Regular users of Western Carolina University’s trail system don’t have to rely on a calendar to mark the change of seasons on campus. They can see it displayed through the slow-motion appearance of fall colors, the stark grayness of winter when the mountains’ bones are made visible, the explosion of green plant life that comes in spring, and the humidity and growling clouds that hover overhead on typical summer afternoons.
Patrons of WCU’s 6.7-mile trail system also get to bask in another delight – the occasional moment on the system’s far reaches when the hum of distant automobiles evaporates, leaving just the sounds of the surrounding Appalachian forests to stir the imagination.
With the trail system, which includes six separate trails, soon to begin its fifth year as an amenity on the WCU campus, the staff of Base Camp Cullowhee recently has completed several projects designed to improve the experience and improve safety for those who ride, walk and run the trails, said Jeremiah Haas, WCU’s associate director for outdoor programs. The system is managed by WCU’s Department of Campus Recreation and Wellness, which is home to Base Camp Cullowhee.
One of the completed projects involved the creation of a trail map showing topographical features that is displayed on kiosks at the two trailheads, which are located at the entrance to the pedestrian tunnel under N.C. Highway 107 and adjacent to the parking lot of WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building. Another project done is the installation of numbered GPS waypoint markers about every one-fifth mile along the trails to aid rescuers in tracking down lost or injured users, Haas said.
To assist trail patrons in navigating their way around the system, the Base Camp staff also has installed maps at three major trail intersections. “Finally, to add a little more WCU school pride, we re-marked the Health and Human Sciences Connector trail with purple blazes and the Cullowhee Connector trail with gold blazes,” Haas said.
With its grand opening held in February 2013, the trail system took about one year to construct and involved more than 1,500 hours of volunteer labor. The trails were built using the International Mountain Biking Association’s guidelines from “Trail Solutions: IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack,” and they are designed to shed water. Finding a significant puddle or any mud is a rarity, even one day after a heavy rain. “The combination of intentional switchbacks, an average grade of 12 percent, grade reversals, rolling dips and water diversions all add up to a flowing trail system that limits major eroding,” Haas said.
Not that the system doesn’t need work from time to time. Once each month, trail stewards from Base Camp Cullowhee walk or ride the system to check for water runoff, fallen tree hazards and other issues that need attention. That information is used to coordinate trail service days that are held once or twice each semester, Haas said. Email and Facebook messages also come in from regular users about problems that need fixing. If a fallen tree is blocking a trail, chainsaw-certified staff members are sent out immediately to remedy the situation, he said.
The Nantahala Area chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association has become a community partner with Base Camp Cullowhee and Campus Recreation and Wellness in maintaining the trail system, with SORBA members donating many hours of service as a way to give back to the community. J.P. Gannon, WCU assistant professor of geosciences and natural resources, is currently the SORBA chapter president and has been instrumental in assisting with trail service days and development of the new system map, Haas said.