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Cabarrus Magazine

Ecotourism: Rowin’ Down the River

Aug 01, 2018 08:30AM ● By Jason Huddle

Ecotourism: Rowin’ Down the River

“That which we allow to exist, to flourish freely according to its own rhythms, is superior to anything our little hands create.”

- William Powers

Today’s Catawba Lands Conservancy was founded in 1991 by Mecklenburg County resident, Mary McDaniel. Seeing the development around Mountain Island Lake in northwest Mecklenburg, she became an activist for what was a source of drinking water as well as an ecological treasure.

McDaniel’s goal was to preserve lakefront land, and she wasn’t alone. Volunteers joined her in what was first called SMILE (Save Mountain Island Lake for Everyone). The group was able to get Mecklenburg County government to put a $5.6-million bond on the ballet; it passed and the land was safeguarded. This initial victory spurred the organization to expand its efforts as a non-profit formally renamed the Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC).

The Catawba River Basin covers more than 3,300 square miles – some 8 percent of North Carolina – with 3,000-plus miles of waterways. It encompasses the southwestern region of North Carolina, west of Cabarrus County, but has widened its scope of conservation. Still concerned with water quality, CLC also serves as a steward for farmland, forests, historical landmarks, wildlife habitat preservation, etc. And it is lead agency for such endeavors as the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT).

Cabarrus Magazine first discussed the Thread Trail in its March 2014 issue. Open to the public in 2007, The Thread, as it is called, is a network of trails originally proposed to run through 15 counties. That came to fruition in 2015 when Rowan County adopted its Carolina Thread Trail master plan.

With all on board, communities in each of the 15 counties have been taking part in the planning and construction of their trails and how they connect to adjacent counties.

“Because the project’s emphasis is on empowering local communities and weaving them together, the Carolina Thread Trail could be considered a ‘civic engagement project dressed in greenway clothes’ and will help to build stronger communities in many ways,” CLC says.

“The Thread Trail provides connections from the greenway for adjoining neighborhoods and social centers such as schools, churches and other community facilities. It will help to reinforce the identity of neighborhoods through greenway design by incorporating public art, recognizing local history and creating landmark open spaces. Currently, over 250 miles of Thread Trail are open to the public in North and South Carolina with 14 active corridors under development.”

One of the communities integrating its rural landscape into the project is the town of Midland. In 2010, town officials began exploring blueways with kayak/canoe access points along Rocky River that could coincide with the Carolina Thread Trail.

“Since that time, the Town has committed matching funds and received a grant to construct the

Riverbend Farm Trail and Rocky River Access,” according to CLC. “The Catawba Lands Conservancy has also constructed a third canoe access to the Rocky River known as the Pharr Farm Rocky River Access.”

Serving as the starting point for the Rocky River Blueway, the Pharr Family Preserve Trail opened in 2014; the Riverbend Farm Trail opened just a few months later. The goal is to offer 10 launches along 60 miles of the Rocky River as part of the Carolina Thread Trail; there are currently six:

• Pharr Family Preserve

• Riverbend Farm

• Oakboro Blueway Park I (approximately 18 miles from Riverbend Farm)

• Oakboro Blueway Park II (approximately seven miles from Oakboro Blueway Park I)

•  Plank Road (Wadesboro, approximately 10 miles from Oakboro Blueway Park II)

• Norwood (approximately 5.5 miles from Plank Road).

 Another 7.5 miles downstream, the Rocky River flows into the Pee Dee River. Paddling another 19 miles leads to Lilesville and Blewett Falls Lake – the terminus.

In Cabarrus County, Catawba Lands Conservancy’s land protection team manages the 66-acre Pharr Family Preserve, located on Mt. Pleasant Road S., between highways 601 and 200. CLC’s Open Space Protection Collaborative allows privately owned land to be permanently preserved. This location provides a 1.7-mile (each way) walking/hiking/biking trail that includes a canoe/kayak launch just 300 feet in.

Access is easy – a gravel road leads to a parking lot and the trailhead. The trail winds through forests and open fields to the launch, with the trail continuing beyond. It’s also part of the Butterfly Highway (see sidebar).

The Riverbend Farm Trail, located on McManus Road off Highway 24/27 and adjacent to its namesake farm, is situated four-plus miles downstream from the Pharr Family Preserve. It also provides a gravel road to a parking lot and a one-mile trail (each way). A short walk leads to the launch.

In this case, the owners of Riverbend Farm – Jim, Mary and Sarah Little – donated property right-of-way to the Town of Midland. A grant awarded by the Carolina Thread Trail then covered the trail’s construction costs.

A third trail – the 393-acre Buffalo Creek Preserve Trail – is located on Malibu Road in Mt. Pleasant. Open since 2011, it does not provide access to the Rocky River Blueway, but does meander along Adams Creek (a tributary of Dutch Buffalo Creek) for hikers and bikers. The two-mile (each way) trail is considered moderate in difficulty.

Preserved by CLC, a piedmont oak-savanna at the trailhead was revitalized. The property also offers wetlands, working agricultural areas leased to a local farmer, forests and a variety of wildlife. Buffalo Creek Trail is part of the Butterfly Highway.

While creating these greenways and blueways benefits the natural resources for those who live here – air and water quality and wildlife habitat preservation – it also plays an economic role in the form of tourism and local spending.

“Including development costs, the construction investment over a 15-year period (the proposed period of construction) is estimated at over $100 million. This investment will generate significant economic benefits, including jobs for the local communities and the region,” Carolina Thread Trail says.

Then, as more communities embrace local projects for inclusion in The Thread, it will link one to the next. Marketing and promotion regionally, as well as by word of mouth, will bring visitors that will spend money locally while enjoying purposefully preserved lands unique to Cabarrus County.

Note: As of this writing, a bridge about a half-mile down the Pharr Family Preserve Trail was damaged by storms and was impassable. (It does not impact the launch.) At a cost of $10,000 to rebuild, donations are being accepted at


Article By: Kim Cassell

Photos By: Scott Cassell

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