On August 22, 2015, the Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC) and U.S. Forest Service held a dedication and ribbon cutting for the historic – and recently restored – Upper Thunderhole/China Creek Trail in Blowing Rock. The trail was dedicated to Kirby Brown, a beloved, longtime Blowing Rock homeowner and passionate conservation advocate.
“Kirby Brown was the first person to invite us into her home to talk with her friends and neighbors about CTNC and our efforts to protect the Blue Ridge Parkway back in 1998,” said Margaret Newbold, CTNC Associate Director. “And since Kirby knows everyone in Blowing Rock our story spread quickly! We owe our success in the area to Kirby Brown.”
More than 60 people came out to celebrate and dedicate this historic U.S Forest Service trail to Brown, a lifelong hiker, birder, and explorer of natural places across the globe. “She loves her Blue Ridge Mountains and wants the wilds, the streams, and the views to be there for all of us and the next generations. She was truly honored today,” said Juliana Henderson, Kirby’s daughter.
Kirby’s love for the mountains and Blowing Rock, as well as her fervent belief that young people should be connected to the outdoors, inspired the Conservation Trust to place an NC Youth Conservation Corps (NCYCC) crew on the trail this summer to restore it for public use. For seven weeks the NCYCC crew cleared the trail, installed water bars, switchbacks, and rock steps, making the trail more accessible and safer for families to enjoy. The crew also built a kiosk with information about the trail and Kirby Brown. The crew included Brittany Watkins from Lenoir, NC.
According to the Blowing Rock Historical Society, the Upper Thunderhole Trail was built in the 1920s by the (now demolished) Mayview Manor Hotel to enable guests to access pristine China Creek and Thunderhole Creek for hiking, hunting, and fishing. The trail passes through both Pisgah National Forest and National Park Service land, including a 192-acre parcel along China Creek that the Conservation Trust saved from development in 2001 and is now part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The China Creek/Thunderhole area contains some of the last remaining old growth forest in the East, with trees over 300 years old.
John Wilson, a CTNC board member whose family owns The Blowing Rock attraction, said, “This spectacular trail adds a tremendous, new outdoor recreation opportunity for visitors to Blowing Rock and the High Country. There is no better person to dedicate it to than Kirby, who has been such an inspiration to so many who love and work to protect these mountains.”
The Upper Thunderhole trailhead is across Laurel Lane from the Blowing Rock Equestrian Preserve at 1500 Laurel Lane. From the trailhead, the trail descends over 1,000 vertical feet in just under two miles en route to China Creek. The trail then extends approximately 1.5 miles downstream along China Creek over more even terrain to Forest Service Road 4071. Upper Thunderhole hikers also have the option to hike upstream on China Creek to Moses Cone Memorial Park and the Sandy Flat rest area on U.S. 221.
An unidentified hiker on the refurbished trail was heard to exclaim, “This is the best thing to happen in Blowing Rock in 30 years!”
Financial support for this NCYCC crew came from the U.S. Forest Service and numerous individual donors who contributed in Kirby Brown’s honor.
The NCYCC, a partnership between the Conservation Trust for North Carolina and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, is a comprehensive youth development program that uses the natural world as a platform for teaching environmental stewardship, job and leadership skills, community service and personal responsibility. Four crews deployed around the state in the summer of 2015. Each crew had six to eight crew members between the ages of 16 and 24, and one to two highly trained crew leaders. The crews worked seven hours a day, five days a week, for seven weeks, and were paid minimum wage. Each day also included a one-hour educational program focused on conservation and social topics. The crews lived together at campsites near their respective work projects.