A couple of years ago word began to spread like wildfire about the great mountain biking at DuPont State Forest. Intriguing reports of a tumbling river and slickrock trails fanned the flames even higher.
Over time the stories proved to be true, and judging from the number of vehicles now filling the parking lots every weekend, the area may have a legitimate claim as a full blown mecca for fat tire riders. Stirring scenery also attracts a friendly assortment of day hikers, horsepackers, and other outdoor enthusiasts enjoying their relatively new access to over 90 miles of trails. The forest has rapidly become a showcase for what can be accomplished when various user groups work cooperatively together.
This latest jewel in North Carolina’s crown is perched on the southeastern periphery between Transylvania and Henderson counties. The Cedar Mountain community neighbors the forest and provides visitors passing through with a tactful reminder of this highland area’s rural history.
Cow pastures, hay filled barns, and family gardens were once an everyday part of the landscape. While drivers these days are more likely to encounter a Lexus sedan on the highway than a Massey Ferguson tractor, a careful observer can still see links to the country lifestyle residents here once took for granted.
Origins of the 10,400 acre forest trace back to 1996 when the DuPont corporation opted to sell off some of its land holdings, and the state was able to purchase 7,600 acres at a bargain price. Ownership of the manufacturing plant then passed to the Sterling corporation, which placed another large chunk up for sale in 1999.
This central tract included the trio of major waterfalls the area is best known for, and was universally recognized as the sublime focal point of the original property. The state was outbid for this missing fragment by land developer Jim Anthony, and that, as the saying goes, is when the rubber hit the road.
What subsequently transpired was an ultra-classic showdown between the forces of real estate development and grassroots conservation. While Anthony began work installing the infrastructure to support his vision of a luxury home community, preservationists cried foul and organized a citizen’s group named “Friends of the Falls.” They petitioned Anthony to provide public access to the waterfalls for everyone to enjoy, regardless of their tax bracket.
Details of the ensuing struggle were thoroughly documented by local newspapers and television, and there seemed to be little middle ground for opinions. It was a situation that polarized people into either one camp or the other. However, conservationists ultimately carried the day with a helping hand from the Council of State, led by Governor Jim Hunt, when they implemented the process of eminent domain to rescue this piece of heaven away from Anthony’s tree-hungry bulldozers.
Aleen Steinberg, a leader in the local Sierra Club, is a long time resident of Cedar Mountain and serves on the board of directors for the renamed “Friends of DuPont Forest.” When asked if she is surprised at how the situation turned out, her answer is an emphatic, “Yes! We were so surprised! We thought maybe we could get some of it, but to get it all was just a huge surprise. Sometimes I just can’t believe it’s happened.”
She attributes their success to the tireless efforts of volunteers who never gave up hope.
Local mountain bike advocate Woody Keen, who also serves on the board for FODF, echoes her sentiments. “Everyone had to roll up their sleeves to get this done. It’s not too often you can beat big money development.”
Volunteerism remains the fundamental moving force behind all activity today. “There’s never been any money budgeted for maintenance of this land,” says Steinberg. “So anything that gets done has to be on a volunteer basis. Everyone has had to put their differences aside.”
She’s alluding to the rivalry between mountain bikers and other users that isn’t unheard of in some areas around the country. While harmony between various trail users has been the backbone behind conservation efforts at DuPont Forest from the beginning, at no time is it now more evident than on trail work days.
Keen is the coordinator for these monthly occasions, and he speaks proudly of the mixed turnout of people willing to volunteer some time on the business end of a shovel. Whether one prefers to hike a trail, ride a bike on it, or saddle up a horse, maintenance is in everyone’s common interest. Keen is a staunch defender for the legitimacy of bike use on public land, and points out that a large portion of this work is done by bikers. He sums up a truism held by many outdoorsy people today, “Mountain bikers are conservationists too.”
Slickrock trails are fairly common in western states, but almost unheard of in our part of the country. Mountain bikers have been quick to realize DuPont is home to a number of trails that traverse over long sections of exposed granite. The path snaking over Cedar Rock peak, and its eastern flank in particular, connects cairns along several such stretches. This makes for a novel experience on a bike, with the sandpaper like friction making even steep bits surprisingly manageable. Of course, the unforgiving rock also makes an over the handlebar header all the more memorable.
Tim Bateman is an avid mountain biker with an enthusiastic appreciation for slickrock. “The trails are just wild. They’re pock marked from water washing over them, with lots of little step-ups that can make them a bit technical. The smooth rock gives you great traction, but you can get chewed up pretty good if you take a spill. Also, there are a few spots where you ride across slopes that can be a bit slick and dicey from water seeping over them.”
One point that has historically been a matter of contention between bikers and hikers centers around the effect of knobby tires on a trail surface. Keen is more than happy, eager actually, to cite a study released last summer by botanist Richard Reader of the University of Guelph in Canada. His findings noted that “mountain bikes are no more harmful to the environment than hiking.”
Nevertheless, considerate bikers avoid riding wet trails when the ground is still soft and squishy, but as Bateman points out, “Riding at DuPont after a rain isn’t so hard on the terrain because of all the bare rock, and many of the trails are very sandy, so water is absorbed quickly.”
Keen is quick to add that all trail users, not just bikers, should avoid trail use after heavy rains, but agrees that Dupont tends to dry out faster than other trail systems. “This is somewhat a factor of the soil types we have there, but it is also important to give credit to the volunteer work that has created many grade dips to drain the trails.”
The Corn Mill Shoals parking area on Staton road is a popular jumping- off point for mountain bikers. It provides close access to several preferred trails, and has a kiosk with a detailed map of the area. Burnt Mountain is an especially sweet ride, with a steep downhill stretch that will keep your attention focused.
Cheri Rosenblatt of Backcountry Outdoors advises a bit of extra caution on this narrow trail. “Horse people like to ride up it, and bikers, of course, like to bounce down it,” but she says mutual respect between the two hasn’t been a problem. Rosenblatt’s store is located in nearby Pisgah Forest, and is a gregarious source for maps and first hand information.
The diversity of choices for biking attracts riders of all ability levels. Hard-cores on full suspension Konas head out from the same parking areas as Mom and Dad looking for an easy outing with the kids. Most of the singletrack here is no longer than a mile or two, but dirt access roads provide a convenient way to link up as many of them as you care to ride.
One can summit out on a rounded dome of granite, and after soaking up the view, take the heart-pounding descent back to a sandy road which will lead you along to the next adventure. And after a day of bunny hopping along through stands of oak, pine, and maple, soaking in a cold river pool is hard to resist.
DuPont’s waterfalls are a stunning attraction for bikers, and it’s fair to estimate that they are a primary destination for most day hikers as well. The Little River traverses the forest and has several major drops along the way. Bridal Veil Falls is appropriately named for the white curtain formed as the river gushes past an undercut section of rock.
Not only is this an especially pretty cascade, but it also makes a great spot to take a quick full body rinse.
As with all waterfalls, caution is advised, and especially near this one because of the slipperiness and sloping nature of the rock.
Further down is High Falls, which runs over a drop of about 150 feet, and fills a dark frothy pool at it1s base. A covered bridge is still in place over the river at the top of this one, serving as a tangible reminder of the thwarted development plans.
Picturesque Triple Falls happens a bit further down. It forms a splendid series of whitewater plunges that can be easily accessed from the parking area where Staton Road crosses the river.
From here, one can also take a short walk downstream to Hooker Falls, where for a couple of moments the usually sedate Little River explodes into a million tiny droplets frozen like music in mid-air. It’s dive directly into Cascade Lake makes this spot a favorite among photographers.
Considering the many trail options, long range views from open summits, and magnificent waterfalls, it’s little wonder DuPont Forest has become so popular with all sorts of outdoor enthusiasts. Aleen Steinberg offers an inviting appraisal of the opportunities here.
“It’s one of the most friendly forests I know of. It appeals to people who like tough trails, as well as those who just want to stroll.” Indeed, in this time of ever widening roads and sprawling urban development, it’s encouraging to know of a special place that will remain green and accessible to everyone.
If you would like to get involved in trail maintenance efforts in Dupont, please contact Woody Keen at: firstname.lastname@example.org Friends of Dupont Forest: www.dupontforest. com/fodf.asp. Or visit Dupont Forest’s web page at: www.dupontforest.com.