WEST JEFFERSON-Envision a hiking trail that runs across the tops of some of the most recognizable peaks in the High Country, an off-the-beaten-path path connecting Mount Jefferson to Boone.
Now imagine just how many hikers, hipsters and nature lovers would take advantage of such an opportunity to stretch their legs each year.
That’s the promise behind the proposed Northern Peaks Trail, an effort to connect Ashe and Watauga Counties with a destination-level footpath.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. It’s an ambitious plan. According to Eric Woolridge, of Boone-based Destination By Design, the Northern Peaks Trail project would carve out a hiking trail, some three feet wide, through some of the High Country’s most scenic – and rugged – terrain. The plan is to start in Boone and end up along the top of Mount Jefferson, a distance of some 35 miles. The idea is to build a walking path incorporating outdoor beauty and the gorgeous down towns of both Boone and West Jefferson.
2. The idea has been around for a while. The Northern Peaks Trail was initially proposed as part of the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority’s 2010 Outdoor Recreation Plan but only in recent months has the effort began to pick up steam.
3. It would highlight the best of the High Country. Woolridge told the West Jefferson Board of Aldermen on Oct. 3 the project would connect Rich Mountain, Tater Hill, Snake Mountain, Elk Knob, Three Top and ultimately Mount Jefferson.
4. Spectacular views and a chance to experience incredibly rare geography. That’s what the project would ultimately offer end users, Woolridge told aldermen. “You’ve got 121 rare species, unique soil composition that, combined with elevation, just makes this incredibly rare geography, a rare opportunity,” Woolridge said.
5. And the trail would highlight what makes it unique. “We want to create a brand and facility design that ties into info kiosks and shelters, and even design an overnight lodge that may be somewhere along the trail, like the Appalachian Trail, as well,” Woolridge said.
6. Could be worth $2 million annually. “What we’re working towards is to create a trail that is a destination where people want to come, spend money and experience our area,” Woolridge told aldermen. “We’re looking at about $2 million in annual impact from the project.”
7. Similar to the Mountains-To-Sea Trail. Woolridge described the project as akin to the famed Mountains-To-Sea Trail, only much, much shorter. He said the project will have the same designation as it’s larger cousin, which should open it up to the same kinds of state and federal grant and funding opportunities the MST enjoys.
8. The starting point is relatively easy. Around 30 percent of the project’s length would likely run along land held by public agencies, like the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the North Carolina State Park System, which Woolridge said should make the project easier to complete along those stretches. But the remainder will likely come from working out usage agreements with other landowners, which could take time.
9. How much will it cost? The project feasibility study alone will cost some $86,000, according to previous conversations with Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick. Ashe County chipped in $10,000 earlier this year to help fund the study and Yearick said the idea of the trail system could be a good one. “The future of Ashe County is going to be a bunch of small things,” said Yearick. “We will probably never have a PGA tournament of have the Carolina Panthers come here to play, but a bunch of little things like disc golf and walking trails.” Woolridge said the cost to build the trail would likely be less than a single year’s worth – $2 million – of economic impact, as long as major land acquisition deals don’t become part of the process.
10. It’s still a long way off. Woolridge said the project would be multi-year endeavor. “A project like this could take 10-20 years, or less, but starting out of the gate 35 miles trail, with 30 percent of that on public land? That’s a great start,” Woolridge said. “This is a legacy project.” Public meetings to discuss the project will be held in Boone and West Jefferson in March.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.