Mountain Biking

Butter Gap Trail to be revitalized by Pisgah Area SORBA – Citizen Times

Pisgah Area SORBA volunteers rock armor a section of Turkey Pen Gap Trail to prevent erosion.

In a project that could cost up to $350,000, a local mountain biking nonprofit will be working with the U.S. Forest Service and The Pisgah Conservancy to revitalize Butter Gap Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, which was identified as unsustainable by the Forest Service.

Pisgah Area SORBA, part of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, will be recreating the trail to be more sustainable by decommissioning more than a mile and building over 5 miles of new trail, according to a news release. The group will also be performing “heavy maintenance” on 2 miles of the existing trail to make it more resilient to extreme weather, the release says.

According to Craig Ruhland, president of Pisgah Area SORBA and current project manager, construction on the trail is set to begin in the spring or summer.

“We’re not just specifically building mountain bike trails. We’re a mountain bike nonprofit, but we work on and maintain trails that are used by sports persons, hikers, trail runners and equestrians,” Ruhland told the Citizen Times on Jan. 13. “We take a lot of pride in that.”

He said he hopes he project will be finished by Christmas, but the exact timeline has yet to be determined because an environmental report still needs to be finalized. After that report is completed and the Forest Service approves the final design, a contractor will be hired for the construction, though SORBA volunteers will help as well.

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Hikers will not have to worry about too many closures, said Pisgah Conservancy Trail Specialist Jeff Maitz.

“There will be closure at certain points, but not during the entirety of the project. A lot of the trail actions are occurring outside of the existing corridor of Butter Gap Trail, so closure shouldn’t be necessary during those times,” Maitz said. “Closures will be limited to when it is absolutely necessary for public safety and trail construction operations within the existing corridor.”

While the revitalization project by SORBA will help to make the trail more sustainable and easier to maintain, the reason for the project is the poor condition of the trail. Maitz said that the trail currently has “severe, unsustainable” problems, like sections where it falls into Grogan Creek or where the lack of rainwater drainage contributes to sediment in nearby bodies of water.

Butter Gap Trail is also a “legacy trail,” he said, which means the Forest Service inherited it when it took over the property. Typically, these trails are old logging roads that were never meant to be sustainable.

The trail — currently 4 miles long — is located between two other trails: Cat Gap Loop and Art Loeb Trail. Cat Gap Loop is around 4.5 miles long and has an entry point located at the parking lot of the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education. Art Loeb Trail is 31 miles long and covers several significant peaks including Black Balsam Knob at 6,214 feet elevation, Tennent Mountain at 6,040 feet and Pilot Mountain at 5,095 feet.

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The realignment of Butter Gap Trail project will also change a section of Cat Gap Loop to a hiking-only designation by creating an alternative route for mountain bikers, which SORBA hopes will reduce trail-user conflict, further disperse users throughout the forest and establish year-round access to the area. Currently, the area is open to mountain bikers only six months out of the year.

Pisgah Area SORBA volunteers build a rock crib to hold together a section of rock armoring on Farlow Gap Trail that was significantly affected by Tropical Storm Fred.

To construct the new sections of the trail, mini excavators around 24 to 36 inches wide head out into the forest to dig new paths, according to Ruhland.

“Building in Pisgah is really difficult, because we have pretty remote sites. We have really sleep cross-slopes. We have a lot of rocks and trees. So, the trail building is usually pretty slow, and that generally means its a little bit more expensive,” he said. “We can normally build about a mile per month, so if you have like a 4- to 5-mile project, that could easily be like a six-month project by the time you decommission everything else.”

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Decommissioning a trail, Ruhland said, involves leveling out sections that were washed out by rain, which many sections of Butter Gap Trail have been, then putting down rocks and fallen trees over the old trail to stop further erosion. The areas will also be seeded, he said, to encourage plant growth and further prevent rainwater from washing dirt away.

“Normally the Forest Service, they’ll come out and watch everything really closely, and we’ll have a contractor there,” Ruhland said. “We normally try to work with experienced local contractors that have done a lot of work in the forest.”

The project will cost SORBA between $275,000-$350,000, with $100,000 being covered by a state Recreational Trails Program grant the group was awarded for this project in 2018. The Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority has also committed $45,000 in funding, the news release says.

The Pisgah Conservancy is paying for the environmental report to be completed, further bringing down the final bill.

Christian Smith is the general assignment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times. Questions or comments? Contact him at or 828-274-2222