Polk County Recreation Complex could host more cross country meets with the addition of 140 acres to its area

A major expansion of the Polk County Recreation Complex is well underway, with 140 acres recently added to the park, a 7-10 mile trail system in the works and other recreational improvements coming soon.

In February, Polk County Government purchased 140 acres of land at Little White Oak Mountain as a bargain sale from Conserving Carolina. This is the second expansion of the park using land that Conserving Carolina protected at Little White Oak Mountain. The first phase added 300 acres to the park, followed by the recent 140-acre addition. That brings the park from its original size of 156 acres to its current size of 596 acres — nearly four times as large.

The expanded park adjoins Polk County Middle School and connects to the Green River Game Lands. It also connects to a future workforce housing development that will be built by the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corporation.

Polk County is using the new land to create a network of trails for hiking, running, and mountain biking. The planned 7-10 mile trail network will provide the only mountain biking trails in the county that are accessible to non-expert riders. Because the trail network is located beside the middle school, it also holds potential for outdoor learning, sports practice, cross country races and activities such as a proposed mountain bike club and outdoor stewardship club.

The trail network is expected to be finished by late 2024, along with other improvements including an outdoor classroom, horseshoe pits and a new playground.

“I am really excited that this project is happening,” says Laura Baird, Recreation Coordinator for Polk County Parks and Recreation. “It’s been a long time coming and the public has been really patient. I’m excited that we finally have the green light.”

In 2021, Polk County received a grant of $336,000 from the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. This grant provided the bulk of the funds needed for the land purchase, trail design and construction, and other improvements. Matching funds needed for this grant came from the Polk County Community Foundation and from Conserving Carolina’s willingness to sell the land below market value. This means that the new land and trails require no funds from the county. The county has supported the project by endorsing the grant proposal and providing workers who will build the playground and horseshoe pits.

Community Trail Design is developing the trail system in partnership with Trail Dynamics. Local volunteers and student groups are also contributing. The middle school trail crew and high school occupational prep classes are helping to remove invasive species, keep the area clean, work on trails, and build the outdoor classroom.

“The fact that we have access to this resource right outside our classrooms opens up a whole world to our students—not just in the academic sense of learning about the animals and plants that live there, but also learning the concept that students, no matter what age or ability, can be stewards of the land,” said Polk County Middle teacher Jeanne Ferran. “Our own backyard is our greatest classroom, and the more we learn and understand it, the better our community will be in the future.”

The expanded local park will also be an asset to residents of the future workforce housing development. The addition makes it possible to connect the Little White Oak Mountain trail system to that neighborhood.

“We look forward to continuing our partnership with Polk County to add public recreational opportunities and infrastructure at this park,” said Rebekah Robinson, Conserving Carolina’s assistant director of programs. “We’re pleased to see the Little White Oak Mountain property supporting so many important goals—providing new places to exercise and play, benefits to schools, a trail system that will boost the local economy, protection for wildlife and water quality, and much needed workforce housing.”

In 2017, two local land trusts that later merged to become Conserving Carolina purchased 1,068 acres at Little White Oak Mountain—land that was once slated for an upscale housing development. Since that time, most of the property has become public land. Six hundred acres were added to the Green River Game Lands and 440 acres were added to the local park. Conserving Carolina also made a bargain sale of approximately 28 acres for the workforce housing development.