Asheboro, NC - While animals may be the number-one attraction at the North Carolina Zoo, a recently opened public hiking trail has added a new dimension to the park for zoo visitors.

One of the zoo's primary goals is to serve as a family-oriented recreational resource for all North Carolina residents, explained zoo Curator of Horticulture Virginia Wall. A recent example of that commitment is a new hiking trail up Purgatory Mountain, perhaps the most historically significant site on the 2,200-acre preserve that is home to the state zoo.

The trail begins at the north end of the zoo's North America Region parking lot and extends a mile to the top of Purgatory. The $12,000-project was made possible through a grant to the N.C. Zoological Society from Modern Woodmen of America and REI Greensboro.

"Our original master plan called for the whole park to be developed into continental exhibits," Wall said. "But while doing botanical assessments of the site we recognized that we shouldn't develop some of these forest areas because they are so biologically diverse and special."

According to the most popular Randolph County legend, Purgatory Mountain gained its name during U.S. Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s. As the story goes, there were so many whiskey stills built on the mountain at the time that their fires lit the area up at night like "purgatory."

Purgatory Mountain is the highest point on the entire zoo site, the largest of any zoo in the world. It's also part of the Uwharrie Mountain range, thought by geologists to be the oldest in North America.

"Most people don't think of zoos having natural areas like we do," Wall observed. "So it gives us alternatives that we can offer to our visitors."

Wall said the new trail provides an easy walk to the top of scenic Purgatory Mountain and that additional property acquired by the zoo will some day enable extension of the trail to nearby Woodell Country Road in Randolph County. Future plans call for the trail to be extended to a total of approximately five miles.

A video segment on the new trail is available on the N.C. Zoo's "Youtube" website at Information is also available on the zoo's website at

The N.C. Zoological Society is the non-profit fundraising organization for the N.C. Zoo. The zoo is an agency of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Dee A. Freeman, Secretary; Beverly E. Perdue, Governor.