Fueled by strong volunteer participation, progress is continuing on a 26-mile multi-use section of the Mountains to the Sea Trail from downtown Elkin to Stone Mountain State Park.
Dr. Bill Blackley, chairman of the Elkin Valley Trails Association (EVTA) told the Wilkes County commissioners Tuesday night that volunteers logged over 4,600 hours in the effort last year.
Blackley said about 85 percent of the trail from Elkin to Stone Mountain will be in Wilkes, including through the county’s new 43-acre Carter Falls Park, when finished. The remainder will be in Surry County.
Except for a bridge across Big Elkin Creek just below Carter Falls, the 2 ½-mile section of trail from Isaac's Trailhead through the park to Big Elkin Creek has been completed. The section northwest of Big Elkin Creek hasn’t been completed.
For the bridge’s total estimated cost of $400,000 to $450,000, a $150,000 grant from the N.C. Division of Water Quality has been approved, a $200,000 to $250,000 grant from the N.C. Park and Recreation Trust Fund is being sought and the EVTA already has about $50,000.
Due to action taken by the commissioners Tuesday night, the county will lease the 43 acres for $1 per year from the state and it will be managed by the EVTA.
The county cleared land and Lowe’s Companies Inc. and the county provided gravel for a parking lot at the park entrance along Pleasant Ridge Road. Lowe’s also provided rails for a fence around it and Lowe’s volunteers worked there.
Blackley said the bridge, about 160 feet long, will be a suspension structure but secured well enough to have little “swing.” He said the project engineer determined that it needs to be 23-36 feet above Big Elkin Creek and possibly at least 30 feet downstream from the base of the 60-foot waterfall.
The Mountains to the Sea Trail will go across the bridge. Soon after the trail leaves Big Elkin Creek on the west side, it will pass through the Brandon and Julie O’Steen family’s Harris Field Vineyard. Brandon O’Steen said a wedding venue is planned at a point just above the waterfall.
He said a short side trail will take visitors to the grave of William Harris, a Revolutionary War veteran who joined the Virginia militia in 1777 and was chosen for the commander-in-chief’s guard. This group guarded Gen. George Washington and his belongings.
O’Steen removed brush from the overgrown cemetery and repaired Harris’ military gravestone and one of the two other gravestones he found there. Julie O’Steen is supervising Girl Scouts Raven Poindexter and Gracie Harrison as they refurbish the cemetery.
Online publicity about the Harris grave has drawn visitors from as far away as India and several states. Harris married a Fields and the O’Steen property was part of the Fields farm, hence the name of the vineyard.
Brandon O’Steen is a former Air Force major who flew in KC-135 Stratotankers and was deployed six times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The roughly 16.5 miles of trail from Carter Falls Park to within Stone Mountain State Park will be for hikers and horseback riders. Completed portions from Carter Falls north include three miles on Wells Knob (where it climbs 500 feet in a half mile with a series of switchbacks), three miles near Mosswood Road and 2 ½ miles within and south of the state park.
A section about a mile long is being built near Sawyer’s Store on the John P. Frank Parkway to connect with a horseback trail. Rock is being blasted this week to make it more passable.
Blackley said about five of the seven miles of trail from downtown Elkin to Carter Mill Falls are in place. This includes two miles within town and the developed portion of Elkin Municipal Park and three farther north.
He said work is to start soon on two bridges on the southern end, one about 75 feet long and the other about 40 feet long. Boy Scout Riley Lyles, with the help of Will Gwyn, plans to build the shorter bridge, utilizing an old bridge abutment, as an Eagle Scout service project.
The section of trail from Elkin to Carter Falls is for hikers and cyclists.
An additional 6.4 miles of mountain bike trail completed adjacent to the southern end and near Elkin Municipal Park include three routes with different levels of difficulty: Iron Falls, Elkin Creek and Possum Shot. Cycling events are held there.
Blackley said volunteers meet at the McDonald’s restaurant near the Lowe’s Home Improvement store on N.C. 268 Bypass on the first Thursday of each month and leave there at 8:30 a.m. to go work on the trail. “We call ourselves the Trail Titans,” he said, adding that volunteers will be clearing kudzu off bank near the Elkin Library on Saturday.
Blackley is part of a 12-member EVTA board, each with different responsibilities. The EVTA is responsible for the Mountains to the Sea Trail from the Devil’s Garden Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where leaves the top of the Blue Ridge and enters Stone Mountain State Park, to Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry.
Blackley, a retired family physician who also serves on the Mountains to the Sea board, cited two related trail efforts.
He said easements are being sought for extending the Overmountain Victory Trail in the Yadkin River corridor between Elkin and North Wilkesboro. Volunteers in Alleghany County are building a trail from Sparta to the Mountains to the Sea Trail at the Parkway’s Devil’s Garden Overlook.
Blackley said trail efforts in and near Elkin have helped revitalize the town and have gotten residents more engaged in their community.