Launching a legacy: Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Park officially open
As Earth Day bloomed under one of spring’s sunniest skies yet, more than 150 people gathered on a concrete bridge spanning Hominy Creek just outside Canton to celebrate what Mayor Zeb Smathers termed a “gift of genesis” — the long-awaited opening of Chestnut Mountain Nature Park .
“Now on one of our main corridors, the entrances to the town and to the west, we are making a statement what our priority is,” Smathers told the crowd. “We are embracing outdoor recreation and tourism and the idea that our natural resources should be preserved and can be used.”
Creating the park — 450 acres of land set aside for hiking, biking, picnics, water quality and wildlife habitat — at first seemed an impossible dream for the tiny town of fewer than 5,000 people. The obstacles continued to pile up after Aug. 17, 2021, when a 500-year flood tore straight through the town’s beating heart, destroying buildings and livelihoods. A few miles upstream in the Cruso community, it claimed six lives.
But even as town leaders were scrambling to address the destruction incurred by Tropical Storm Fred , they were working to accomplish the resurrection of the Chestnut Mountain property, which at various times over the last few decades was slated for development as a NASCAR track, an indoor ski resort and a rock quarry.
Hanni Muerdter is the conservation director for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy but in the late 1990s was Smathers’s classmate at Pisgah High School. Muerdter remembers well the excitement pulsing through the mountain community at the news a NASCAR track could be coming to its backyard. But Muerdter was more interested in the land itself.
“I would be in the backseat of the car riding down (U.S.) 19/23 looking up at this mountain and wondering what was back there, the mountain where the racetrack was going to come,” she said. “Twenty years later, the land still sat.”
That’s when she got her first tour of the expansive property, jumpstarting the conservation project that has been her life for the past three-and-a-half years.
“I remember sitting in my office and getting a call from Hanni,” said Smathers. “And Hanni said, ‘I have this crazy idea.’ Hanni, it ain’t so crazy anymore.”
Bikers climb the ascent trail to Berm Park. Holly Kays photo
Phase one, and more to come
Following the speaking program on Friday, April 22, an array of elected officials, conservation workers and philanthropists cut the ribbon on Chestnut Mountain, marking the official opening of the project’s first phase.
This includes the mountain biking skills course at Berm Park and a 0.6-mile hiking/biking trail that climbs 350 feet to connect the gateway and pedestrian bridge to what will become the park’s main trailhead. While hikers and bikers will use the same path to ascend the mountain, a dedicated descent trail for bikers aims to prevent conflicts and accidents.
Featuring five trails of varying difficulties, Berm Park is the brainchild of Asheville resident Seth Alvo, whose YouTube channel Berm Peak has 2.4 million subscribers. He raised $250,000 to design and build the park, with Asheville-based Elevated Trail Design completing the project. Analogous to runs at a downhill ski resort, the short trails at Berm Park provide a variety of obstacles and trick opportunities, with riders doing multiple loops of the course on each visit.
When Alvo set out to build a free public bike park, he didn’t picture doing it in Canton. But Pisgah Area SORBA suggested he contact the town, and an enthusiastic reception from then Assistant Town Manager Nick Scheuer, who has since been promoted to town manager, made it clear that Canton was the right place.
“After one conversation with Nick and one walk on the property, I realized that all those other towns that didn’t want to work with us, that was a blessing in disguise, because this is the perfect place for this,” Alvo said.
While Alvo’s supporters paid for Berm Park’s development, SAHC paid for the land — a total project cost of $3.52 million. The land trust had to take out a loan to complete the transaction, but as of last week, it had finished raising the money to pay it off and transferred the deed to the Town of Canton. Large contributions from Brad and Shelli Stanback and the N.C. Land and Water Fund, along with funding from the Pigeon River Fund, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, the N.C. Department of Justice, the Town of Canton and individual donors made that possible. SAHC will continue to monitor the property’s conservation easements.
Once complete, Chestnut Mountain will be much more than a mountain biking park and ascent trail. The project has, to date, landed $860,000 in grants for creek restoration, trails, signage and other recreation amenities. With that money, said Scheuer, the town will build trails, treehouse-style overlooks, a picnic pavilion, a kids’ bicycle playground, creek access and more.
The project’s biggest award so far was $500,000 from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which will go toward trails, overlooks, the pavilion and ADA parking, and the town has also received $100,000 from the N.C. Recreational Trails Program. The master plan calls for 15-18 miles of trails — three hiking-only trails, two shared-use trails and five single-direction mountain bike trails. So far, the town has funding for about 75% of the proposed trail network and plans to continue pursuing funding for the rest.
“We anticipate building the bulk of the park in the next 1.5 years and will be opening trails and amenities as they come online,” Scheuer said.
Other money secured so far include $47,000 in Haywood County Tourism Development Authority grants for the gateway sign, marketing and activation; $15,000 in grant writing assistance from the Dogwood Trust Leverage Fund; and $205,000 for Hominy Creek restoration, of which $30,000 is from the Pigeon River Fund and $175,000 from the N.C. Land and Water Fund.
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the opening of Chestnut Mountain Nature Park. Holly Kays photo
‘A big thing’
When N.C. Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) was growing up just outside Canton city limits, exploring the outdoors required a long car ride to family favorites like Pink Beds or Cataloochee. When it came time to raise his own boys, around-the-corner recreation options were still lacking.
How wonderful would it have been, he asked the crowd, if a gem like Chestnut Mountain had waited just minutes from home?
The property’s proximity to town was one of the characteristics that caught Muerdter’s attention back when she was first forming the idea for the project.
“Could this be a property that could serve as an easy to access place for school groups, people on their lunch break, families coming on weekend mornings, to get out enjoy?” she said. “Plus, it sits right on a planned greenway.”
As one of the largest privately owned tracts left in Haywood County, Chestnut Mountain represented a massive opportunity — not only for people, but also for wildlife.
“It sits in an important area for wildlife and wildlife movement ,” Muerdter said. “Locals know this well, and every time I’m on this property, the amount of tracks I see are amazing.”
The lower portion of the property where Berm Park is and where the frontcountry recreational amenities will go had been heavily disturbed by previous landowners, meaning that it’s not too significant for plant and animal species. But the far eastern portion, where Muerdter has most often come across wildlife, will remain mostly untouched under the project plan.
In fact, said Nikki Robinson, N.C. project manager for the Wildlands Network , Chestnut Mountain Nature Park contains a priority wildlife corridor linking Pisgah National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“The data tell us the animals are moving across this landscape despite our growing presence,” she said. “They’re using the ridgelines and the valleys along the Buncombe and Haywood County lines, moving from Mount Pisgah to the Newfound Mountains and back. We must conserve this important corridor before it’s converted to other uses.”
Now that the town holds the deed, Chestnut Mountain is officially a Canton project — but in reality, it’s a partnership project. The 150 people present for the Friday ceremony represented the dozens of organizations, officials and individuals who donated, lobbied, sweated or otherwise worked to see the project through.
“No one does anything by themselves,” Pless said. “This has taken a lot of folks that have come up and said, ‘I’ll do what I can do and not step across the line.’ And that’s why we have what we have today.”
“When I was trying to think about how to sum up this day and what Chestnut Mountain means for conservation and for recreation, for people, it’s that it’s a big thing,” said Scheuer. “It’s a big thing for our land. It’s a big thing to protect the wildlife that we love. It’s a big thing for our community. We’re building a legacy park — it’s going to be here forever and be enjoyed by future generations.”