 130 rare plant and animal species — including the mole salamander, four-toed salamander and Appalachian golden-banner — thrive within its protected boundaries.
About Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina
Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is a nationally accredited regional land trust that inspires conservation in Western North Carolina by permanently protecting land and water for the benefit of people and all living things. A 501©(3) nonprofit, Foothills Conservancy serves eight counties: Alexander, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln, McDowell, and Rutherford, in three major river basins: the Broad, Catawba, and Yadkin. Information about Foothills Conservancy, including ways to support its work, can be found online at www.foothillsconservancy.org or by calling (828) 437-9930.