The completion of the Graveyard Ridge East trail project in September of 2021 marks an important moment, linking together our successes of the past few years and paving the path forward for the implementation of our full-scale trail rehabilitation of the Graveyard Fields complex. Continuing on the completion of the TPC contract on Ivestor Gap trail in the summer of 2020 and the Forest Service contract on upper Graveyard Ridge trail in the summer of 2021, the close of this project on Graveyard Ridge East is a great achievement. Within the space of a year-and-a-half, 5.4 miles of continuous high-elevation trail in dire need have received heavy maintenance and rehabilitation. This means many things: a better hiking experience, newly opened vistas, reduced impacts to the Dark Prong watershed, easier future maintenance, access for Forest Service Fire personnel to plan and implement prescribed burns, and more. Excitingly, this project also marks the first direct trail improvement project completed in the Graveyard Fields complex, standing as an initial step in our restoration of the Graveyard Fields trail network at large.

Phase 1—Ivestor Gap Trail

In 2013, the Forest Service developed work plans and applied for state-funded RTP (Recreational Trail Program) grants for heavy maintenance on Ivestor Gap trail and Graveyard Ridge Trail between Ivestor Gap and its intersection with the Mountains-To-Sea Trail.  The main goals were to mitigate sedimentation impacts to the Dark Prong watershed, a critical high-elevation habitat for native brook trout and other important species, and to provide much-needed deferred maintenance on these difficult-to-maintain trails.  These trails are old railroad grades from the logging days inherited into the Forest Service trail system.  Due to their wide trail bed, large berms, and the dynamic environmental factors common to high-elevation Pisgah terrain, they are nearly impossible to maintain without the use of heavy machinery. 

Ivestor Gap slide before 2

The Forest Service was awarded one of these grants for their proposed work on Graveyard Ridge trail.  Unfortunately, they did not receive the grant for work on the Ivestor Gap trail.  For those familiar with this area of the Pisgah, it is clear that this presented a problem.  The only access for trail building equipment to reach this section of Graveyard Ridge is via the Ivestor Gap trail.  Despite receiving funds to rehabilitate Graveyard Ridge trail, this project was not implementable without significant rehabilitation to the Ivestor Gap trail, which the Forest Service did not have the funds to accomplish.  It seemed that this worthy project would be unable to be realized due to real logistical challenges on the ground.

Enter TPC.  As expiration for the Forest Service RTP grant approached, The Pisgah Conservancy set out to solve this problem.  With financial support from the Lastinger Family Foundation, TPC drafted a contract for the heavy maintenance of Ivestor Gap trail and secured Singletrack Trails as the trail building contractor. Despite COVID-related delays in the spring, they completed work in theIvestor Gap slide After summer of 2020.  Their work included the installation of new rolling grade dips, hardening the trail and filling ruts with stone, chiseling obtrusive high spots in bedrock, and ensuring positive drainage throughout this 2.2 mile section of trail between the Sam Knob parking lot and the trail’s intersection with the Graveyard Ridge trail at the border of the Shining Rock Wilderness.  Previously a rough trail with large pools of standing water, significant ruts, and negligent drainage, the completed product allows for a better experience, a more comfortable and sustainable route of access to the many high-country trails and big vistas in this amazing area of the Pisgah.  It also allowed access for trail builders and their machinery to move on to the next phase of work—Graveyard Ridge.

Phase Two—Graveyard Ridge West 

 With access assured through TPC’s work on the Ivestor Gap Trail, the Forest Service was able to take advantage of the previously approved RTP funds and put the project out to bid.  The contract was awarded to Black Diamond Trail Designs, and construction began in late GYR West location 1 under constructionspring of 2021. This 2.1 mile section of trail runs beneath Tennent Mountain, connecting Ivestor Gap with the Mountains-to-Sea trail and traversing the upper reaches of the Dark Prong watershed.  Heavy earthwork and big machinery were the order of the day, with the removal and/or replacement of a series of failed culverts and the restoration of a heavily entrenched and damaged old roadbed to a sustainable trail with positive drainage. The transformation of this trail was indeed dramatic.  Once a rhododendron-choked slog through ankle-deep water, loose rock, and shoulder-high berms, the trail has been drained, debermed, and outsloped.  Beautiful new vistas have been opened up, offering views of high mountains and distant valleys. 

Phase Three—Graveyard Ridge East

As the Forest Service and Black Diamond Trail Designs planned, prepared, and started work on their project on Graveyard Ridge West, the Pisgah Conservancy was also working with Black Diamond Trail Designs to develop a follow-up contract for work on the next section of Graveyard Ridge trail.  Taking advantage of having a highly-skilled professional trail builder already mobilized on-site, TPC was able to maximize efficiency while arranging for heavy maintenance on this section of Graveyard Ridge running east from its junction with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for 1.1 miles above Graveyard Fields to its junction with the Graveyard Fields Connector trail.  As a hike-onlyGYR East Final staircase trail,narrower and more sinuous than GYR West and Ivestor Gap, this portion of the project required both heavy machine work and a light touch.  Effective and consistent drainage along the length of the trail was achieved through berm removal, outsloping, and the installation of armored grade dips. Impressive stone causeways and open stone culverts allow for comfortable walking and dry feet while traversing through boggy areas and the many seeps that spring from the mountainside of this high-elevation trail. A series of stone staircases have been constructed to stabilize the trail tread, mitigating past and preventing future rutting and entrenchment in the trail.  Shortly after completion of this portion of the project the area was hit hard by Tropical Storm Fred, and a 100-yard landslide covered a portion of the newly renovated trail.  But with some contractor equipment still on site, we were able to address this damage quickly.  Black Diamond came back in and stabilized the site, adding a new heavy stone stairway to help hikers traverse the landslide area safely.  With that final touch this part of the project was completed

Now a beautiful trail and a fine hiking experience, Graveyard Ridge East offers great views of Graveyard Fields and the massive flank of Black Balsam in this special corner of the Pisgah high country. 

Into Graveyard Fields

The completion of heavy contract trail work on this 5.4-mile section of challenging, high-elevation trail in three phases in less than a year-and-a-half stands testament to the effective and productive partnership between the Pisgah Conservancy and the Pisgah Ranger District.  Working and planning together, strategizing, developing, and implementing projects for the betterment of the Forest, maximizing our available resources to make important improvements on the ground: these are both the shared goals and enacted realities of TPC and the Pisgah Ranger District.

As always, we keep looking ahead, working with full commitment, building on our successes and pushing the momentum forward.  Next stop…Graveyard Fields.