Pisgah National Forest, founded in 1916, covers much of North Carolina’s northwestern mountains. Pisgah was the first national forest created from purchased land rather than from the public domain. Many of its half-million acres were purchased from the widow of the Biltmore Estate’s creator, George W. Vanderbilt. Its name comes from its landmark feature, Mount Pisgah, on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, that in turn was named for the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land. The Forest includes such notable attractions as the Linville Gorge and Falls, and the Cradle of Forestry, the site of America’s first school of forestry. Pisgah offers a wide variety of outdoor pleasures including outstanding hunting and fishing, and excellent hiking and camping with 138 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
For hundreds of years, the stunning, rolling geography surrounding the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers near present day Asheville has been one the most vibrant regions of the southern Appalachians. Early Native communities dotted the area’s low hills and deep valleys, thriving off an abundant variety of fish, wildlife, and agriculture. Later, European settlers introduced a centralized, Christian, commercial culture from which sprung town halls, churches, and drover’s trails. The modern era, characterized by the challenges of population growth and the connectivity of both the railroad and the interstate highway, brought with it exploitation – and thus the need to intentionally create a manmade balance positioned somewhere between both preservation and progress. One example of that intention is truly a regional treasure and a natural monument to both the region’s past as well as its future, the 500,000 acre Pisgah National Forest.
While the Tongass National Forest in Alaska is the largest, and Yellowstone is recognized as the oldest, the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina is likely the most significant – for it is here that the modern art of forest management in the United States traces its origins. In the last half of the 19th century, George Vanderbilt was building his magnificent home, Biltmore, just outside of Asheville. His dream included being able to comment, as he gazed west from his estate’s sweeping balconies, “I own everything the human eye can see.” Thus he began purchasing huge expanses of mountainous forestland. One tract contained Mt. Pisgah, a dominant peak visible from miles away.
Vanderbilt hired one of the nation’s first professional foresters, Gifford Pinchot, to manage the more than 100,000 acres on his estate. It was here that the young Pinchot honed his skills, developing methods to maximize sustainable timber production while simultaneously protecting the natural waterways and other abundant natural resources. So successful was Pinchot in the Pisgah Forest, that he was recruited by the federal government to coax to life Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of a national forest service managing vast tracts of wilderness throughout the country. Eventually, Pinchot became regarded as the “father” of modern forestry for the practices he first initiated in the mountains of western North Carolina – specifically effective, structured management of natural resources combined with conservation (an idea he popularized). When Pinchot left the mountains of North Carolina for Washington D.C., Dr. Carl Schenck replaced him as chief forester at Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate. It was there where, in 1898, Schenck founded the first forestry school in the United States, The Biltmore School of Forestry. Not long after that, in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was established and Gifford Pinchot was named its first director. Without question, the momentum and enthusiasm to both manage and preserve natural wildernesses was growing.
Several years after the founding of the Forest Service, the United States Congress passed the Weeks Act. The 1911 legislation appropriated 9 million dollars to purchase 6 million acres of land in the eastern U.S. and gave the federal government the authority required to designate specific areas “National Forests”. The Act’s primary goal was the rescue of rapidly disappearing watersheds. Unregulated exploitation of the land had eroded the terrain and depleted the natural protective canopy of forested areas. Navigation, wildlife, plant life, and water quality had suffered as a result. Almost immediately an acquisition was made in McDowell County, NC – which eventually became recognized as the first purchase reserved for what would become the Pisgah National Forest. Another notable tract was carved out of the Biltmore Estate, 87,000 acres sold to the Forest Service following the death of George Vanderbilt. It was this vast acreage that contained Mt. Pisgah, the obvious source of the forest’s name. Officially organized in 1916, the Pisgah National Forest grew to include woodlands in 12 western North Carolina counties and can lay claim to the fact that it was the first National Forest designated in the eastern United States.
Pisgah is one of four National Forests in North Carolina. With many elevations reaching over 6,000 feet, it includes some of the highest mountains in the eastern United States. Pisgah National Forest is divided into four Ranger Districts. The Appalachian/French Broad Ranger District straddles the North Carolina / Tennessee border, adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Grandfather Ranger District lies southeast of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Blowing Rock and contains the popular Linville Gorge. The Appalachian/Toecane Ranger District lies northwest of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Blowing Rock and boasts the important wildflower habitats at Craggy Gardens and Roan Mountain. The Pisgah Ranger District is dominated by Mt. Pisgah and is noted for Looking Glass Rock and Devil’s Courthouse as well as dozens of beautiful and accessible waterfalls. It is located roughly between the towns of Asheville, Brevard, and Waynesville. This district also contains the Cradle of Forestry. A National Historic Site, the Cradle of Forestry is located on the grounds of the old Biltmore School of Forestry. Its 6,500 acres commemorate the beginning of forestry conservation in the United States. Here, visitors interact with local craft workers that are recreating the skills that would have been required for survival at the turn of the 20th century.
In Pisgah, a variety of recreational opportunities are available for just about any person of any age. Containing over a thousand miles of trails and wilderness areas, Pisgah National Forest is a year-round hiking destination. 138 miles of the Appalachian Trail weave through the Forest. Other activities include fishing, rock climbing, camping, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, leaf-watching, and whitewater sports. In addition, the region is the epicenter of the generations-old Appalachian folk arts and crafts tradition. All of this is complemented by some of the most dramatic scenery in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Without a doubt, whether one is seeking deep gorges, sweeping vistas, or lush forests, the Pisgah National Forest is a fulfilling destination. This gem within our mountain heritage is truly a monument to both nature’s timeless splendor and mankind’s role in its preservation.
Interesting lore: Mt. Pisgah is named for the biblical Mount Pisgah, from which Moses saw the Promised Land after wandering through the wilderness for 40 years. Legend credits the naming to Rev. James Hall, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian minister who was part of Rutherford’s 1776 expedition into the Cherokee Nation. Hall was impressed by the natural beauty and bounty visible from the mountain and drew upon his knowledge of the Bible to name the peak.
Essay by Timothy N. Osment
Director, Cashiers Historical Society
For more information please see the following:
- Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians, Donald Davis, 2000
- The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2006
- North Carolina’s Mountain Treasures: the Unprotected Wildlands of the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, Thomas J. McClure, 1993
- Hiking the Carolina Mountains: Appalachian Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, DuPont State Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pisgah & Nantahala National Forests, Upstate South Carolina and Much More , Danny Bernstein, 2007
- The Status of North Carolina’s National Forests, Sonja N. Oswalt and Tony G. Johnson, 2002
- Western North Carolina Attractions
- Great Outdoor Recreation Pages
- Cradle of Forestry
- Sherpa Guides
Below is the Digital Heritage Moment as broadcast on the radio: