Rocky Ford – Where it all Comes Together

Partnerships make trails happen and Rocky Ford access in Morganton is the perfect location to showcase partnerships in action. Members the nonprofit, business and local government worlds came together to tell the story with a Hike & Learn.

The event organized by Beth Heile, past president of Friends of Fonta Flora State Trail, is part of an ongoing series Heile started in 2021 to highlight Fonta Flora State Trail sections that are on the ground, educate the community about how the section came to exist and have lunch at a local establishment emphasizing the economic impact trails bring.  Thirteen local hikers gathered at the gravel parking area off Lenoir Road/NC 18 N to hear updates on the trail activity that includes two state trails, a regional trail, a local greenway and a mountain bike trail system. It all started 30 years ago with the City of Morganton Greenway.

Morganton Greenway

Current Morganton City Councilman and past Morganton Parks and Recreation Assistant  Director Butch McSwain welcomed the group. It was the early 1990’s when Morganton began acquiring 6 miles of property along the river. McSwain told the story of how the greenway project started while he was in the department, the man hours it took Gary Leonhardt  to oversee greenway construction and McSwain working with the existing parks and athletic programs operating.

Now the 4-mile paved Morganton Greenway welcomes thousands of visitors a year and has been officially designated Fonta Flora State Trail. With his knowledge of recreation, tourism and local government, McSwain has been an incredible asset to Friends of Fonta Flora State Trail (F3ST) as a board member. The organization created in 2019 to spearhead the completion of the 100-mile trail that runs from Morganton to Asheville is recognized by NC State Parks as the official nonprofit for the trail. As such, they will receive funding to help get trail on the ground across the three counties in the trail corridor.

The Overmountain Victory State Trail (part of the Overmountain Victory National Heritage Trail) is another state trail collocated on the greenway route. The Park Service placed historical markers along the trail section commemorating the historic King’s Mountain March. From Rocky Ford, the trail continues as a Commemorative Motor Route northeast via Highway 64 to Lenoir. Like F3ST, this state trail has a official nonprofit. OVNCST-Friends, Inc  headquartered out of Morganton and led by historians Bryant and Linda Lindsey.

Mountain Bike Trails

Michael Lowther, Overmountain Cycles and Brittany Watkins, FCNC discussed the 4.5 miles of mountain bike trails that are under construction in partnership with the City of Morganton. The trails will be accessed from the parking lot (away from the other trails) and include beginner, intermediate and advanced trails. Hiking will be allowed on most of the trails.

The River Trail (Burke River Trail)

Taking advantage of the space, the parking area will serve as the western terminus of The River Trail. The planned 20-mile hiking and biking trail will be a mix of natural surface, crushed cinder and paved trail types as it wanders along the river banks and into downtowns of eastern Burke County.

Burke River Trail Association, the nonprofit for the trail had board members Christa Pearson and Beth Heile at the event to provide an overview of the trail. Though economic development is a goal of the trail, Heile said she has been surprised by the opportunities for housing, office and retail space and eateries brought by trail discussions – before the trail is on the ground. The other benefit, Heile went on to explain has been the sense of pride shown by the local governments as they have a new attraction on the horizon that will highlight their history and natural resources while offering health and recreation benefits to residents.

Starting at Rocky Ford, four miles of the trail route have been nailed down with verbal agreements and the paper work is in process. The written agreement needed from private landowners is called a trail easement which allows the public to access the property.

Grace Ridge is the first landowner after walking under the Lenoir Road bridge and Vulcan Industries is the last. Stakeholders gathered at Vulcan last week to discuss the trail location. Since the property is an active quarry with large trucks and machinery, the safety of trail users is extremely important. The overall site began operation in 1986 and consists of about 309 acres, nearly 100 of which serve as buffers. Within the buffer area, hikers and bikers will be kept safe. Vulcan is excited about populating their section of trail with educational kiosks explaining mining operations, environmental stewardship efforts and how stone is used in everyday applications.

“Vulcan Materials literally builds the community,” said Denise Hallet, Vulcan community and government relations manager. “Our products are a major component of asphalt, concrete and base materials that build roads, schools, hospitals, homes, churches and more.”

What’s Next for Rocky Ford

With all the existing and planned activity at Rocky Ford, the City of Morganton is looking at updates for the site. Heile has gathered folks from NCDOT, NCWRC, Morganton and Grace Ridge to meet at the site to discuss the options. An improved access driveway, parking, restrooms, picnic area and kayak launch are amenities in the discussion. The next step is to look for grants for funding the the new trailhead and park.