Pisgah National Forest is a massive swath of land, contained entirely within the state of North Carolina. It is comprised of over 500,000 acres of mountainous terrain, with a higher concentration of mile-high peaks than anywhere else east of the Rockies. The forest certainly covers a large territory, and within its boundaries, you'll find nearly 50,000 acres of old growth forest, who knows how many waterfalls, peace, quiet, and of course, thousands of miles of mind-blowing trails. None of this is news of course, as this place has been explored numerous times, and the adventures that come from within forest boundaries have been shared around the world via a host of various media formats. One of the very first East Bound and Down stories came from the southern edge of this forest in Brevard.
Now I'd like to take you on a trip to the opposite end of these enchanted woods. Just beyond the northern edge of the forest lies Boone, North Carolina. Boone is a small town with a mid-sized university, Appalachian State. The community of 18,000 serves as the seat for Watauga County, and is the economic centerpiece for North Carolina's "high country", which is the region furthest north and west in the state, and features some of its highest peaks. The college provides Boone with much of its cultural energy, and throughout the town you'll find several craft coffee roasters, breweries, a surprisingly diverse array of dining options, and plenty of foot and bicycle traffic throughout.
The town is cradled beautifully by the mountains, with Boone resting 3,300 feet above sea level, and a few of the surrounding peaks and ridgelines reaching upwards of 6,000 feet or more. Two of North Carolina's more well-known ski resorts are just west of town, with Beech offering up lift-served mountain biking as well. Along the eastern edge of the city limits you'll find Rocky Knob Park, and to the north is Howard's Knob Park, a municipal park perched about 1,000 feet above downtown. South of Boone is the gateway to Pisgah. Outside of US Route 421 from the east, there are no real prolonged highways that provide travelers with rapid access to the area, and as a result, this part of Pisgah is about as wild and dense as it gets. It's a stunner to be sure, and has long lived in the shadows of its more well known PNF brethren such as Brevard and Asheville, but after a week in town, it supplanted all other corners of North Carolina, for me personally, as the preeminent place for riding bikes in the woods.
While this "version" of Pisgah may very well be my favorite, I suppose I should point something out before we get into this. Yes, Pisgah is a very, very big part of Boone's charm, but the reality of this place is that you don't need to step foot into the national forest to find some genuinely amazing trails you can spend days on. In fact, you don't even need to leave town for that.
Boone is about as perfectly nestled into the ancient Appalachian landscape as you can get.
A relatively small, mountain community in western North Carolina, Boone still surprises with a vibrance fed by the university in town.
If you drive into town from the east, one of the first roads you'll pass is Mountain Bike Way. No, really.
I had been on the road for about 8 hours when a text came in and suggested I meet a group of riders at the Rocky Knob parking lot. Rocky Knob is Boone's bike park, sitting a mile and a half east of downtown off of highway 421. The summit elevation tops out at 4,000 feet, and the trails drop 800 feet down to the parking lot, across from which you'll find what might be one of the most scenic pump tracks anywhere in North America. There are 9+ miles of trail spread across 185 acres of mountainside property, along with 4 skills areas, the aforementioned pumptrack, a picnic pavilion, and a playground. Oh, and there are more trails coming. Lots more.
As I pulled into the lot off of Mountain Bike Way, I was greeted with the smiling and eager faces of many riders, among them my point person during the months leading up to this trip, Kristian Jackson. Any weariness from the long haul evaporated as I fell into line during our first climb up, and subsequent trip down the mountain. During my week in town, I would not only learn just how apropos the name Rocky Knob is for this place, but would grow quite fond of the trails that weave their way down the western aspect of the hillside, and would also develop a strong appreciation for what this park means to the community, and just how much work went into its development. Boone's is a story about a town's reliance on its natural resources; once in the form of extrication and currently in the form of exploration, and Rocky Knob is a shining example of exactly that.
"I was hired in 2009 to serve as the outdoor recreation planner for the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority." Eric Woolridge says during an amazing breakfast at Melanie's in downtown. "The TDA is funded through the occupancy tax, the 'bed tax', and their funding can only be spent, from a legislative standpoint, in two ways. Two-thirds of their dollars go towards marketing and administrating tourism promotion of the region. The other third of those dollars can be spent on capital-related tourist infrastructure projects. They hired me to come in and manage that third of their budget, which represents between $300,000 and $400,000 that can be spent on tourism-related capital infrastructure projects per year."
Eric was hired to serve as a planner responsible for the development of tourism-based projects, and also as someone charged with the management of the TDA budget, and to pursue grant money in order to multiply those resources. The board of directors wanted to make the Boone area consistently recognized as one of the top ten outdoor recreation destinations in America, which meant that they had to leverage every single bit of resource available. Eric began meeting with people in his community, and eventually put together the "Boone Area Outdoor Recreation Plan." Through his research and the development of the recreation plan, it became clear to those involved that mountain biking was the big gap in Boone's resources.
They had an established network of equestrian trails, great hiking trails, river access, world-class climbing, and great fishing. Boone's roads are well maintained, and there has been a long-established community of road cyclists, but mountain biking was virtually non-existent in and around town. While Boone was certainly keen to continue the growth of the various outdoor recreational opportunities that they have long held near and dear, mountain biking was very clearly the priority for the area moving forward.
"I started scanning land and opportunities to put together a mountain biking project of some sort," Eric continued. "and discovered that the county owned over 140 acres adjacent to the county landfill, which is no longer in operation. It's actually a transfer station now. They put a cap on that landfill and this whole mountain that's next to it that the county had purchased before it was shut down, in order to push that whole mountain over on top of the trash, and eventually flatten that mountain. That mountain, Rocky Knob, has direct access on Highway 421, which is a scenic by-way, that comes into the town of Boone.
"The county had started to look at that property for economic development purposes but realized that the grading cost associated with that was going to be astronomical, just because of the geography and all of the rock that's there. At the same time, there was a major landowner that passed away in the county. The landowner held properties all over the area, and one of the tracks was a 45-acre property that was the access between Highway 421 and the 140-acre landfill. That is where you now see the entrance to Rocky Knob. That's part of that lower 40 acres. That property came up for sale, and we started formulating this idea. We went to the county commission and said, 'You guys can't utilize this for traditional economic development purposes. How about us pursuing a mountain bike park, here in this particular area?' The TDA had bankrolled funds and probably had over a million dollars. When I came into the TDA, they already had bankrolled all this money, saving funds. I had a pretty nice budget when I got there to get something going. The county agreed for us to pursue that project."
Eric's work proved to be a bit of economic-political-wizardry, as he was essentially implementing the plan while still raising funds for it. Had they waited for the recreation plan to be fully completed before pursuing Rocky Knob, the bike park would never have happened in all likelihood. Eric admits to feeling repercussions from the effort even today, as some in the area are under the misguided impression that their tax dollars funded the project, when in reality it was purely grant money, or occupancy taxes, which can only be spent on tourism-related capital infrastructure projects. In spite of the apprehensions of a select few, Rocky Knob Bike Park is a bonafide masterpiece. Scores of volunteers, led by Kristian Jackson, along with 3 different professional trail building outfits including local legend "Moto" Mike Thomas' company Terra Tek Trails, have all worked together to develop the previously "unusable" landfill tract into a beautifully functional playground for families and their bikes.
Short of a helicopter or drone, this is probably the only way to get a bird's eye view of "Black Forest", a stunning and accurately rated black diamond trail from top to bottom.
The collective that was on hand to welcome me to Boone on my first day in town.
Welcome to one of the most scenic pump tracks you'll find anywhere.
Kristian Jackson soaking up every second of daylight available on the pumptrack.
If you don't empty the tank riding the trails at Rocky Knob, a few laps around this will do the trick.
Without a strong sense of volunteerism, places like Rocky Knob Bike Park wouldn't be possible.
"Moto" Mike Thomas works hard to deliver some of the best trails in the country, and certainly can't be blamed for ensuring a bit of quality control from time to time.
Mike leads Kristian and I through a switchback towards the midsection of the brand new "Black Forest" trail.
The "Black Forest" trail utilizes virtually every conceivable form of trail design for advanced riders; including rhythm sections, slow and chunky tech, and steep lines down rock faces.
"PB&J" has offered riders the opportunity to hit some small to medium jumps between deeply pocketed berms for a few years now, and there are plans to ramp up the size of these jumps while building a new beginner flow trail elsewhere.
Caroline and Will met at a dual slalom race while attending Appalachian State in 2009, and recently celebrated 2 years of marriage!
Rocky Knob is just a piece of the pie in Boone.
Boone's draw extends well beyond Rocky Knob. Beech Mountain, 20 minutes west of Boone, is the 10th highest incorporated town in the United States, and the highest of any east of the Rocky Mountains. The town's namesake mountain resort is home to a lift-served bike park, which has played host to several Pro GRT's in recent years and also holds an all-season trail network adjacent to the bike park called the Emerald Outback, which allows for access to brilliant, mile-high backcountry in and around Beech.
In addition to the bike park and its adjacent backcountry access, Pisgah's northernmost reaches lie along the southern border of town as well, and while the esteemed National Forest has received plenty of attention in years past, much of this section has gone unheralded due in large part to the legality of many of its trails. But anytime Wilson Creek is mentioned among Pisgah residents and riders in the well-known regions to the south of Boone, a reverential hush ensues, and a whispered praise that seems to toe the line of folklore follows. When riders from places as amazing as Brevard or Asheville have to mute their excitement over a place, you take notice, and I was certainly eager to see for myself what this fervent hush was all about.
I took my first trip into Wilson Creek riding shotgun in Mike Thomas' Honda Element, and listened intently as he explained the grey areas that have developed with some of the favorite trails among locals, which to be fair, is not anomalous to Boone and Wilson Creek. He also described the pocket of warm air that rests in the bowl of the Blue Ridge Mountains that make up the Grandfather District in these here parts. That warm airmass allows for incredible riding year-round, with many of the higher elevation trails experiencing freeze-thaw cycles, or regular snow during the winter months. I discovered for myself that, in addition to what appears to be a world-class winter riding zone, that Wilson Creek might be the best bit of Pisgah riding I've ever experienced. There's just so much brilliant terrain here, and the rallying cry from the local riding contingent seems to signal that it's poised to get even better.
Alongside Eric Woolridge and Kristian Jackson, Paul Stahlschmidt was an integral force in both the formation of the Boone Area Cyclists, and of Rocky Knob Bike Park. Paul is an adjunct instructor and an advisor at App State, and is currently the Vice President of SORBA's executive board of directors, with fellow EB&D alumn Brian Hall as the acting President. Paul and I were enjoying some of North Carolina's best BBQ at Ethan Anderson's Pedalin' Pig along with a large contingent of local riders, when he provided me with a history of the Wilson Creek Pisgah experience, and also shared some really exciting developments for the very near future.
"Boone has Rocky Knob, which is off the hook," Paul says excitedly between sips and bites. "Down the road we had Wilkesboro, with close to 50 miles of trail around there. We had a lot of riding locally, it's just that specifically in the Wilson Creek region, we were really lacking, and it wasn't for lack of opportunity. Pisgah has had a National Forest plan developing for some time, and we needed to be a strong voice and get involved with that right away."
"Knowing what we've got here, we have to do some planning. We'd love to keep everything as old school as the way it's always been, but it's inevitable that people are going to be riding in this district of Pisgah, so we want to take all the bike legal trails that we've got and make sure that they've got a voice. We want to sure the forest service knows that we are going to take care of this forest. And if there's something that needs to be repaired or addressed... that they wanna reroute or that they wanna close down, or whatever, then we can step in and say, 'No, we can probably come to a better solution together than just closing down a trail because it's got a ditch, or because it's putting sediment in the creek.' We know that we can come up with something together, and not kill these trails."
Oftentimes, working on solutions in Pisgah means going through the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA process, which means that in order to reroute a trail, an environmental assessment must first be completed. Fortunately for Wilson Creek riders, there are a host of professional trail builders in their ranks, and consequently are able to work through NEPA in ways many other communities simply can't. They're able to give the proverbial "thumbs up" to initiate the planning process, even if it involves an environmental assessment, in order to "get it on the calendar, 'cause we've got plenty of places we can work until that goes through."
With Paul's leadership, the National Forest Service applied for and were rewarded a $100,000 RTP (Recreational Trails Program) Grant, in cooperation with SORBA, meaning the Forest Service are the fiscal agents and hold a lot of clout with various funding agencies, while the mountain bikers get to steer the ship.
"That's huge with the land managers," Paul continues. "When they see that we want to work with the equestrians, and we want to work with the old hikers, but we have the trail building experience. That's the thing that they have started to see is that mountain bikers are the most passionate (user group), they have the most experienced volunteers, and they have professional trail builders that are in their ranks. So, they trust us when we say, 'Look, that needs to change," or 'This is the vision we have for a trail concept.' There are a lot of gray trails that could potentially be legal if we could go in and actually do some work on them, and make 'em cool. Because if they're not in a wilderness area or anything like that, you can actually conduct the NEPA process on it, get it through the system, and they can maybe say, 'Yeah, you guys can take some ownership of that trail. Tell us what you're going to do and what your concept ultimately is. We trust you because you guys know what you're doing.'
"Just like Rocky Knob, it can't be done without local leadership, and it can't be done without some kind of strong organization to help give you some clout. And that's kind of what we were talking about earlier when you were talking about the stuff you've got going on where you live. What I have really learned is that you can't do it without locals who are motivated, and who really want to make shit happen."
Beech Mountain is the highest incorporated town east of the Rocky Mountains at 5,506 feet above sea level and plays an important role for mountain bikers in the region.
These are some of the largest mountains you'll find on the east coast, and offer up many days of backcountry and purpose-built opportunities aboard the bike.
The Pisgah surrounding Boone has all of the classic PNF fun you could hope for without the pomp and circumstance. The unassuming nature of the mountain bike community here is a big part of the allure.
Precipitous is one of many adjectives for this place.
Dive deep into the trenches or a pile of leaves.
A ride in this part of Pisgah requires a stop at Bruce Gray's Grocery and Provisions store.
Riding in Pisgah can often mean shouldering the bike to stay on the trail.
Bingo. As brilliant as this place is when the rubber meets the dirt, it's the drive and attitude of this community that I find to be the most impressive part of the Boone equation. One of the not-so-uncommon behavioral archetypes that seems to come from mountain bike destinations is this sense of local frustration with visitors to their trails. It's an understandable pattern, to be sure, but one that's easy to grow weary of after enough time, as it's a bit presumptuous and seems to speak to an often overblown sense of self-importance. Boone is of such a quality that it could have easily fallen victim to some of those same trappings, but they present themselves in just the opposite manner, and that's due in no small part to the example set forth by Kristian Jackson.
Kristian is the connective tissue, so to speak, of the Boone mountain bike community. No matter who it is I'm speaking with, Kristian's name comes up in some form or fashion during the conversation, and while he is more than hesitant to take any credit for what they have in the area, the truth is that without him, the passionate and active volunteer base so heavily leaned on wouldn't be possible.
Born in Illinois, Kristian and his family moved to Raleigh when he was 16. While he admits that it was a challenging transition for him at the time, getting a mountain bike and going under the wings of some riders in the area was really helpful. He would eventually find his way to the mountains, and decided that he would make it a point to never leave them, which led to his eventual move to Brevard in order to work at the Outward Bound school in 2000. By 2005, Kristian and his wife had built a house in Boone, and began building their family.
Kristian's modesty is very clear when I asked him about his role in Boone. For someone, who by all other accounts, has been a pivotal figure for the mountain bike scene in North Carolina's high country, he doesn't seem to want to acknowledge his own impact on the riding here.
"How would you describe your role here?" I asked him.
"Wow," he told me at first. "I never really thought about that. I guess with Rocky Knob it's been trying to motivate people to want to get involved in trails, to want to care about trails. I try to build and grow the community to be more than any one of us think it probably can be. I don't really see myself having a role in it, just trying to do my part."
"Okay, so what is your 'part'?"
"When the Rocky Knob started, I saw an opportunity to bring some of my knowledge to the trail building, and community engagement together and help out a bit. I certainly didn't ask to be trail boss, but I was kinda nominated to lead the charge by the Boone Area Cyclists, which was an honor for me. To be given business cards that say, 'Trail Boss' was kind of wild. To have the community trust me with leading the charge was a real privilege, and so I needed to bring it. We have an amazing community, and my role just needed to be to help everybody find their voice in mountain biking within the community."
Having lived in both Brevard and in Boone, I was curious to hear his thoughts on some of the key differences between the two parts of Western North Carolina, and also how they might compliment one another.
"Both Boone and Brevard have been magnates for outdoor recreation for generations," Kristian tells me. "Both communities are working to position themselves as travel-worthy destinations. A new report out by the Outdoor Alliance cites a $115 million annual economic impact to western NC due to climbing, paddling, and mountain biking. Brevard is the known hot-spot and one of the ways it is different from Boone is that it is beginning to attract young professionals to live there. This is an important sign for robust economies. We have more of a brain-drain in Boone. It's hard for young couples to move here unless they're connected to App State.
"I think the real question is how can both communities help each other ensure high quality, sustainable riding? We need to look to clubs like Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition as examples. Their club is actually building trails in the GWNF. We're beginning to see this Pisgah Area Sorba and the Alliance. But much more work needs to be done, and more people need to get involved. It's no fun going to county commissioner meetings and USFS Forest Management Plan meetings but we simply can't wait for someone to give us trails, and we shouldn't be satisfied living off of the scraps that fall off the meeting room table."
There's no chest thumping with Kristian, or any of the others here, and to say that I found this attitude refreshing would be a gross understatement. These guys have a lot on their plate when it comes to the work ahead of them in both Pisgah, and on Rocky Knob, but that doesn't stop anyone from taking a moment to sing some praises of their neighbors to the north in Virginia, or to the south in the more well-known sections of Western North Carolina. Peace of mind can do a lot for a community, and with people like Kristian Jackson helping lead by example, it's a mindset that we could all stand to adopt for ourselves.
"A trail is symbolically where humans and the environment connect," he tells me as we finish our beers during my last night in town. "And you're connecting through recreation. That's a direct and tangible connection with nature. Now add a mountain bike to that, ride up or down the mountain, and you are directly interacting with every force of nature, right? Or a lot of force of nature. That's a really cool thing to me. The riding experience, and being in the zone on the bike is a very real connection. At the same time, as a trail builder, if you understand that connection, then you understand how to create rhythm and flow, it transforms that experience into an art of self-expression.
“A well-built jump, and a well-trained rider, they're gonna express themselves in a way that's totally their own, right? The trail builders are expressing themselves. The volunteers are expressing themselves. To me, that's what causes people to wanna get involved. Everyone realizes that what they say, and what they do matters on the trail. Whether you're responsible for 100 feet of trail, or 10 feet of trail, if you put everything you had into it, you can walk away feeling great. It's 10 feet? Whatever. This is gonna be here for a very long time. People are going ride it and enjoy it for years to come. That's been my journey."
At the end of the day, it's just bikes, and bikes should always leave you smiling.
Pisgah National Forest is huge, and home to many amazing mountain bike communities, and Boone might just be the best of it all.