New trails on Blue Ridge Parkway are labor of love (and money)

The path alongside Rose Creek naturally follows its rocky bank and gentle contours as it approaches the Eastern Continental Divide.

For centuries this wild and lush land served as prime buffalo and elk hunting grounds for Native American tribes.

And about 230 years ago, chestnut and massive oak trees dwarfed Revolutionary War patriots who traveled this trail on their way to Kings Mountain and a battle that historians say changed the New World.

Until now, there has been no way for the public to hike Rose Creek from the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. But nine years ago, several North Carolinians came together with the state to change that. The group cobbled together nearly 1,600 acres to create Rose Creek Trail and two other walking routes, Saddle Mountain and Little Table Rock, along the parkway.

All three opened to the public this weekend.

“Tens of thousands of tourists have passed by on the nearby parkway and have had no idea the history that lies through those woods,” said conservationist Mike Leonard, a Charlotte native.

“With all the mess in Washington these days, thank goodness there are good people like Fred and Alice Stanback,” said Leonard, referring to a Salisbury philanthropist couple who have helped protect and conserve numerous wild areas in North Carolina. “They are people who don’t wait on the federal government, but are willing to stand up and put their own money on the table to buy and conserve land while it’s still undeveloped. ... And to create walking trails and natural areas for the public good.”

Money to purchase the land, build three trails, and erect signs and granite markers came from several private citizens (including the Stanbacks), as well as from The Conservation Fund and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.

Leonard, vice chairman of the Virginia-based Conservation Fund, also credits the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission with helping to create the trails.

In all, the land involved had a value “approaching $9 million,” he said, which was paid from private and government sources, along with some landowners willing to donate their property.

Leonard declined to provide a breakdown of the individuals and groups that contributed. But the Stanback family did play a prominent role.

Fred and Alice Stanback – part of the family that founded and later sold the Stanback headache powder business – have contributed to more than 30 land conservation efforts, including 18,000 acres in the South Mountains near Morganton and Chimney Rock Park, about 90 miles west of Charlotte.

Fred Stanback said the new pathways are an invitation for people to get out of their cars and experience the wonders of the Blue Ridge.

“Alice and I believe that the way to assure public support for the beautiful North Carolina mountains is to make (them) available to the general public by protecting land along the parkway and providing trails on those protected lands,” he said.

Uniting to preserve nature

The Blue Ridge Parkway is the nation’s most visited national park unit, drawing some 16 million visitors annually, with an estimated economic impact in the Southern Appalachians region of $2.3 billion.

Since completing the 469-mile parkway in 1987, the federal government has, for the most part, left any expansion of land holdings along the route to private groups such as The Conservation Fund. In some instances, the protected land stretches only as wide as the pavement and a 400-foot right-of-way.

Leonard, who played key roles in bringing national landmarks such as Chimney Rock and Grandfather Mountain into state ownership, helps assemble the framework for private landowners to come together with land trusts and local and state governments. As a volunteer in the 1990s, he helped bring about the improbable – linking Crowders Mountain State Park in North Carolina with Kings Mountain State Park in South Carolina.

“If I have the opportunity to help protect another beautiful place in the Carolinas, I’m going to try to do it,” said Leonard, a products liability lawyer at Womble Carlyle in Winston-Salem. “It helps keep me sane.”

Both Leonard and the Stanbacks have been honored for their conservation work with the North Carolina Award; previous winners include evangelist Billy Graham, singer James Taylor, and poet and author Maya Angelou.

The Stanback Trails are designed for casual hikers and families. They are rated easy to moderate and can be completed in less than three hours. The trails are also well-marked and accessible directly from the parkway or by nearby access roads.

Gordon Warburton of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said public-private partnerships are critical in a time of limited government dollars.

“It’s crucial in putting together the jigsaw puzzle of public and private lands to provide access for hunters, fishermen, birdwatchers and hikers,” Warburton said as he helped secure the granite trail marker at Rose Creek.

“There’s ways of stretching these resources – turning an old logging road into a hiking trail – so a new generation can experience what’s out here, just beyond the parkway.”