By Joseph Wingington
How long does it take to go from “wouldn’t this be a cool place to have trails?” to the ribbon cutting of a bike park? For the town of Erwin, that process was four years.
Erwin, TN is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also known as the “Valley Beautiful”, Erwin is surrounded on all sides by deep forests, Southern Appalachian balds, and bordered by 50+ miles of the Appalachian Trail. The county is also divided by the Nolichucky, a river that is as rugged as the walls of the gorge that hold it. It’s an outdoor enthusiasts’ paradise and yet still holds untapped potential.
In an effort to develop these opportunities, the Town of Erwin pinpointed an accessible tract of land, adjacent to city limits, for recreational development. The land, which is owned by Erwin Utilities, existed for the sole purpose of being a protected watershed for the town’s water supply. What’s the perfect developmental application for a 100 acre protected watershed with 700’ of usable elevation? Mountain biking trails. This tract of land is unique because it’s big, beautiful, and close to the town. Even when you’re deep in the woods, surrounded by a canopy white oaks and flowering rhododendron, you can hear the faint sound of the school bell reminding you that the trailhead is a mere 2 blocks from the local middle and high school and only a 1 mile road ride from downtown Erwin.
In 2018, the Town of Erwin applied and received the IMBA Trail Accelerator Grant and a few months later in 2019, IMBA Trail Solutions was on site assessing the property, designing and flagging trails. However, one of the biggest impacts that IMBA made during this time was the open meetings and presentations with the public. This process made clear the real potential this property had to a community longing for more access to local mountain biking trails.
Fast forward to 2021, construction began on Phase 1 of the trail system. Erwin was able to fund the project through several grants and donations from IMBA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, T-Mobile, Erwin Fiber, and private donations. The most inspiring of these grants was our participation in IMBA’s Dig In program. Through Dig In, $10,000, mostly from personal donations, was raised quickly and further validated the strong local demand for these types of trails.
On May 6th, 2022, the community gathered at the trailhead of the newly-named Unaka Bike Park. The ribbon was cut for Phase 1, a 2-mile network of green and blue trails, designed to progress new riders. Although rain moved in quickly after the celebration to wet the dirt from an abnormally dry spring, the spirit and hype for Unaka Bike Park remained unphased by the wet weather, and a community realized it was just now tapping into its potential.
Unaka Bike Park would not exist without the support from organizations like IMBA. The success of Phase 1 has provided momentum for a Phase 2 that will add 6 miles of green, blue, and black trails once funding is secured. The spark has been lit and this mountain community has a new playground.