South Fork River Park provides plenty of outdoor experience

by Alan Hodge

If you think it’s necessary to drive to the mountains for a walk in virgin woodlands or to paddle down a river, then think again. Gaston County dedicated a new park April 2 just five minutes from downtown Mount Holly where those options and more are available.

South Fork River Park is located on 44 acres at the end of Mountainview Street off Hickory Grove Road. The park boasts three trails with a total length of about one mile. The main trail, from the parking area to the South Fork River, was carved from a former dirt roadbed. The trails are broad, smooth, covered with gravel and feature benches where hikers can rest. A picnic table and more benches are on the riverbank where 800 feet of shoreline have been cleared.

As far as financing, South Fork River Park proved to be a bargain.

According to Gaston County Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Hart, a North Carolina Recreational Trails Grant picked up about half of the $150,000 cost of construction. The park is part of the 10-Year Gaston County Parks Master Plan.

“This is our first passive park where there are no facilities like ball fields,” Hart said. “You can come here and enjoy nature.”

There’s plenty of nature to enjoy. As you walk the main trail to the South Fork River, you can hear the rapids even before they come into sight. And what a sight it is – the rushing, sparkling whitewater flows over boulders and around an island in the middle of the river.

The view from the riverbank thrilled first-time visitors Randy and Debbie Banks, of Belmont.

“It’s awesome,” Debbie Banks said. “Words can’t describe it.”

Upstream from the rapids, the waters of the South Fork River are calmer. The smoother water is ideal for canoeing and kayaking, and the park provides paddlers with a riverbank ramp to launch their watercraft. The ramp also serves as a convenient take-out point for folks who paddle from the Catawba Nature Conservancy area about three miles upstream from the park at Spencer Mountain.

Randy Banks praised the ramp, adding that he plans to bring his kayak to South Fork River Park.

Fishing will no doubt be a popular activity at South Fork River Park, as huge catfish swim in those waters, Hart said.

Birdwatchers will have plenty to see with many species of warblers, woodpeckers and songbirds populating the forest. Waterfowl of several types are also evident.

Mammals run the gamut, from deer to beavers. Several types of lizards can be seen darting among the rocks and leaves that line the trails.

Frank Rodden has lived next to the park area for 50 years and has already been hitting the trails regularly. Rodden recently spotted a big blacksnake sunning on the trail.

“I just told him he needed to get back and in the woods, and he did,” Rodden said.

Plant life in South Fork River Park is diverse. The land is located where famed French botanist Andre Michaux discovered the rare Big Leaf Magnolia during the 18th century.

According to Hart, future plans for South Fork River Park include construction of another trail that will lead to a stream at the base of a scenic cliff.

Gaston County Travel and Tourism Director Walter Israel feels South Fork River Park will prove to be a popular attraction beyond the immediate vicinity.

“It’s a unique park,” Israel said. “It certainly adds to the quality of life in Gaston County, and once people in the surrounding area find out about it, they will come.”

Though enjoyment of nature is the theme of South Fork River Park, there are some rules in place to preserve that tranquility. These include a ban on ATVs, hunting, campfires, alcoholic beverages and concealed weapons. The park is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

For more information on South Fork River Park, visit the Gaston County Parks and Recreation website at www.co.gaston.nc.us/parksandrec/ or call 704-922-2160.

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