Rocky Ford – Where it all Comes Together

Partnerships make trails happen and Rocky Ford access in Morganton is the perfect location to showcase partnerships in action. Members the nonprofit, business and local government worlds came together to tell the story with a Hike & Learn.

The event organized by Beth Heile, past president of Friends of Fonta Flora State Trail, is part of an ongoing series Heile started in 2021 to highlight Fonta Flora State Trail sections that are on the ground, educate the community about how the section came to exist and have lunch at a local establishment emphasizing the economic impact trails bring.  Thirteen local hikers gathered at the gravel parking area off Lenoir Road/NC 18 N to hear updates on the trail activity that includes two state trails, a regional trail, a local greenway and a mountain bike trail system. It all started 30 years ago with the City of Morganton Greenway.

Morganton Greenway

Current Morganton City Councilman and past Morganton Parks and Recreation Assistant  Director Butch McSwain welcomed the group. It was the early 1990’s when Morganton began acquiring 6 miles of property along the river. McSwain told the story of how the greenway project started while he was in the department, the man hours it took Gary Leonhardt  to oversee greenway construction and McSwain working with the existing parks and athletic programs operating.

Now the 4-mile paved Morganton Greenway welcomes thousands of visitors a year and has been officially designated Fonta Flora State Trail. With his knowledge of recreation, tourism and local government, McSwain has been an incredible asset to Friends of Fonta Flora State Trail (F3ST) as a board member. The organization created in 2019 to spearhead the completion of the 100-mile trail that runs from Morganton to Asheville is recognized by NC State Parks as the official nonprofit for the trail. As such, they will receive funding to help get trail on the ground across the three counties in the trail corridor.

The Overmountain Victory State Trail (part of the Overmountain Victory National Heritage Trail) is another state trail collocated on the greenway route. The Park Service placed historical markers along the trail section commemorating the historic King’s Mountain March. From Rocky Ford, the trail continues as a Commemorative Motor Route northeast via Highway 64 to Lenoir. Like F3ST, this state trail has a official nonprofit. OVNCST-Friends, Inc  headquartered out of Morganton and led by historians Bryant and Linda Lindsey.

Mountain Bike Trails

Michael Lowther, Overmountain Cycles and Brittany Watkins, FCNC discussed the 4.5 miles of mountain bike trails that are under construction in partnership with the City of Morganton. The trails will be accessed from the parking lot (away from the other trails) and include beginner, intermediate and advanced trails. Hiking will be allowed on most of the trails.

The River Trail (Burke River Trail)

Taking advantage of the space, the parking area will serve as the western terminus of The River Trail. The planned 20-mile hiking and biking trail will be a mix of natural surface, crushed cinder and paved trail types as it wanders along the river banks and into downtowns of eastern Burke County.

Burke River Trail Association, the nonprofit for the trail had board members Christa Pearson and Beth Heile at the event to provide an overview of the trail. Though economic development is a goal of the trail, Heile said she has been surprised by the opportunities for housing, office and retail space and eateries brought by trail discussions – before the trail is on the ground. The other benefit, Heile went on to explain has been the sense of pride shown by the local governments as they have a new attraction on the horizon that will highlight their history and natural resources while offering health and recreation benefits to residents.

Starting at Rocky Ford, four miles of the trail route have been nailed down with verbal agreements and the paper work is in process. The written agreement needed from private landowners is called a trail easement which allows the public to access the property.

Grace Ridge is the first landowner after walking under the Lenoir Road bridge and Vulcan Industries is the last. Stakeholders gathered at Vulcan last week to discuss the trail location. Since the property is an active quarry with large trucks and machinery, the safety of trail users is extremely important. The overall site began operation in 1986 and consists of about 309 acres, nearly 100 of which serve as buffers. Within the buffer area, hikers and bikers will be kept safe. Vulcan is excited about populating their section of trail with educational kiosks explaining mining operations, environmental stewardship efforts and how stone is used in everyday applications.

“Vulcan Materials literally builds the community,” said Denise Hallet, Vulcan community and government relations manager. “Our products are a major component of asphalt, concrete and base materials that build roads, schools, hospitals, homes, churches and more.”

What’s Next for Rocky Ford

With all the existing and planned activity at Rocky Ford, the City of Morganton is looking at updates for the site. Heile has gathered folks from NCDOT, NCWRC, Morganton and Grace Ridge to meet at the site to discuss the options. An improved access driveway, parking, restrooms, picnic area and kayak launch are amenities in the discussion. The next step is to look for grants for funding the the new trailhead and park.


Wildlife Official Visits Burke River Trail Sites

Ashton Godwin, Legislative Liaison with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), spent a day away from his Raleigh office touring water access sites located along a planned regional pedestrian trail in Burke County. Rep Hugh Blackwell had several meetings in Raleigh with Godwin to discuss to discuss potential trailhead sites for the Burke River Trail (BRT), but Blackwell thought it was advantageous for Godwin to visit Burke County with him to get a first-hand look.


Weaver Lane Boat Ramp in the eastern part of the county was the first stop. Rhodhiss Town Manager Rick Justice, Mayor Allen Spencer and Councilman Mike Phillips welcomed Godwin and other stakeholders. Justice shared his vision for the 131-acre property to host camping, picnicking and trails – including the BRT. Because the property is owned by Duke Energy, managed by NCWRC as a motorized boat ramp, and is in Burke County’s jurisdiction it was critical for representatives from each entity to be present for the discussion. Alan Glines, Burke County Community Development Director & Deputy County Manager regarded the meeting as “a beginning step to view opportunities for regional recreation facilities in eastern Burke County along with potential partnerships with State and local stakeholders.” Parks Director Treg McGee took part in the site visit and shared “there was a Burke County plan from about 15 years ago that looked at this exact recreational use, but the economy at the time did not allow it.”

Dialogue continued at the Rhodhiss location of the Copper Penny Restaurant which is also along the BRT corridor. A key topic centered on the future of the Burke County Convenience Center parcel that is adjacent to the Weaver Lane Boat Ramp tract. After the Rhodhiss Road center is relocated to Highway 70 in Icard, the 44-acre site will be empty. Further research is needed to learn what is possible from a health and safety standpoint on the former landfill property. The hope is that the property could be become part of the recreation plan.


Traveling west, NCWRC and Duke Energy stopped at Valdese Lakeside Park to meet with Valdese Mayor Charles Watts, Manager Seth Eckard, Parks and Recreation Director David Andersen. NCWRC has designed a combination fishing pier kayak launch for the park. Andersen, who is the town liaison with NCWRC noted, “We have a lot of visitors at Valdese Lakeside Park, and these amenities would certainly bring more people to see what a great asset we have. We regularly hear from our visitors that they would love to have a place to fish or to more easily access the water.” Cayce Brennan with Duke Energy’s Lake Services handles pier permitting requests and explained the process to the group. Once Duke has accepted the complete application, which includes permissions from several environmental agencies, it will require Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval. All agencies are working as quickly as possible to get this fishing pier and kayak launch ready for Valdese. Mayor Watts expressed his appreciation to Duke and NCWRC for their efforts sharing his strategy, “We continue to add new amenities to our Town that will be beneficial to our citizens and pull in newcomers who want to make Valdese their home.”

Grant Buckner, Watershed Manager- Northern Basin, and Ryan Carter, Policy Manager with Catawba Riverkeeper updated attendees on the recently published “Northern Basin Restoration and Protection Plan” and Catawba Riverkeeper’s restoration efforts in the Northern Basin (View plan here). Additionally, Catawba Riverkeeper raised the need to address restrictive state statutes that limit a community’s authority to handle stormwater runoff.


The final site for the day was Rocky Ford Access in Morganton. The gravel parking lot found at the end of the Morganton Greenway, also designated Fonta Flora State Trail, is where the BRT will begin. NCWRC visited the location a few weeks ago to determine the feasibility of a fishing pier. At that same meeting, a representative from NCDOT verified the BRT could continue under the US-64 and NC-18 bridges. The goal for the access is better parking, restrooms, boat access, fishing pier, and extension of the Morganton Greenway via the BRT. Extending the Morganton Greenway to Riverview Apartments was in the original greenway plan many years ago.

Standing at what will be the western terminus of the BRT, Representative Blackwell shared the trail objective, “In addition to providing a healthy lifestyle to citizens, the Burke River Trail will have a positive economic impact to the towns through tourism, and those wanting to move to an area with trails and outdoor activities.”

Other Trail Updates

The McGalliard Creek Bridge installation creates the first two miles of Burke River Trail. A section close by will be on the ground within the next year. The Burke County Public School Board voted at the August Meeting to allow the BRT to cross their property located north of Draughn High School. The Town of Valdese will hold the trail easement allowing the connection to Valdese Lakeside Park. The trail will follow Hoyle Creek and Lake Rhodhiss to reach a proposed housing development called Valdese Bluffs.

Vulcan Materials Company in Morganton has property along the river trail corridor that is in the county’s jurisdiction. Steve Jetter, WNC Area Operations Manager for Vulcan, accompanied Shane Prisby, Burke County Community Development Operations Manager and Beth Heile, BRT Coordinator for a walk on the Vulcan property. The goal was to verify there is room for the trail and still be a safe distance from Vulcan’s operations. The walk was educational for all as Prisby shared trail design strategies with the group while Jetter shared best practices for quarries.

For the Vulcan segment of the BRT, Vulcan will continue their commitment to education by placing several exhibits along the trail for users to learn about how rocks and minerals are used in society. “We are excited about this opportunity to partner with the Burke River Trail stakeholders by offering part of our buffer land along the river for the trail segment.” remarked Denise Hallett, Vulcan Community and Government Relations Manager.

The route is still being fine tuned in Drexel, Rutherford College, Long View and Hildebran. And, though not part of the Burke River Trail, Downtown Morganton has a connection to Fonta Flora State Trail and planning from downtown Glen Alpine to the Fonta Flora State Trail is in the works.

Heile is under contract with Western Piedmont Council of Governments to serve as the Burke River Trail coordinator to narrow down the route, obtain easements and get trail on the ground. “Having grown up in eastern Burke County and attended East Burke High School, I am thrilled to be working on a regional trail that will showcase the what the small communities in eastern Burke County have to offer,” Heile said of her new position.

The 20-mile Burke River Trail will follow the south side of the Catawba River, dipping down to the small towns of eastern Burke County. The hiking and biking trail will be a mix of natural surface, crushed cinder and paved as it wanders along the river banks and into downtowns.

To learn more about the Burke River Trail, there will be a drop in public input session on Tuesday September 13, 4-6 pm at Rutherford College Town Hall at 980 Malcolm Blvd. Heile with be there with maps and handouts to answer any questions and take suggestions.



Ashton Godwin – NCWRC Legislative Liaison, Paul Thompson – NCWRC Northern Mountains Land Management Biologist, Rick Justice – Rhodhiss Town Manager, Rhodhiss Councilman Mike Phillips, Rhodhiss Mayor Allen Spencer, Robert Block – Western Piedmont Council of Governments GIS Specialist, Treg McGee – Burke County Recreation Director, Rep Hugh Blackwell (NC-86), Tami Styler – Duke Energy Project Manager, Robin Nicholson – District Manager in the Government and Community Relations, Shane Prisby, Burke County Community Development Operations Manager, Alan Glines – Burke County Community Development Director & Deputy County Manager

Rep Hugh Blackwell (NC-86), Alan Glines, Shane Prisby, Robert Block, Ashton Godwin, Robin Nicholson, Tami Styler, Rick Justice, Mike Phillips, Treg McGee

Seth Eckard – Valdese Town Manager, Charles Watts – Valese Town Mayor, Grant Buckner – Catawba Riverkeeper Watershed Manager- Northern Basin, Ryan Carter -Catawba Waterkeeper Policy Manager, David Andersen – Valdese Parks and Recreation Director, Rep Hugh Blackwell (NC-86)

Andrew Tallent – Assistant Director, Morganton Parks and Recreation, Rep Hugh Blackwell (NC-86), Beth Heile – BRT Coordinator, Paul Thompson – NCWRC Northern Mountains Land Management Biologist, Bryan Fish – Director, Morganton Parks and Recreation, Grant Buckner – Catawba Riverkeeper Watershed Manager- Northern Basin

Steve Jetter, Vulcan, Shane Prisby, Burke County


Burke River Trail at a Glance

One page says it all – Trail Coordinator Beth Heile created this graphic to explain the trail in one page. She also has a complete slide show and is available to present at meetings of civic groups, local governments and more!

At this time, 4 mile segments in Morganton, Valdese and Rhodhiss are almost pinned down (with 2 miles complete in Valdese).


BCPS Property

(l-r) BCPS Auxiliary Services Director Dr. Bob Acord, BCPS Superintendent Dr. Mike Swan, local trail advoacte Beth Heil, Representative Hugh Blackwell, DHS Principal Jeanene Burris, BCPS Board Chair Wendi Craven, BCPS Assistant Superintendent Dr. Karen Auton, Burke County Commissioner Chair Scott Mulwee

Burke County Public School Board of Education (BCPS BOE) owns acreage along the corridor in Valdese north of Draughn High School (DHS). In a meeting at the school, stakeholders discussed the options for the trail to cross the property. One option is to combine the property with Valdese Lakeside Park and the other is to provide a trail easement. The trail easement allows hikers to access the property but takes away the school’s liability. A non-profit or local government would hold the easement.


Morganton – Grace Ridge Meeting

Steps are continuing to plan the Burke River Trail from the end of the Fonta Flora State Trail (end of the Morganton Greenway) to the north side of Grace Ridge. An MOU is being prepared to allow City of Morganton engineers on the property to determine a feasible route. Then a trail easement can be drawn up with a more precise location of the trail on the property.


Morganton – Waste Water Area

Trail enthusiast Bryant Lindsey took BRTA President Beth Heile on a tour of the Morganton Waste Water Plant Property and the Skeet Range.

It seems going south of the Skeet Range is the safest option!


Public Input Meeting

After 3 zoom meetings and 10 site visits, the proposed Catawba River Trail Corridor was revealed at a drop in public input meeting at the outdoor Pavilion behind Connelly Springs Town Hall. Attendees reviewed the maps, discussed the routes and provide additional feedback.


River Cleanup

Volunteers with Catawba River Wildlife Coalition and Friends of the Valdese Rec participated in the Catawba Riversweep on Saturday by cleaning the river from Rocky Ford Access to Huffman Bridge. The 10 volunteers collected 10 bags of trash along the 4.5 mile route. Yes, that is a hippity hop!

Part of the cleanup was checking the shoreline on the south side of the river for the future Burke River Trail.

Pictured left to right – Eric Heile, Adele Ritchie, Dannie Ritchie, Averi Ritchie, Beth Heile, Jason Toney, Tom Troy, Ted Carothers, Rachael Dial, Leslie Thacker


Vulcan, Connelly Springs, Long View

The planning team for the Catawba River Trail (former working title – Burke River Trail) met with a surprising partner on Wednesday. Vulcan Materials Company owns property on the river in Morganton which would provide about one-half mile of trail along the waterfront and is interested in sharing their natural resources with their neighbors.


Rhodhiss and Hildebran

The Burke River Trail town tour continues had stops in Rhodhiss and Hildebran this week. On Monday, Representative Blackwell, FVR President Beth Heile and representatives from Western Piedmont Council of Governments (WPCOG) got a tour of Town of Rhodhiss from new Town Manager Rick Justice. Justice took the group to the Rhodhiss Boat Access on Weaver Lane which would be an incredible stop on the trail with restrooms and parking. The town-owned Horseshoe Trail Park was also a must see. It includes a walking path across the old dam, kayak launch, and views of the current Rhodhiss Dam. Robin Nicholson, Duke Energy Government and Community Relations said Duke Energy has archived pictures of the construction of Rhodhiss Dam that could be used for educational signage along the trail near the dam.


Rutherford College on Board

After Rutherford College Mayor Gary McClure and Town Manager Kenneth Geathers met with planners from Western Piedmont Council of Governments (WPCOG) to learn more, they are on board with what the trail will bring to Rutherford College.


Morganton and Drexel

Morganton City Manager Sally Sandy was more than ready for the visit from the Burke River Trail planning team which included Representative Blackwell, Western Piedmont Council of Governments (WPCOG) GIS Analyst Todd Stroupe and Beth Heile. The City of Morganton had explored the idea of expanding the Catawba River Greenway to the east in the past and Sandy’s staff was full of ideas and route suggestions. The greenway continuation is in line with the Burke River Trail that Representative Blackwell is spearheading with the goal of improving the health of citizens and the health of local economies.


WPCOG Assistance

In April, 2020, Western Piedmont Council of Government (WPCOG) committed to a feasibility study for the Burke Catawba River Trail. Beth Heile met with WPCOG Planners Alison Adams and John Wear to create a list of stakeholders and developed starting plan. Stakeholders would be town managers, land owners, land trust, tourism and the county.


Foundation Laid – Valdese

Burke River Trail Meeting Attendees: Doug Setzer – BCPS Director of Auxiliary Services, Wendi Craven – BCPS Board of Education, Averi Ritchie – WPCOG Planner, Larry Bragg – Natural Land Alliance, Representative Hugh Blackwell, Scott Carpenter – Deputy Burke County Manager, Doug Knight – Valdese Parks and Recreation Director, Shane Gardner – Principal DHS, Doug Hallyburton – Assistant Principal/Athletic Director. Not pictured: Beth Heile – President, Friends of the Valdese Rec

The foundation was laid today for the first section of the Burke River Trail – 4 miles from McGalliard Falls to Valdese Lakeside Park to Draughn High School to a private development.


The Original Idea

In October 2018, Representative Blackwell talked to Beth Heile at the Valdese Rotary Pancake Breakfast about a trail along the river. The trail would reach each municipality in eastern Burke County, bringing health for the citizens mind and bodies, and boosting the local economy. At the time, Representative Blackwell was involved with the Wilderness Gateway State Trail and Heile with Valdese Lakeside Park.