But immediate goals are to provide a close-to-home source of leisure for residents in the area, as well as university students looking to leave from their dorms or apartments and be on a secluded, wooded trail within minutes.
Josh Whitmore, associate director of outdoor programs at WCU, as well as the project’s point man, said its a shame many students come to Cullowhee because they’re attracted by the mountains and other outdoor features, but then realize it’s not so easy to pick up and enjoy them.
Whitmore hopes the trail, which leaves from campus via a tunnel under N.C. 107, will fulfill more immediate needs for hikers, bikers and trail runners.
“One of great ironies of having a university in the mountains is that, yeah, there are great mountains around,” Whitmore said. “But, you have to get in a car to get to them. It’ll be nice to have something right on campus.”
The trail will occupy university-owned land that is part of its Millennial campus, a 344-acre tract across the highway from the main campus, and pass near the Jackson County airport.
It will be a single-track trail, about two to three feet wide. Through its design of limiting blind turns and bikers’ speeds will accommodate the sometimes diametrically opposed walkers and cyclists on the same path.
“It’s designed to avoid user conflict,” Whitmore said. “You have to design it so there’s enough sight line so bikes can slow down before running into people and walkers can see bikers coming.”
Whitmore described the trail as intermediate in difficulty with steep mountainside terrain. Although the elevation change from the trail’s highest to lowest point is only a few hundred feet, there are lots of ups and downs.
Construction on the trail began last spring, after the trail won nearly $100,000 in government and private grants for its planning and construction.
The trail was supposed to be finished by the fall, but permitting complications with the state halted work for three months.
Because the trail disturbed more than an acre of land, state environmental inspectors ruled that the trail needed an erosion control permit.
However, the trail builders argued that a trail built in linear sections, no more than three-feet wide at any given point, is far different than an excavated tract of bare soil found at a typical construction site and shouldn’t be held to the same permitting standards.
Finally they got the green light, but had already lost August, September and October — prime months for outdoor trail work. Now, with construction back on schedule, volunteers and the trail construction contractor, Trail Dynamics, have five miles completed.
Whitmore hopes to have the trail completed in January and ready for a February opening ceremony.
But, some mountain bikers are a little anxious to test the trail and have already been sneaking in rides on the new circuit, according to Kent Cranford, owner of Sylva bike shop Motion Makers Bicycles. Having a mountain bike trail so close to home will be a new development for the local cycling scene.
For Jackson County cyclists, the closest mountain bike trails are either in the Pisgah National Forest, Panthertown Valley in the Nantahala National Forest or the Tsali Recreation Area near Bryson City.
“We had to drive to ride,” Cranford said.
He said some riders in Cullowhee are already planning trips for which they can leave from their houses and jump right on the trail.
Cranford also looks forward to the potential for linking the new WCU trail with the Tuckasegee Greenway — a multi-use path in the conception stage that has grand plans to connect Whittier to WCU along the river. That development could mean bikers could leave from Sylva and enjoy miles and miles of uninterrupted trail from a flat, paved greenway and leading to hilly single track.
Cranford, speaking from the perspective of a business owner, believes outdoor tourism is a key component of Jackson County’s economic future. He said the area’s unique landscape attracts visitors, and any developments highlighting that landscape are worthwhile.
More bikes trails may even give his business an immediate boost.
“I’m not sure we’ll see a big jump in business from it,” Cranford said of having the new WCU trail. “But some people will have the opportunity to ride bikes now that never had the opportunity — and that’s good for us.”
Funding the trail
In addition to the many volunteer hours that went into building the new seven-mile, hiking and biking trail in Cullowhee, the project was made possible by several private and public grants.
• Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation — $14,000 used in the planning process
• Specialized Bicycles Advocacy Grant — $5000
• N.C. Recreational Trails Program Grant — $75,000