“We have these beautiful assets here that we don’t want to exploit, but we certainly want to take advantage of,” said Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Secretary of Operations Jeremy Hyatt. “And this is the next step in the evolution. Hopefully this will prove to be as successful as Fire Mountain has been at this point.”
Fire Mountain is the name of the EBCI’s 11.5-mile mountain bike trail system, located just a 10-minute drive from the future disc golf course — and it will also be the name of the disc golf course. The new park has been christened the Fire Mountain Disc Golf Sanctuary, keeping the same branding as its extremely successful counterpart.
“We figure the Fire Mountain brand has done well,” said Hyatt. “Why not expand that?”
The course design
The 18-hole course winds through a 20-acre parcel that abuts the Smokies, just past Cherokee Central School. The property is home to old-growth oak, walnut, locust, sourwood and pine trees, with massive rock formations and rhododendron bunkers adding to the challenge. Due to the property’s proximity to the park, wildlife often frequent the area — an interview tour of the course had to skip Hole 11 when a bull elk’s choice of a napping spot blocked the access.
From concrete tee pads, disc golfers will have the choice of two layouts — a gold layout sure to challenge even the most skilled professional golfer, and a red layout offering shorter drives. Of the 18 holes, six will feature two permanent short baskets, and nine will have extra sleeves so that course managers can move the baskets around, keeping the experience fresh for repeat players.
The course will also include three putting/practice greens, benches near each tee pad and a spacious pavilion in the middle of the course, and it will double as a walking area for people who don’t want to disc golf but do want a nice stroll through the woods.
Course designers are currently considering hole names and signage for the course — Hyatt said he wants the signage to honor Cherokee culture, whether that includes using syllabary on signage, naming holes after Cherokee chiefs or culturally important wildlife, or a combination of those ideas.
“I’ve always wanted to have a disc golf course,” said Hyatt. “It’s a great thing to have — yet another outdoor amenity for our citizens and our guests. It kind of goes along with the flavor of Fire Mountain.”
Now in its fifth year of existence, Fire Mountain attracts mountain bikers from all over the country. Hyatt wants to see the tribe’s ecotourism offerings continue to grow, and disc golf seemed like an ideal fit.
So, on Oct. 1 of last year, he and Justin Menickelli of Asheville-based Disc Golf Design Group had a “what if” conversation about building a disc golf course. Hyatt loved the idea but wasn’t sure if there was any suitable property available.
When they found the property on Big Cove Road, the conversations got more serious. The three course architects at Disc Golf Design Group, of which Menickelli is one, developed a concept for the course and came up with an estimated cost. Hyatt brought the proposal to Principal Chief Richard Sneed and then, in March, to the EBCI Planning Board, which approved it. The project went to contract in June. Hyatt said it’s expected to end up costing $150,000, not including the cost of planned parking improvements associated with the disc golf course.
Disc Golf Design Group has also designed courses such as Highland Brewing in Asheville and Jackson Park in Hendersonville. Menickelli says the soon-to-open course in Cherokee will be one of the best in the region.
“You’d have to drive to Charlotte or Morristown, Tennessee, to find a course this challenging,” he said. “And even then, you won’t find one nearly as beautiful.”
Starting next year, the course will host sanctioned tournaments, further expanding Cherokee’s ecotourism base, but outside of tournaments access will be free for enrolled members and visitors alike.
EBCI Project Manager Jeremy Hyatt and architect Justin Menickelli are two members of the team that has worked to bring the project to fruition.
A surging sport
Until fairly recently, disc golf has been a rather obscure sport. The rules are similar to golf, but instead of hitting a golf ball into a hole, players through a Frisbee toward a basket.
In 1975, there was only one disc golf course in the entire United States, according to statistics from the Professional Disc Golf Association, and by 1995 there were still only 560 courses. But in the last 20 years, the sport has exploded, with the number of courses multiplying from 1,145 in 2000 to 9,342 in 2020.
Since the pandemic, interest has only accelerated. The number of PDGA members shot up 33% from 2019 to 2020, bringing total membership to 71,016. By far, most of those members — 80% — live in the United States.
Demand for disc golf extends to Western North Carolina, if a mountain bike survey the tribe completed in 2020 is any indication. The survey drew 700 responses.
“In the comment section, there were more comments about, ‘We’d love to see Cherokee get a disc golf course’ than pretty much anything else,” said Hyatt.
Hyatt and Menickelli both expect the new course to fit in well with Cherokee’s existing assets, such as Fire Mountain, and with the attractions offered by the national park next door.
“We did some research on that,” said Menickelli, referencing his time in leadership at the PDGA. “We asked disc golfers what other activities they enjoy, and number one on the list was hiking, and toward the top of the list was mountain biking.”
Growing the outdoors identity
The disc golf course isn’t the only outdoor recreation project on Hyatt’s docket.
Next year, he hopes to break ground on an expansion of the current Fire Mountain Trail System, to be located on property near the water plant with a parking lot next to Native Brews. In addition to more trails, that project would include hardscape features like an asphalt pump track, kids bicycle playground and a skills park.
“What we want to do is lower the entry point, bringing more families and more children into the mountain biking community,” Hyatt said. “We want to have the amenities there that will allow for spectating, for events, and just for a family-friendly environment for kids as young as 2 to get out on their bikes and ride.”
If tribal government approves the contract and everything goes forward as planned, the expansion will open in 2023.
Meanwhile, the EBCI is working on a separate trails project in the Plott Balsams. Located on 471 acres contiguous to more than 1,500 acres owned by the Town of Sylva, the Shut-In Creek property will likely be developed into a trail system suitable for both hiking and mountain biking. The tribe is currently collaborating with the town on a master planning process for the area.
The casino is still the tribe’s big moneymaker, and Hyatt doesn’t see that changing. But the investment in outdoor offerings like the disc golf course is miniscule compared to the cost of major investments like casino expansion , and the return is undeniable. The disc golf course — and the Fire Mountain expansion, and the Shut-In Creek Trail System — will bring visitors to Cherokee who will spend their money there. But just as importantly, these outdoor amenities will improve quality of life for local Cherokee citizens.
“If everybody else is doing it, we want to capture those dollars as well. We want to capture that market as well,” Hyatt said. “And we have the perfect place to do it. I think we have something to offer in Cherokee that no one else has to offer, and that is the fact that we have been here for millennia. We have our cultural and traditional uniqueness that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”