JEFFERSON-If regional tourism leaders get their wish a new hiking trail could someday link Watauga County with Mount Jefferson State Natural Area.
That news comes from Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick and emails from a consulting firm working with High Country Pathways, a nonprofit that helps build trails, greenways and paddle trails throughout North Carolina.
The project, dubbed the Northern Peaks Trail, would link the town of Boone to West Jefferson via Rich Mountain, Tater Hill, Snake Mountain, Elk Knob, Three Top and ultimately Mount Jefferson.
That’s a trail that could run some 50 or 60 miles, Yearick said, depending on the final route chosen, and it could offer one more tourist draw that could benefit the region. The project, however, is still in its preliminary stages.
“Right now this thing is just in the study phase and it’s early on,” Yearick said. “On the agenda for (March 4), commissioners will consider whether they want to approve providing money for the study, which might be $8,000 this year and an additional $2,000 next year.”
That total budget for the project study is $86,000, according to a document prepared for the Ashe Chamber of Commerce. That group approved contributing $3,000 for the study on April 4, according to chamber board members.
That means $73,000 has been raised to date: $30,000 from the Watauga Tourism Development Authority, $30,000 from the North Carolina Division of State Parks, $10,000 from High Country Pathways along with the Ashe Chamber’s funding.
The plan calls for the West Jefferson Tourism Development Authority to kick in an additional $3,000 this year along with the county’s $10,000 through next year.
The Northern Peaks Trail was initially proposed as part of the Watauga County TDA’s 2010 Outdoor Recreation Plan, according to Eric Woolridge, of Boone-based Destination By Design, the consulting firm retained to bring the study to fruition.
“The scope of work for this project is extensive,” Wooldridge wrote in an email to members of the Ashe Chamber. “Some highlights will include branding, web development, a promotional video, the identification of specific alignments on public lands, private landowner outreach, and the authoring of legislation that would establish the Northern Peaks as a a NC State Trail (same status as the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and Fonta Flora Trail).”
If the planning process finds that a trail system could be viable, construction would come later, according to Yearick.
“It would be expensive – perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of $4-$5 per square foot of trail – and you’re talking about building something that might run beyond 50 miles,” Yearick said.
But as much as $5 million is now available for trail construction statewide thanks to the passage of North Carolina’s Connect Bond package, Yearick said.
“You’re essentially taking a gamble that this thing would get state funding for construction,” Yearick said. “But you have to remember that the state has already pitched in $30,000 for this study. Somewhere along the way somebody thought this makes sense, so the hope is there that help would be available to build it.”
What we can do well
Yearick highlighted the potential trail as a prime example of the kinds of tourism and economic development projects Ashe County has a chance to excel at.
“We are never going to have a PGA golf tournament here,” Yearick said. “But the state is opening us up by air – if we counted every dollar up the state has probably invested more than $10 million in the Ashe County Airport – and they’re opening us up by road with the widening of 421.”
That opportunity presents both a blessing and a curse, Yearick said.
“The absolute last thing you want to do is draw people in and then have then turn right back around and leave,” Yearick said. “If that happens you’re not likely to get them to come back.”
Ashe features great restaurants, friendly people with stories to tell and awe inspiring geography. The New River has long been a prime draw for visitors, and the Blue Ridge Parkway consistently ranks among the nation’s most popular national parks.
“But there is always more that we can do,” Yearick said. “And it pays to think outside the box.”
That’s why Yearick said he sent a local pilot up earlier in March – at a paltry cost of just $300 – to scout out and take aerial photographs of promising terrain features that could be appealing to rock climbers and bouldering enthusiasts. That short skyride returned several rugged outcrops that Yearick has passed along to the climbing community in Watauga County.
And the end of April will see the return of a downhill longboard skateboard event that could draw as many as 1,000 competitors and spectators to Mount Jefferson.
It’s the second time thrillseekers have shredded down the blacktop of Ashe County’s most famous peak – the event was hosted for the first time in mid-April last year – and Yearick said Ashe County Schools has been kind enough to offer its buses and drivers to help shuttle riders and bystanders up the mountain.
“If you can’t have the big win, you can certainly have a lot of smaller wins, and that’s been our philosophy,” Yearick said.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.