By the year 1888 the forests of Western North Carolina lay in ruin. Years of unregulated logging and poor farming practices had left the woodlands of the southern mountains an eroded, tangled shadow of their former majesty. It was into this denuded natural environment that the wealthy young George Washington Vanderbilt arrived that year seeking out a refuge for the pneumonia which had plagued him of late. Vanderbilt fell in love with Asheville and the mountains which surrounded it and quickly determined to build a massive and opulent estate where he could live year-round. The following year work on what would become the famed Biltmore Estate began and Vanderbilt set about buying up incredible amounts of property to surround it. As his land holdings soon surpassed the 100,000-acre mark Vanderbilt hired the famous Frederick Law Olmstead (who created New York's Central Park) to turn the surrounding forest into a gigantic park. Olmstead set out to explore the forests with which he'd be working but soon returned to Vanderbilt with some bad news. In his words, the forests were "miserable". It would be near-impossible for him to create the magnificent park which Vanderbilt envisioned with the woodlands in such a condition. His recommendation...hire a professional forester who could improve the health of the surrounding hills using methods recently developed over in Europe. Vanderbilt agreed to this plan and soon had hired just such an individual...a man who would soon grow to become an icon in American Forestry, Gifford Pinchot. During the early 1890's Pinchot adopted the woodlands of the Biltmore property as his own personal forest management laboratory. Many of the resource practices he utilized later on a national level where developed and honed during these years. By the mid-1890's Pinchot had also convinced Vanderbilt that he would need the assistance of another forester so, in 1895, a German with a fresh PhD in Forestry was brought to Asheville to aid in the great project, a man by the name of Carl Alwin Schenck.
Doctor Schenck immediately immersed himself in this new environment, working side-by-side with Pinchot to develop new forestry practices, practices both universal in application as well as site-specific to the unique and varied environments of the Southern Appalachians. When Pinchot accepted a position in Washington which would soon lead to the establishment of the United States Forest Service, Schenck found himself in sole charge of what had come to be known as the Biltmore Forest. In 1898 Dr. Schenck decided to take what he had learned thus far managing Vanderbilt's woodlands and proposed to open a school where future generations of foresters could also come and learn. This was a historic step, no official Forestry program yet existed in the United States. So it was in September of 1898 that the Biltmore Forest School, the first in the nation, opened. Drawing students from across the country Schenck developed his own unique style of teaching and focused on the economic benefits of proper forest management, known as practical forestry. Summer sessions at the Biltmore School were spent out in the field in the Pink Beds area to the south of Mount Pisgah near Brevard. Taking up residence in many of the remaining abandoned farm cabins in the vicinity, the students split their time between classroom studies and work out in the field learning the forestry techniques which Schenck had developed. The program was intended to be taken over the course of one single year. In addition to the many cabins which housed Schenck’s students and rangers a number of other buildings, such as a small commissary, Schenck’s office, and a schoolhouse were also constructed. The school ended up being quite short-lived, only operating from 1898 until 1913, but during that period it graduated over 300 new foresters who would go on to help manage and restore public and private woodlands across the nation.
Following the passing of George Vanderbilt, his widow expressed interest in preserving the forest which the Biltmore School had done so much to restore. Thus it was that, in 1915, the Federal Government upon completing the purchase of over 87,000-acres of Vanderbilt’s property, established Pisgah National Forest as the first National Forest in the Eastern United States. Over the years the forest has continued to expand and grow; now covering much of the western portion of North Carolina and protecting over half-a-million acres of verdant mountain woodlands. In honor of the work done by Vanderbilt, Pinchot, and especially Dr. Schenck the U.S. Forest Service established the Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site in 1968 near the location of the original Biltmore School to the north of Brevard. At just over 6,700-acres the site preserves a number of historic structures, most of which date back to the time of the school, and provides a fascinating look at the early years of American Forestry and how the teachings of Dr. Schenck have evolved into the forest management practices of today. Twin one-mile trails loop through the now lush forest, itself a testament to the successful efforts of the Doctor and his students, with one focusing on a tour of the old Biltmore School buildings while the other is an interpretive trail explaining the fine points of forest management. Both trails are paved and quite easy to walk…suitable for kids and wheelchairs alike. It is a wonderful place to spend a few hours upon a visit to Pisgah and honestly should get quite a bit more attention than it receives. So in this album I take you on a tour of the Cradle of Forestry National Historic Site making walks along both the one mile loops which originate from the visitor center. I first make the trip around the Biltmore Campus Trail, stopping at the various historic structures along the way and attempting to provide a bit of background on each. I then head over to the Forest Festival Trail where the focus is more on the tools and techniques of forest management. Again, various stops along the way exhibit different aspects of this focus and I do my best to give a brief summary of what each location is sharing with the visitor. With that said, come on along with me for a step back into the early years of American Forestry and marvel a bit on how far we’ve come in our understanding of the protection and management of this immensely valuable natural resource. Hopefully you find the Cradle as beautiful and fascinating as I have…and, as always…ENJOY!!!
Mileage Hiked: 4.5 miles Hike Duration: 2:00
Trailhead Temp: 40'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,150' Max. Elevation: 2,775'
Total Vertical Gain: 725' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 213'