Everybody knows that Asheville is an outdoor oasis. Like other mountain towns in the Blue Ridge, it’s been heralded by many magazines—including this one—as a top adventure destination. Beer City and Bike City, U.S.A., Asheville is also home to top trail runners, gonzo climbers, and the best paddling in the country.
But there’s more to Asheville—and every other mountain town in the South—than just its outdoor offerings. In the shadows of the beer pubs and bike shops are housing projects like Hillcrest with spectacular vistas of the mountains but no way to get there. The Hillcrest community is crammed between two interstates and a crowded overpass. The housing units line a bluff overlooking the French Broad River with views of Mount Pisgah in the distance, but most Hillcrest residents have never ventured beyond city limits.
Three years ago, Nicole Hinebaugh set out to change that. An avid hiker and outdoor adventurer, Nicole loved exploring the wild woods. But after a few years of hiking the Blue Ridge, she noticed that all of her fellow outdoor adventurers were white and moderately wealthy.
So she began organizing a series of summer hikes for Hillcrest kids. They became so popular that she eventually needed a bus to transport them all to the trailheads, where they hiked in the woods for the first time. Some of the kids feared that pythons and boa constrictors hid along every curve of the trail, because their only experience with nature had been through watching movies like Anaconda. Nicole eased their concerns. She taught kids the names of trees and plants. She splashed with them beneath frigid waterfalls and guided them through increasingly challenging terrain. By the end of the summer, the Hillcrest hikers had become confident outdoor explorers.
“At first it was scary, but then we just got used to being in the woods,” says William, a twelve-year-old Hillcrest hiker. “Now I’m not afraid no more.”
Today the Hillcrest hikers are one of the largest youth hiking groups in Asheville. Nicole and her volunteer crew lead hikes every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the summer to iconic destinations like Black Balsam, Graveyard Fields, and Douglas Falls. They operate on a shoestring budget and rely mostly on donations. They’re always seeking volunteers, youth hiking shoes and backpacks, snacks, and other support.
The biggest cost—and the highest hurdle—is transportation. The Hillcrest hikers program is overflowing with interested kids eager to venture beyond the concrete jungle, but most lack a way to get to the trailhead. City buses don’t run to the forest, even when the forest is only a few miles away.
I often take for granted my drive to the trailhead. If I want to go for a ride or a run, I just hop in the car and go. But for most folks living at Hillcrest and other Asheville housing projects perched on adventure’s doorstep, they can only stare longingly at the mountains.
The outdoors is still (mostly) free. The trails are open to everyone, and they don’t require fancy gear to enjoy them. Our public lands are one of the country’s most egalitarian achievements. But access to them remains tilted lopsidedly toward those who can afford it.
Fortunately, there are dedicated outdoor enthusiasts like Nicole—and dozens of young kids thirsting for new adventure. All they need is a ride.
–Join or support the Hillcrest hikers this summer and encourage your town to extend bus routes to parks and trailheads.