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Elkin trail is connector of cities and people 

The trail is quiet, and if you hadn’t driven into Elkin from Highway 268, you’d never know the downtown shops and businesses were just through the thick tree line. Periodically a runner or dog walker passes and Bill Blackley, Elkin Valley Trails Association president, hands over a business card with a warm greeting.

He connects with people – asks them how they’re enjoying the day with genuine sincerity and tells them how they, too, can own a part of the North Carolina Mountain to Sea Trail, the state’s largest marked footpath. Of the 1,000 miles between the beginning of the trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the ending at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head, about 672 miles is complete. The Association, in partnership with the Town of Elkin, is responsible for completing Elkin’s section, and they’ve come a long way.

Since forming three years ago, the Association volunteers raised more than $300,000, acquired several conservation easements and logged thousands of volunteer hours. Blackley said getting people to donate hasn’t been a hard sell because people are excited to have the trail and want to be part of it.

“You can be a part of the trail – own it – by getting your hands in it,” Blackley said.

The group has dozens of volunteers that show up for trail workdays ready to pave the way, including Elkin Mayor Lestine Hutchens. She recalls navigating the first phase on the Elkin and Allegheny Railroad before it was cleared.  She said instead of walking it was more like grabbing onto the next tree and sliding along.

“They didn’t think I’d do it, but I did!” Hutchens said.

The path is now wide, flat and covered with gravel. It’s an easy path for biking and walking with the trees providing shade and homes for plenty of plants and animals. Volunteers have already detected 73 different types of birds in Elkin and plan to find more.

One of which is nature enthusiast, Nancy Goodwin, who scans the trail daily for birds and plants. She’s a co-founder of the Native Plant Species Group that is identifying native species along the trail and planting more to attract birds and replenish damaged areas.

“I just like to discover,” Goodwin said as she looked up in the trees for more creatures.

Now complete, this section of the trail stretches 1 and 1/4 miles from the Elkin Recreation Center to the Yadkin River. Just before the river, the trail changes from gravel to a thin, natural path for hikers who prefer a more challenging experience.

The group is working to expand with a 15-plus-mile trail to Stone Mountain. The trail will be suitable for horseback riding as well, which first-time trail runner Regina Brown said she’s looking forward to.

“The trail is really nice! I heard about the horseback riding trail,” Brown said. “My husband and I will enjoy that.”

Blackley said the group is trying to make as many connections as possible to find the most economic way to build the trail, which requires a few bridges. With a diverse group of volunteers and support of the town, the Association has easy access to engineers, planners, wildlife and water experts.

For instance, board member Joe Mickey is retired after 35 years of service to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and is working to improve farming practices in the area which will make the Yadkin River healthier and clearer. 

Another board member, Joe Hicks, is an expert on the area’s history and plans to place historical markers with QR codes along the path. When scanned with a mobile device, the QR codes will display information about the area’s Revolutionary War battles and industries of the past like the railroad and shoe factory.

“You can still find pieces of leather from the shoe factory on the trail,” Hicks said as he scanned the ground.

According to Blackley, the trail might get done faster if they simply hired someone to come in and make it, but it would cost more, and, more importantly, it wouldn’t mean as much to the community.  

 “We have a few rules,” Blackley said. “We see opportunities not problems, and we’re all on the same rung of the ladder. Each of us has something to contribute.”