Chatham’s varied trails, walking paths can offer COVID-19 reprieve

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/5/20

Some are short, some are long. Some are gravel, some are dirt, some are paved. Some are loops, some are not.

The walking tracks and trails of Chatham County’s municipal parks departments provide …

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Chatham’s varied trails, walking paths can offer COVID-19 reprieve

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Some are short, some are long. Some are gravel, some are dirt, some are paved. Some are loops, some are not.

The walking tracks and trails of Chatham County’s municipal parks departments provide a variety of options for walkers, runners and bikers, and right now, they’re being used a lot.

“(They’re) being used daily if not hourly,” said Jack Clelland, the parks and recreation director for the Town of Siler City. “It’s a great way for families to get out of the house and stay active. Our use is going up heavily on them. They were always heavily used, but now moreso.”

When Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order No. 121 on March 27, instituting a stay at home order and restricting travel, residents were allowed to travel to walk, hike, run and bike. Public playgrounds were closed, and gatherings were limited to no more than 10 people, but the trails and greenways stayed open. An FAQ document connected to the order stated that people were “encouraged to maintain healthy lifestyles, including outdoor recreational activity, such as walking pets and jogging.”

People in Chatham took that to heart.

Tracy Burnett, the director of the Chatham County Parks & Recreation Department, said trails and greenways were allowed to remain open during the pandemic “because they benefit the community in numerous ways.” She listed a variety of benefits: improved physical and mental health, “environmental stewardship,” reduction in injuries by keeping people away from busy streets and community interaction.

In addition, she said, parks boost Chatham County’s economy through tourism, events and consumer spending at local businesses.

“Hopefully during this pandemic, residents have continued to visit the parks and walked the trails,” Burnett said, “and by doing so, got some fresh air and vitamin D, stayed active, and safely connected with residents by practicing social distancing of staying at least six feet apart while on the trails.”

Chatham County residents have plenty of options in their own backyards, as municipally-operated walking trails are available in Bear Creek, Moncure, Siler City, Chapel Hill and Pittsboro. Each of the municipal governments — Chatham County, the Town of Pittsboro and the Town of Siler City — manage at least three.

The county’s parks and rec staff operates a half-mile compacted trail at Southwest District Park in Bear Creek, a quarter-mile paved track at Northeast District Park in Chapel Hill and a one-mile compacted trail at Northwest District Park in Siler City. Compacted trails, which are featured throughout the county, are usually made of dirt and gravel tamped down to create a solid surface.

Siler City’s team runs the gravel tracks at Boling Lane Park and Washington Avenue Park — each run between one-fifth and one-quarter mile — and the 1.4-mile-long paved Loves Creek Greenway near Bray Park. Pittsboro has four park trails: a one-third mile paved loop at Mary Holmes Park, half-mile trails at Rock Ridge Park and the Robeson Creek Greenway and a two-mile loop around a lake at Town Lake Park.

More than four miles of the regional American Tobacco Trail also run through Chatham County, with two entryways in the Apex portion of the county.

On Saturday, residents have a special reason to go out and use the trails. June 6 is National Trails Day, as declared by the American Hiking Society. The AHS annually challenges people to walk the trails and work to preserve them by cleaning them. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, planned in-person events have been canceled, but walkers and trail hikers are still encouraged to participate and post photos on social media.

“While the COVID-19 quarantines have put into sharp focus how much our minds and bodies need time outside every day, the trails and parks we value are under-resourced and not everyone has easy access to quality green space,” Kate Van Waes, the AHS’ executive director, said in a news release. “In honor of National Trails Day, we are encouraging everyone to take American Hiking’s #NationalTrailsDay Pledge to preserve trails and parks and fight for equitable access.”

Plans are in the works for expansions to trails and greenways throughout the county. The county’s parks and recreation master plan, which was approved by the county board of commissioners in February 2019, recommended an additional 85.3 miles of greenway and nature trails be constructed over the next 10 years.

Burnett said that actually getting the trails constructed is a different conversation — “grants and funding will need to be in place for these recommendations,” she said — but the county’s relative lack of trail length necessitates the consideration.

“Since greenway and trail systems are rated as top five facilities in the Parks and Recreation master plan,” she said, “a recommendation is to create a regional trail network to connect people to places they want to go.”

The Master Plan states that the county offers “fewer miles of trail than other jurisdiction,” and that proposed new trails or lengthening current paths would “increase trail mileage level of service to one mile of trail per 1,000 residents.” Chatham’s walking options currently lag far behind that, just .09 miles of trail per 1,000 residents.

While specific dates for new trail are not available yet, both Burnett and Clelland emphasize the health benefits of partaking in these amenities, particularly during the pandemic that has kept many stuck at home. Clelland specifically cited the Loves Creek Greenway.

“It’s easy to get to, it’s easy on the legs,” he said. “It puts you out in nature and gets you exercising.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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