Story by Karen Chavez of the Asheville Citizen-Times.
DUPONT STATE FOREST — David Brown is a busy forest supervisor these days.
Brown is in charge of the 10,500-acre DuPont State Recreational Forest on the Henderson-Transylvania line and is overseeing major improvements and construction in the next two months to accommodate the needs of the forest’s “Hunger Games”-sized crowds.
DuPont, which opened to the public in 2000 but since then has seen relatively little infrastructure, will go through a growth spurt in May and June to improve visitor safety and enjoyment of the forest’s more than 80 miles of trails and roads.
The forest has become enormously popular, with a record 358,000 visitors last year, Brown said, up from 250,000 visitors in 2011.
Brown said that upswing is partly attributed to the pop culture hysteria surrounding the “Hunger Games” movie — released in March 2012 and partly filmed in DuPont — and partly to the increase in national media attention to the region, including Brevard, Transylvania County and Pisgah National Forest.
But that all came without the accompanying facilities such as a visitor center, or major trail improvements. That is all changing now.
Projects now under way in the forest include:
• A new parking area at the popular Hooker Falls Access on Staton Road to increase parking from 60 to 120 spaces.
• Construction of a pedestrian bridge near Hooker Falls parking area to allow visitors to safely access Triple Falls without having to cross busy Staton Road and climb over a guardrail.
• Trail upgrades, including an extended trail to High Falls and a new 1.4-mile trail connecting Turkey Knob Trail to Briery Falls Trail.
• Opening of the new Aleen Steinberg visitor center at the High Falls Access Area.
• A forest master plan to be completed by the end of the year.
Hooker Falls parking area, which receives nearly half of the visitors to the forest — 160,000 people last year parked in the lot or on the shoulder of the road — is undergoing an expansion to accommodate 120 cars, Brown said, doubling its capacity. Construction is already underway, and while the parking area and trail to Hooker Falls will be open this weekend, once construction on the bridge begins in mid-May, it will be closed for about two months.
“The goal is to get finished by July 1, when we will have the grand opening of the Aleen Steinberg visitor center,” Brown said. “The bridge will be a way to park at Hooker Falls and walk to Triple Falls without being on the road at all. It will cross the river, just downstream from Highway Bridge, then go upstream to Triple Falls.”
Brown recommends visitors park at the High Falls parking lot, just one mile down the road from Hooker Falls, while construction is ongoing. From there, hikers can easily access High and Triple Falls by a new extension trail completed in February.
Variety of funds move forest projects forward
The trail maintenance contract, which includes the Turkey Knob-Briery Falls addition and improvements to the Grassy Creek Trail, was $44,000, paid for by the Friends of DuPont State Forest, Brown said.
Chris McConnell of Flat Rock, a member of the nonprofit Friends group, said it is exciting to see the tangible results of the group’s fundraising efforts.
The group’s biggest fundraiser, the Tour de Falls, will be Mother’s Day weekend, May 11 and 12. The 12-mile shuttle bus tour takes those who cannot or don’t wish to hike, on a tour to forest highlights — Triple, High and Bridal Veil falls, and Lake Julia. The tour won’t be affected by the construction projects.
“You can stop at each location, get off, take photos, have lunch and get on the next bus,” McConnell said. “This is the biggest fundraiser for the Friends and all the funds go to forest for trail building and maintenance.”
Brown said the most important project is the pedestrian bridge, which is essential for public safety. The $600,000 project, paid with N.C. Department of Transportation funds, will be a steel bridge with wood decking, 120-feet-long by 10-feet wide, set to open by July 1.
“The bridge got a high priority put on it and we’re really appreciative of the way DOT has partnered with us,” Brown said. “We had a couple of people injured when they were climbing over the guard rail and fell and broke an ankle and wrist. Nobody has been hit by a motor vehicle, but somebody could be killed if hit by a car while walking across the highway.”
The Aleen Steinberg Center, also set to open July 1, will be the forest’s first visitor center and will serve as the main point of contact for visitors. Remodeled from an existing 2,600-square-foot building, the center is being built with $85,000 from Friends of DuPont Forest and nearly $300,000 allocated from a multimillion-dollar settlement the state won from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“Normally something like the visitor center, it would require the legislature to appropriate capital improvement funds,” Brown said. “Luckily the Secretary of Agriculture (Steve Troxler) designated money from the TVA settlement.”
The center will include exhibits on the area’s history, forest management, wildlife management, protection of wild plant communities and more, and will include a classroom. It will be staffed “mostly by volunteers,” Brown said, and should be open seven days a week during the busy summer and fall months.
The forest is also working with Raleigh firm HH Architecture to conduct a master plan for the forest, Brown said.
“This will look at facilities and project ahead to what facilities we’ll need, traffic flow and the type of forest users,” he said. “As far as future development, they’ll make a recommendation on where they should be cited. It will supplement the forest management plan, looking at roads and trails, and the system in general.”
“There’s a lot happening in the forest, and the trails are shaping up,” said Jerry Clouse, an avid hiker in DuPont and current Friends treasurer. “I’m feeling very good about what’s happening and the new direction the state is taking with the forest.”
“I think the ‘Hunger Games’ brought a lot more people into the forest,” McConnell said. “Certainly last year was the busiest year we’ve ever seen. Some people say we might be loving the forest to death. But it’s something everyone should see.”