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May 22, 2024, 2:32 p.m.

Trip Tips: Outdoor Recreation Tips from the Locals

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As a part of our ever-evolving partnership with OutdoorNC, we've taken the initiative to share some real, local tips for hiking and outdoor recreation in McDowell County, NC! This post features our local trail expert, Steve Pierce. Steve's passion for the great outdoors is reflected in his contributions to multiple outdoor organizations in the region, and service as President to McDowell Trails Association (MTA).

With Old Fort, NC becoming one of North Carolina's newest, growing trail towns, take a moment to get some great local beta from Steve!

McDowell Trails Association and Steve Pierce

Trip Tip Host: Steve Pierce, McDowell Trails Association

Outdoor Passion: Hiking

North Carolina Location: McDowell County; Old Fort

  • Most over looked area to recreate?
    • There are several trails off Curtis Creek Road east of Old Fort. The Hickory Branch Trail near the Curtis Creek Campground is one of these trails. Newberry Creek is another. Both are in the Grandfather District of the Pisgah National Forest and information for both can be found on the Grandfather District website.

Meadows Loop

  • What’s your favorite season to recreate in NC and why?
    • I enjoy hiking in cool weather months for a variety of reasons: fewer bugs and critters, better temperature and lower humidity, and in winter no leaves on trees obscuring views.
  • What level of experience is needed to recreate in this area?
    • McDowell County and Old Fort have a host of trails that lend themselves to every level of fitness and accessibility. For the easiest and most accessible consider thee trails:
    • The Joseph McDowell Historical Catawba Greenway is a mostly level paved greenway along the Catawba River It is accessible from two parking areas and is almost 2 miles one way. The Peavine Rail Trail near downtown Marion is a level natural surface trail (crushed rock screening) that runs 1.5 miles along an old rail bed. The Meadows Loop Trail at the Old Fort Gateway Trail is a mostly level crushed rock trail along a creek and through a meadow. The one-mile loop is accessible to almost everyone and an accessible fishing pier is located nearby. Greenlee Park west of Marion is a paved trail along the Catawba River. While it is short (less than a mile) it is level and has good river views. It will be lengthened over the next few years.
    • For a greater challenge, the Point Lookout Trail is a paved trail that follows Old Hwy 70 from west of Old Fort to Ridgecrest. It is 3.6 miles end-to-end with an elevation gain of about 900 feet. Point Lookout is a popular spot for a stop and long-range views. While the trail has elevation gain, you can turn back at any time.
    • Other natural surface trails can be found in McDowell County including the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the Old Fort Gateway Trail System, Catawba Falls Trail among others.
  • How long should you plan on visiting the area?
    • How much time do you want to spend on trails? There are enough multi-use trails for hiking and cycling that you can fill several days with outdoor recreation.
  • What sets the area apart from other destinations?
    • Old Fort is North Carolina’s newest “trail town.” There are new trails being developed in several locations including the Gateway Trail System off Curtis Creek Road and the Fonta Flora State Trail Trailhead Park on the east side of town. If hiking or cycling isn’t your thing, then there is easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a scenic drive.
  • What is unique about the facilities and infrastructure of the area?
    • The newest infrastructure and facilities would be the Catawba Falls Trail. To make access to the Lower and Upper Falls safer, the US Forest Service has redone the trail and provided steps and landings to ascend beside the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. There is also an option to make it a loop hike.
Newly Completed Catawba Falls

  • How do you plan ahead and prepare for your recreational activity?
    • Before going out on a trail, one should check with the land manager for any closures or hazards that may have come up. I don’t assume any given trail is open. Weather events, downed trees, landslides, and other occurrences can cause a trail to be closed. One can also check with the local visitor center to get the latest information on trails and other outdoor recreation venues. Always check the weather forecast and remember that if you will be gaining elevation on a hike, expect cooler weather. In the mountains, rain can fall even when not forecast in a nearby location. Always carry rain gear.
  • What piece of outdoor equipment is your must have?
    • Always have enough water, a flashlight, snacks, a layer for cooler weather even for a simple day hike. First aid kit is always useful. I don’t leave without a paper map and compass, even though I also use digital maps on my phone.
  • How do you put one Outdoor NC Leave no trace principle in action before/during/or after your activity?
    • The McDowell Trails Association promotes LNT principles by giving our free backpack tags with the seven principles and by talking about the principles on our sponsored hikes.
  • Favorite place to visit before or after an outdoor adventure for a meal/coffee/or another beverage?
    • When we have hikes or other events in the Old Fort area, we often suggest places where participants can get a meal or beverage. There are some great locally owned businesses right in downtown Old Fort. We do the same in other areas of the county where we hold hikes or events.
  • Share a unique place to stay in the area. Why would you recommend these accommodations?
    • There are several short-term rentals in the area as well as campgrounds available for camping. One place that’s unique is the Indigo Retreat, nestled right next to Pisgah National Forest on Newberry Creek Rd. Or the Mill Creek Inn near the trails between Old Fort and Black Mountain.
  • Other overlooked and under visited locations in the area to see while in town?
    • Check with the Blue Ridge Traveler Visitor Center for unique places to visit in the area. In addition to outdoor recreation, there is an art gallery and the Mountain Gateway Museum.
  • What is your ‘can’t miss experience’ in the area?
  • Insider tip!
    • Old Fort is a new “trail town’ and has many opportunities for outdoor recreation. A one-stop place to learn about all it has to offer is the Blue Ridge Traveler Visitor Center on Catawba Avenue.

Ready to hit the trails in McDowell County, NC? Join the Movement and take the Outdoor NC pledge to be responsible outdoor recreationists while sustaining enjoyable travel for everyone.