While a portion of the E&A Rail Trail/Mountains-to-Sea Trail will be off limits temporarily due to construction, a new, eagerly anticipated trail leading to Carter Falls is now open for public access north of Elkin.
A parking lot is now graded, graveled and completed, thanks to the Wilkes County government, at the intersection of Pleasant Ridge and Martin Byrd roads just inside Wilkes County at the Carter Falls trailhead. Bob Hillyer, who handles trail development for the Elkin Valley Trails Association, said the next step for the lot will be the installation of a post and rail fence, which is being done by Lowe’s Home Improvement employees through a community service program called Lowe’s Heroes.
In addition to the fencing, Hillyer said a local high school student will be creating and installing a kiosk at the parking lot and trailhead that includes a map of the trail area.
Right now, when people park they are greeted by a post and sign indicating the trailhead for Carter Falls. A collection of walking sticks has accumulated at the post for those walking to use for their trek and then leave for the next hikers to borrow.
Signs also warn those heading into the woods on the trail of the dangers near the falls, such as slick rocks.
The state purchased 43 acres, which include Carter Falls and the portion of Big Elkin Creek which flows through the land, from Elkin attorney Dan Park. Now paperwork is being drawn to allow Wilkes County to lease the property for 40 years at a cost of $1, and then the EVTA will in turn have an agreement with Wilkes to construct and maintain the trails on the property, Hillyer explained.
While they await the final paperwork for approval of the lease between the state and county, EVTA has been given an “early entry” permit by the state, which allowed them to go in and develop the trail to the falls. “We convinced them that people have seen this and people are going to want to go, and we want to make it a little safer,” Hillyer said.
For now, the trail is a path through the woods, but it is not handicap accessible. He said eventually EVTA hopes to have a handicap-accessible trail from the parking lot area to the top of the falls, and then a different handicap-accessible trail along Big Elkin Creek that brings people to the area at the bottom of the falls.
“What we did here,” Hillyer said of the new trail, “what we’re trying to do here, when you get a little bit farther you’ll start hearing the falls, and you get that anticipation.”
The trail comes in to the top of the falls just below where a six- to eight-foot dam previously was constructed, which had created a lake north of the falls. The water was redirected into a wooden and steel flume which traveled from the top of the falls horizontally along the hill and then dropped down to a powerhouse which created the first power for the town of Elkin.
EVTA’s trail, which is part of the North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail, follows the path the flume was on for several yards and when it reaches the point where the bottom of the falls is, the trail takes switchbacks down a steep hill to reach the bottom of the falls.
Eventually the plan is to have the trail go only about halfway down the hill to access a suspension bridge that will cross over the area below the falls and take hikers to the other side of the creek and then back up to the top of the falls where it will continue on to Harris Fields Vineyards and to Stone Mountain State Park as the Mountains to Sea Trail.
Hillyer said the suspension bridge will have a tower on each side and then cables suspended the actual bridge, similar to the bridge at Grandfather Mountain. At each end of the bridge, stairs or rocks will lead down to the waterway below the bridge at the bottom of the falls.
EVTA has applied for a couple of grants to help fund the cost of the suspension bridge, but word on whether they have been awarded will not come until October, Hillyer said.
“We have $40,000 to $50,000 people have donated so far for the bridge, so we’ve got a good start,” he said. “Once the grants are awarded, we have to use that part of the money within two years.”
The one quote received from Smith-Rowe Construction of Mount Airy for the suspension bridge came in at $400,000, Hillyer said, although he believes that is a little higher than the actual cost will be.
Already an environmental study has been done and no endangered species were located in the area, and a surveyor has been working on determining the cross-section for the area the bridge will be constructed, said Hillyer.
“The big thing comes in October, and that tells us how hard we have to work to get more money,” he said of the grants.
The group could have opted for a steel bridge like the two already on the E&A Rail Trail portion of the MST just north of Elkin Municipal Park, but Hillyer said it would have disturbed the natural view of Carter Falls.
“If we put a steel bridge down through there, it would be cheaper and we can put it further on down, but it would distract from the falls, whereas if you have a suspension bridge, you have two towers with the falls right behind it so it frames it and you’ve got these little wires that don’t distract from it.
“It’s not often in your lifetime when you have a natural resource like this, that you have this beautiful natural resource where you can do something to enhance it,” Hillyer said. “If we put a regular steel bridge across there, it would be cheaper, but it’s not going to enhance it. That’s why we’re saying, let’s not worry so much about the money, let’s do it right so it’s a beautiful thing and people will come for a long time.”
He said their hope is that Carter Falls will be featured on the cover of the MST brochures.
“We’ve been working with Dan Park for seven or eight years,” Hillyer said of the purchase of Carter Falls property. “When we first started, we knew we wanted to go from Stone Mountain to Elkin. There were two points we wanted to get on the trail, one was Carter Falls and one was Wells Knob. We’ve got Wells Knob and three miles of trail there.”
The inclusion of Harris Fields Vineyards, which was just planted three years ago by Brandon O’Steen and his family, at the top of the falls has two perks. One is the gravesite of William Harris, who was the bodyguard for George Washington, with a short spur trail off the MST to the gravesite, and the other is its inclusion in what has been named the Camino de Vino, a trail between Harris Fields Vineyards, Elkin Creek Vineyards and Grassy Creek Vineyards.
Temporary closure of E&A Rail Trail expected
The Elkin Recreation and Parks Department put out a notice recently to make walkers and bikers aware that temporary closures of the E&A Rail Trail north of Elkin Municipal Park can be expected at times beginning Wednesday of this week.
The town has hired a company to install an new emergency raw water line which will run from the Yadkin River to the town’s water treatment plant. Part of that work also will include erosion control and stream bank restoration along Big Elkin Creek near the trail.
Adam McComb, director for the town recreation and parks division, said Tuesday that the contractor is expected to begin work at the reservoir area, which is near the end of the existing portion of trail. “For the first month, there may not be any trail impact,” he said.
“Once that area is complete, they will proceed south toward the park installing the water line,” McComb said. “I anticipate that there will be some small closures, mainly trucks and deliveries crossing the trail to access the installation area, which is not on the trail but in the woods.”
After the crews move south of the first footbridge near the old shoe factory dam, McComb said they will have to access the installation area via the recreation center parking lot. “During this time, the trail will be closed, depending on rain and construction this could be only for a week or two,” he said.
At that point, access to the mountain bike trail also would be closed.
“The contractors have experience working on greenways and trails and are aware of public use throughout the process,” McComb said. “Again, for the most part, I really only anticipate the trail being closed for a week or two, and it would be later this fall, but I can’t commit to a date for the closure.”
He said town officials hope people seeking a place to walk and exercise “will explore the downtown loop trail that takes walkers to Crater Park and through downtown Elkin looping back to the municipal park.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.