Zoomed in view of sign on wooded path identifying a hiking trail. The icon features two hikers and no written label.

Celebrating Year of the Trail

Author: Secretary Reid Wilson

A sign detailing Mount Mitchell's elevation

Back in 2021, a state law designated 2023 as the Year of the Trail in North Carolina. That same year, the budget included transformational investments in parks and trails—the largest in state history! This didn’t happen by accident—Governor Roy Cooper and members of the General Assembly heard the voices coming from the members of the Great Trails State Coalition and other trail advocates. 

As 2023 began, I would sometimes joke that because the Year of the Trail was now the law of the land, everyone was required to get out and hike, bike, or paddle. As we’re approaching the finish line of the Year of the Trail, let’s take a break and look back at this amazing hike. 

Governor Cooper issued a proclamation in January that stated in part, “Trails offer quality-of-life benefits to all North Carolinians as expressions of local community character and pride, as outdoor workshops for science education, as tools for economic revitalization, as free resources for healthy recreation, as accessible alternative transportation, and as sites for social and cultural events.” And those benefits were realized this year—over 1400 trail events in every part of the state so far. The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources hosted 14 Trail Days weekends in communities across North Carolina. 

In August, we awarded more than $3 million in grants for 13 land acquisition projects through the Complete the Trails Program Fund. These grants will leverage more than $13 million in matching funds to help local nonprofit partners acquire land for state trails projects in nine North Carolina counties. The General Assembly and Governor Cooper added two more State Trails this year (Haw River and Equine) for a total of 14 authorized by state law, along with the future Saluda Grade Trail. These include seven land-based trails, four paddle trails, and three that are a combination of paddle and land-based. The planned mileage for the system is over 3,800 miles. More than 34 state parks, state natural areas, and state recreation areas host or are adjacent to state trail segments. 

Clearly, all these activities made a difference. The new state budget that became law on October 3 includes $54.9 million to enhance and expand trails! The Year of the Trail has been a resounding success. But for me, every year is the Year of the Trail. My body and mind need me to hike and bike in natural outdoor spaces. There’s something about breathing in the fresh air, taking in natural beauty, soaking up the smells of the earth and the sound of wind in the trees, and elevating the heart rate that nourishes every part of me. I feel great during it, and even better afterward. 

I see the same kind of response in the folks I encounter out there; everyone’s in a better place when they’re done with their hike, bike ride, run, or paddle, no matter how tired they might be. We instinctively know that this connection to nature improves our physical and mental health and our spirit. The proof -- record visitation in our state parks during the first two years of the pandemic. People needed to get away from all the stress, strain, uncertainty, and grief, and our state’s network of parks, trails, and greenways provided that escape and respite.

That’s why the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources developed Parks and Trails for Health (PATH), an initiative designed to encourage physical activity in North Carolina’s parks, greenways, and other outdoor spaces. PATH connects people to nature by promoting physical activity, expanding outdoor recreational opportunities, fostering an appreciation for the life-sustaining role of parks and natural areas, promoting diverse experiences and voices in the outdoors, and helping people lead healthier and happier lives. 

There are hundreds of state, local, federal, and non-profit trails, parks, greenways, blueways, and nature preserves throughout our state. These public recreational spaces are literal common ground for the people of North Carolina – places where everyone is welcome. But the main thing is to get out there on the trails and in the parks – it will enhance your quality of life, guaranteed. And if you’ve got kids, definitely take them along. It’ll help establish a lifelong connection to the outdoors that will sustain their health throughout their lives. Thank you to everyone at the Great Trails State Coalition for the amazing work this year! We have a lot to celebrate—and I look forward to seeing you on the trail! 

This article was originally published by the Great Trails State Coalition.

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