'Pretty darn amazing': Proposed 70-mile Haw River Trail gets new momentum
Recent state legislation will speed up plans to build a 70-mile trail along the Haw River between Greensboro and Chatham County.
On the north side of Burlington, existing sections of the Haw River Trail give hikers and kayakers easy access to the wide, rocky river. They pass by remnants of old textile mills that used the river to power generations of commerce in Alamance County.
Trail volunteer Andrew Sam points out an old stone structure along the path near the historic Glencoe mill village.
"This was where the water came in — they would divert the water through this mill race here," he said. "And it would go down the mill race, head to the mill and actually would turn the turbines in the mill so the mill could operate. So just this little section here is pretty darn amazing."
Sam leads the local task force for the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which includes part of the Haw River Trail. Every week, he leads volunteer crews to maintain the trail and build new sections. Dozens of people show up to help make the project a reality, but it’s hard work.
"Working a trail like this, you start out with maybe a six-foot section," Sam said. "And about three hours later, you're still working on that same six-foot section, because you have to cut out the vegetation, you have to get it down to the subsoil and you want to grade it to 3 to 5%. And then you want to smooth it off so it's walkable."
While it’s possible to canoe or kayak through most of the Haw River, less than half of the trail is complete so far. Alamance County has built about 20 miles of short sections between Ossipee and Saxapahaw, at opposite corners of the county.
A bill that Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law last month, sponsored by Alamance Sen. Amy Galey and Rep. Stephen Ross, will help make it a regional trail. The legislation will designate the entire route to the parks system as a state trail, including proposed sections in Rockingham, Guilford, Alamance, Orange and Chatham counties. Sections will be officially added to the trail system as they're approved by the N.C. Trails Committee.
The goal is to eventually build the trail from Haw River State Park, north of Greensboro, to the point east of Pittsboro where the Haw River enters Jordan Lake.
The state trail designation will help bring more funding and government resources to the project. And it will help local governments in the five counties work together. Trails across the state are getting more attention in 2023 through the Year of the Trail program.
But even with funding, Alamance County trail coordinator Nolan Carter says it’s still a challenge to persuade property owners to open up their land.
"I wish I could give you an exact timeline of when it would be done," he said. "But, I mean, it could be 15 years, it could be 50 years. It's ultimately up to the landowner."
Chatham County is taking steps this year to develop more of its section of the trail. It’s currently conducting a feasibility study and plans to release a draft plan next month.
We are excited to have this study wrapping up as it will serve as a road map for expanding recreational hiking and paddling along the Haw River in Chatham.Trails and Open Space Planner Ben Rippe
"We are excited to have this study wrapping up as it will serve as a road map for expanding recreational hiking and paddling along the Haw River in Chatham," trails and open space planner Ben Rippe said.
Backers of the trail say it will spark economic development along the river, including the possible redevelopment of some of the vacant historic mill properties. Carter points to the riverfront apartments and restaurants that have made Saxapahaw a popular destination.
"We're in the process of trying to carry that energy upstream to a couple of other river communities, so that they can capitalize on the river being there and benefit them economically as well," he said.
More trail extensions are already under construction in Alamance County, and Carter says the state trail designation is providing momentum.
"I would say in the next five years there there's going to be, I think, a great improvement in how much trail is offered along the Haw River," he said.
Further development of the Haw River Trail will eventually allow the Mountains-to-Sea trail to move off the sides of roads in the area. The 1,100-mile trail runs from the Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, but for now much of it isn’t on a traditional hiking path. Sam wants to see that change.
"So there is more road walking than I would like," he said. "But I'm working on it. One day, maybe in my lifetime, we'll get it all in the woods like this."