Fonta Flora State Trail
The Fonta Flora Trail is a long distance pathway which was authorized by the State of North Carolina in 2015 and will, when complete, stretch from Asheville to Morganton. It is one of six such State Trails and, as it is so new, very little of the eventual route has been constructed…as of 2019 only around 16 of 100 total miles. What does exist, though, gives great hope for what might eventually follow. Namely the portion of the trail I’d be hiking this day at the new Fonta Flora County Park on the north shore of Lake James. The trail winds its way for about four miles through the park, frequently dipping down near the lake, passes through extensive pine forest, and even offers some views of the nearby Linville Gorge. It’s a fantastically well-constructed pathway. The planning and care with which the trail was constructed is easily appreciated upon first walking it. In addition, a network of connector paths within and surrounding the Fonta Flora provides the opportunity for a couple of loop hikes to be created along with it. The one I’d be enjoying this day is the longer of the loop options available. It would utilize the connector trail joining the Fonta Flora to the nearby Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a short road-walk, and then the entirety of the Fonta Flora Trail itself. I was excited to finally get to enjoy this new State Trail for myself and, not to spoil things, it wouldn’t disappoint.
As mentioned earlier, the hike would begin and end at the hikers lot at the entrance to the new Fonta Flora County Park along NC-126. The loop can be hiked in either direction. Due to the relative lack of any major elevation changes there’s really no advantage one way or the other from an effort standpoint. Hiking it counter-clockwise as I did, however, saves the most scenic portion (the Fonta Flora itself along the lake) for the back half of the hike. So that’s the way I’d recommend. The route begins then by following the path which leads across the highway from the west side of the parking area. A sign just beyond the crossing informs you that this path is the Connector Trail which joins the Fonta Flora and Mountains-to-Sea Trails. Immediately the trail enters an almost pure forest of tall pines. These surroundings will become more and more familiar as the loop continues. About a half mile into the hike the trail comes alongside and then crosses White Creek via a large culvert which provides passage for the stream under the nearby highway. Beyond the stream is one of the first extended climbs of the hike as the trail switches back up the nearby ridge. Continuing through the pines there are occasional broken views of Lake James to the south through the trees. After a mile and a half the trail suddenly emerges from the woods at Wolfpit Road, where the least enjoyable part of the hike begins. For the next half-mile the route follows first Wolfpit Road to the south and then follows NC-126 south and east. In the future, hopefully, the Fonta Flora Trail will be extended west along the lakeshore eliminating the need for walking this undesirable section but, for now, the road is the only option. As it is, if there’s an upside, at least there’s some nice views of the lake to bad had along this stretch. The road portion of the hike ends at the Linville Access for Lake James. A long parking area and boat dock are here and, more importantly, so is the western trailhead for the Fonta Flora which is located at the lots far end. If the road walk was a disappointment, don’t worry, the good stuff is about to begin.
Beginning alongside a large kiosk the Fonta Flora departs east from the parking area under cover of pines and with the waters of Lake James lapping long the shore only a few feet away. If you’re like me you’ll have hardly set out and already find yourself stopping to enjoy the lake view. Soon, though the trail curves far away from the lake as it seeks out a crossing of the wetlands surrounding nearby White Creek. A third of a mile later the path does indeed cross the creek though, at of the time of this visit, the bridge was still under construction. Luckily large rail ties had been placed to help heavy equipment across and so I was able to cross dry as well. Beyond the (future) bridge the Fonta Flora will not be hurried into getting back alongside the lake. First it winds quite a ways inland up a beautiful valley and then along a high ridge covered in pines. Three-quarter miles later the waters of Lake James finally come back into view. For nearly the next two miles this will be the routine for the Fonta Flora as it alternates time diving inland into the thick forest and then emerging back out along the lakeshore. At first it bugged me a bit that the trail didn’t spend more of its time along the lake but, eventually, I began to appreciate the variety that these alternating changes offered. It also made for a decent workout as the sections heading inland typically involved short climbs while emerging at the lake involved minor descents. The path did a wonderful job of keeping all the muscles working steady without ever feeling too strenuous. About 1.5-miles from White Creek the trail dips down behind a small cove where a short spur leads out to a particularly nice spot along the lakeshore. As the trail curves to cross the southernmost point of the peninsula a quarter mile later it reaches another viewpoint, this time high above the lake, back to the west of Shortoff Moutnain and the southern ridges surrounding Linville Gorge. This is, in my opinion, the finest overlook to be had on the entire loop. Beyond the Shortoff Mountain view the trail now begins to curve back up the east side of the peninsula, once again spending equal time alongside and away from the lake. Just before its last curve inland the trail passes a large wide “beach” which offers a good spot to take a final breather and enjoy the waters edge one more time. From this point the trail curves back inland climbing slightly, dipping through a wetland crossed by a particularly pretty little footbridge, and then climbs once more among the pines to the junction with another connector trail. Here the future Fonta Flora Trail continues east while the connector path leads uphill the final quarter mile back to the trailhead.
The Fonta Flora Trail exceeded all my expectations. The scenery was beautiful, as you might expect from a lakeside hike through the pines. What impressed me more, however, was the obvious love that had been poured into creating this trail. It’s wide well-graded surface, the beautifully designed foot bridges, the way it never demanded too much while still being challenging enough to feel a sense of accomplishment, and the subtle variety of its surroundings made more interesting by its lazy winding nature. It’s absolutely fantastic, and sets a high bar for the development of future trails of its like. I am more excited than ever to see what will become of the Fonta Flora Trail in the future. If the remaining 84 miles of its 100 mile length are anything like what already exists, that’s something I will truly look forward to walking. With that, I now present to you a loop hike of (a portion of) the fantastic new Fonta Flora State Trail…as always, ENJOY!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.797328, -81.856423
Route Type: Loop Difficulty: MODERATE
Hike Length: 7.2 miles Hike Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 35'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 1,200' Max. Elevation: 1,320'
Total Vertical Gain: 420' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 58'
Trails Used (blaze color): Fonta Flora (orange), Fonta Flora Connector (blue) Fonta Flora-MST Connector (blue)