The Mountain Behind the School
A new park at Little White Oak Mountain will offer hiking and mountain biking.
The horizon behind Polk County Middle School is dramatic. As school busses pull in every day, the kids see a rugged peak behind their school, covered in forests. For some students, that might deepen their sense of place and belonging. But others may barely notice it, says science teacher Rowann Hoy. People don’t always see what’s right in front of them. You can live surrounded by wonders and never know it.
Rowann is a Florida native, but she always wanted to live in the mountains. A few years ago, when her husband retired, she decided it was time to live that dream. Her kids were grown up, and she figured, “I can teach anywhere.” A position for a sixth grade science teacher came up in Polk County, and she went for it.
Back in Florida, north of Orlando, she had led a hiking club, taking kids out to wetlands, scrub land, and pine woods. There was no hiking club at Polk County Middle, so she started one. Now, there are over twenty kids in the club, and there’s a waiting list for some hikes.
“Here, the emphasis seems to be very much on sports,” she says. “There’s a lot of kids that don’t do sports. So, hiking club is good for kids that need an outlet some other way.” A number of students who are autistic join on the hikes. “Anyone can hike,” Rowann says.
She sees herself in the hiking club kids, especially the introverts. “I kind of fit the group of kids that hike,” she says. “They tend to be the kids that maybe would normally not seek other people out as friends.”
Students bond through the club. They get exercise in a fun way. They say hiking helps them relieve stress—which is good news, Rowann says, but at the same time she thinks, “Man, you’re eleven years old and you have stress.” They also get excited about what they discover outdoors. Every year, Rowann takes a survey about what the kids want to do. Based on their choices, this year’s hikes include a salamander search, fall tree identification, and trip to a frozen waterfall.
The kids learn the natural features that make Polk County special—its off-the-charts biodiversity, its unique geology as the mountains heave up from the Piedmont. Rowann will point out the names of local landmarks, like Little White Oak Mountain behind their school.
All of their hikes are in Polk County. This year, they will visit Woodland Park, Saluda Nature Park, Little Bradley Falls, Walnut Creek Preserve, Vaughn Creek Greenway, and Alexanders Ford.
Rowann says, “Most of these kids don’t even know that these trails exist in Polk County. They’ve lived here their whole life, their parents have lived here, and they don’t know about the trails that are here in their own backyard. So that’s been my goal for the hiking club—to get them out and see what’s available right here in their own backyard, for free.”
“Last year, I had some parents go with us to the Missing 40 trail, and say, ‘I’ve lived here my whole life and I didn’t even know this was here.’ I loved hearing about that. That was my goal. I was like ‘Yes!’”
Saving Little White Oak Mountain
Soon, students at Polk County Middle will be able to hike in literally in their backyard—because the eastern slopes of Little White Oak Mountain are going to be a new local park.
Little White Oak has long been a priority for local conservation groups. But it was a target for development too. A few years ago, a developer owned over 1,000 acres of the mountain and had plans to build 687 houses on it. From the middle school, the view would be of trees being felled, roads being cut, lots being cleared.
But during the recession, the developer dropped those plans, and, in 2017, two local land trusts—Pacolet Area Conservancy and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy—were able to purchase the property, with the support of local donors. The two groups have since merged into one nonprofit land trust, Conserving Carolina.
This month, they are transferring this protected land to its new owners, who will open it to the public for recreation. Six hundred acres is going to the state for addition to the Green River Game Lands, to expand land available for hunting, fishing, and hiking. Three hundred acres is going to Polk County for the park near the middle school. Later, another parcel at the base of the mountain is expected to transfer to the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corporation, to build workforce housing.
No county dollars were used to purchase land for the park. Conserving Carolina donated $550,000 worth of value and the remaining $350,000 came from the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The park will be added to Polk County’s existing recreation complex, which adjoins the school. On the other side, it connects to the Game Lands.
New Outdoor Opportunities
Jerry Stensland, director of Polk County Parks and Recreation, spearheaded the project on the county’s side. He says that the vision is to build seven to ten miles of hiking and mountain biking trails—which would create the first mountain biking destination in Polk County.
Jerry, who lives near the border of Polk and Rutherford Counties, also co-founded the nonprofit Rutherford Outdoors Coalition to improve public access and get local residents more engaged with the outdoors.
In Polk County, he says, there are already opportunities for many kinds of outdoor recreation. People take zipline tours and river trips. They go hiking and visit waterfalls. But when it comes to mountain biking, locals put their bikes on their cars and head out of the county. What if they didn’t have to do that—and bikers started coming into Polk instead? With as many as 10 miles of trails at Little White Oak, Jerry says, “I think it has the potential for a destination. It has the potential to bring in visitors and help local businesses.”
Once the trails are built they will be maintained by the AmeriCorps Project Conserve member who serves with Polk County Parks and Recreation, as well as by volunteers. The AmeriCorps member also helps Rowann lead hikes. (Conserving Carolina coordinates AmeriCorps Project Conserve, which places 33 members at 18 environmental organizations throughout Western North Carolina.)
Principal Todd Murphy says, “Polk County Middle is very excited about the plans for the Polk County park at Little White Oak… Our students will benefit through the use of the park, through hands on learning experiences. Our classroom teachers will have access to the park for outdoor learning activities. Our clubs and athletic teams will also benefit through the use of the multi-use trail system.”
Jerry says that among other benefits to the school, the cross country teams will train on the trails. And there’s been talk of students starting a mountain biking club.
Rowann says, “I’m excited about the possibility of trails that go up the mountain, so I can use it for hiking club. Jerry and I have talked about having hiking club help build the trails, too, so that’s a possibility. We could build some ownership with that.”