2023 has been recognized by North Carolina’s State Parks as the Year of the Trail, with people being encouraged to explore what outdoor resources are around them. A few months ago, one popular nearby trail got added to the state parks’ ranks.

The Haw River Trail being designated as an official state trail opens up many possibilities – including possibly completing the vision of having it run uninterrupted between the western border of Alamance County to Jordan Lake in Chatham County. Senate Bill 100, which formally added the trail to the state’s parks system, passed through the state legislature on June 1 and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed it into law nine days later. The measure came after several groups involved and invested in the trail worked with legislators to put the bill together.

One of those groups was the Alamance County government. Nolan Carter is the Haw River Trail Coordinator for the local government and recently spoke with 97.9 The Hill about how the state designation is going to make a difference.

“One thing is funding,” he said, “[as] it does make us eligible for more funding opportunities. But also: we’ve had an MOU with all the jurisdictions and counties along the Haw River Trail since we began in 2006. But now, what I believe it’s done is really strengthen those relationships and really put it at the forefront [of discussion]. We’ve had a couple of meetings since becoming a state trail [about] determining those next five-year plans.”

The relationship and coordination between those groups is key, as the 80-mile corridor of the trail is only partially connected. There is a 20-mile land trail that is uninterrupted in Alamance County and 40 miles of completed paddle trail too. And while other sections help lead to recreational parks or other trailheads, connecting it would go a long way to improving accessibility to outdoor spaces across the Piedmont.

The Haw River Trail’s map as of 2016, which shows the existing and future inter-connected sections of the trail corridor through Alamance and Chatham counties. (Photo via the Haw River Trail.)

The Haw River Assembly is another one of those community partners who wish to see the trail expanded while preserving its land. Riverkeeper Emily Sutton says the state trail designation will help its case to become more cohesive, but that the main hurdle to making it more connected is working around private land.

“[While] the Haw River Trail in Alamance County is mostly completed,” says Sutton, “there’s a bunch of sections that don’t have easements yet through private landowners or still have some pieces to be accumulated to really complete that trail. And the same thing for Chatham County.

“And so,” she continues, “there has to be some incentives for landowners to participate in this program in order to continue that Haw River Trail down to Jordan Lake.”

Carter also acknowledged that is a challenge – as is continued focus and coordination through all the stakeholders who are responsible for sections of the Haw River Trail. But he said he feels there’s already some momentum toward making improvements and trail connections.

“I very much believe that in the next five years,” said Carter, “a lot is going to change for the better and the trail will be completed. [That will] not be in five years – but in a realistic amount of time.”

While the land part of the Haw River Trail has many interruptions as of 2023, there is 40 miles of uninterrupted paddle trail in Alamance County. Eventually, that could extend all the way to Chatham County’s Jordan Lake. (Photo via the Haw River Trail.)

For Chatham County, expansion would mean a true connection to the Alamance County stretch used on the Mountains to Sea Trail and the inclusion of Jordan Lake. Presently, there is public access to the Haw River Trail provided through four sites in the county – but the final product may significantly improve residents’ access to the parts of the trail outside Chatham.

Chair of the county commissioners Karen Howard said the local government has been keenly aware of the importance of providing such green connections. She said Chatham County’s leaders have often had conversations about providing equitable access as the county grows and people look to better both their physical and mental health.

“As we continue to have growth pressures, as we continue to see population growth,” Howard said in an interview, “I think there’s a responsibility on government to ensure we protect and preserve the environmental access to good stuff while we can. And [there is responsibility] also to make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s in alignment with what the community is saying is important to it.”

To get a gauge of what the public wishes, Chatham County gathered comments and input to craft a Haw River Trail Feasibility Study this spring. The draft report is now available for the public to review and provide additional feedback on, which can be found online or at the county’s libraries. Long-term highlights include finding those hiking connections with Alamance County from Jordan Lake, as well as improving accessibility to trail and paddle areas. But there are also several short-term projects, like making trailhead improvements and developing formal hiking trails along existing social trails – where people have already been walking.

“We have a lot of trails that have been created simply because that’s where people go,” described Howard, “[like] those kinds of paths along a grassy way and you know that’s where people are [walking] to access a particular place. That gives us a good idea of what access needs to look like, but it doesn’t completely paint the picture we need to have in order to build a robust trail access network along the Haw River. So, that’s the goal of the public input.”

The public’s review and comment period will be open until Friday, September 22. To learn more about the feasibility study, visit the Chatham County government’s website.


Photo via the Haw River Trail.

Chapelboro.com does not charge subscription fees, and you can directly support our efforts in local journalism here. Want more of what you see on Chapelboro? Let us bring free local news and community information to you by signing up for our biweekly newsletter.