Year of the Trail will explore the trails (and towns) less traveled

In the 30 years that I’ve been either telling people about places to explore, or actually taking them there, I’ve had a singular focus: the trails less traveled. My very first piece, written for the Travel section of The News & Observer in Raleigh in February 1992, was about Raven Rock State Park. Scouting trail there on a cold but brilliantly blue Sunday afternoon, I hiked to the park’s namesake, a bluff 150 feet above the Cape Fear River, and saw nary a soul. The quiet, the view … .

“People need to know about this,” I thought.

Of course, yesterday’s secret eventually becomes today’s go-to. And so I would move on, in search of that next unsung sanctuary. In a state with as much eco diversity as North Carolina — from the wild wetlands of the coast, to the open spaces of the coastal plain, to the rolling piedmont to the rugged Appalachians — that’s an enviable task. And in a state that values trails as much as North Carolina, it’s a fruitful one as well, one that will be even more fruitful as we head into 2023.

Last year, the State Legislature declared that North Carolina would celebrate the 50th anniversary of the North Carolina Trails System Act by declaring 2023 the Year of the Trail. The proclamation is no mere gesture; it comes with $29.15 million — the Complete the Trail Fund — to build more trail across the state.

But that’s just part of what Year of the Trail is about.

In late July, I signed on with Gov. Cooper’s Hometown Strong initiative, aimed at helping the economies of rural communities throughout the state. This is a multi-prong effort helping communities with everything from overhauling outdated water treatment systems to building more effective websites. My prong, as ecotourism advisor, is to help the communities unleash the potential of their recreational resources, particularly trails. The goal is two-fold: to help locals discover trails in their own backyard, and to also let outsiders know that, say, Sanford is a pretty decent place to spend an adventure weekend.


Putting in on the Deep River, at McIver Landing.

Absolutely. Did you know that Sanford is home to:

  • Deep River State Paddle Trail, which currently has at least six canoe and kayak access points in Moore, Chatham and Lee counties
  • San-Lee and Governor’s Creek, two parks with nearly 20 miles of mountain bike trail, combined
  • Raven Rock State Park (a 25-minute drive), with 12 miles of hiking, 14 miles of mountain biking, 8 miles of equestrian trail and paddle access to the Cape Fear River.

Or what about Old Fort? You probably only know it as the last exit on I-40 before Black Mountain, en route to Asheville. In fact, it offers:

  • Curtis Creek area

    Great jumping off spot to explore the Curtis Creek area, the oldest tract of land in the Pisgah National Forest

  • 42 miles of new trail, thanks to the work of the G5 Trail Collective
  • An emerging portion of the Fonta Flora State Trail

Or Morganton? People think of Asheville as the jumping off point for adventure. But why drive the extra hour when Morganton makes for the ideal (and less expensive) basecamp, with access to:

  • Covered bridge on the Fonta Flora State Trail

    Linville Gorge, one of the wildest wilderness areas in the East; a 30-minute drive

  • Wilson Creek, with some of the best options for remote waterfalls and waterplay; a little more than a half-hour drive
  • South Mountains State Park, North Carolina’s biggest state park hosting more than 40 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trail; less than a half-hour south
  • Lake James State Park, a 20-minute drive, offers great hiking, biking and paddling
  • Fonta Flora State Trail, a rapidly evolving state trail that will eventually link Asheville and Morganton, includes more than 12 miles of finished trail, mostly between Morganton and Lake James.

Or West Jefferson, tucked up in northwest North Carolina, in Ashe County. The area gets be dismissed because there’s no national forest land. But there is:

  • fall hikes
    The view north from Elk Knob

    Elk Knob State Park, the summit of which offers one of the best views in the state

  • Mount Jefferson State Natural Area, with more great views from its mountaintop trails
  • New River State Park, with the headwaters of its namesake river offering some of the friendliest mountain paddling in the region
  • Three Top Mountain Game Lands, which isn’t easy to reach, but well worth it when you summit it’s spiny ridge
  • Pond Mountain Game Lands, with its wide open spaces a less crowded version of popular Mount Rogers (which you can see from Pond Mountain) in Virginia

This is just a sampling of the adventures we plan to highlight in 2023. Most of them aren’t new, but they may well be new to you. And they’re all accessible from smaller base-camp towns that offer the amenities you look for in the better-known trail towns: good food, brewpubs and wineries, coffee, a range of lodging options and more.

As I continue to scout this fall I’ll be sharing what I find in this space, as well as letting you know more about plans for 2023, North Carolina’s Year of the Trail.

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Learn more about Year of the Trail

Learn more about Year of the Trail by following us here, at, as well as on our social media:

You can also keep track of what’s going on by following the Great Trails State Coalition, here

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