Hikers celebrate completion of footbridge
by Kellen Short
With the installation of the 50-foot bridge, hikers can enjoy greater convenience on a signature trail that has gained popularity recently from a number of high-profile through-hikers.
Volunteers will gather for a trail workday and celebration at the site July 27.
Construction on the bridge started in early May and concluded last week, said John Lanman, head of the Watauga Task Force of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. But work on the project actually began more than a year ago as the group sought funding and approval.
"The biggest part of this was in the planning and permitting stage," Lanman said. "The actual work in building the abutments and the bridge didn't take that long, comparatively."
High Shoals Creek intersects the Mountains-to-Sea Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway near George Hayes Road. The bridge is located about 0.2 miles from the Goshen Creek Bridge at Bamboo Road.
Volunteers with Friends of the MST had placed stepping stones across the creek's 10- to 15-foot span to help hikers cross, but numerous heavy storms washed away their attempts, Lanman said.
Friends of the MST contracted with Larry Hampton Grading to construct the bridge, which included concrete and rock abutments to support the fiberglass and wood bridge.
Volunteers assisted with the project by helping to offload the bridge components during delivery and helping with traffic control during the cement-pouring process, which required a truck to park on the Blue Ridge Parkway and pump downward, Lanman said.
The $47,500 project was funded through a federal Recreational Trails Program grant. A 25 percent match was required, and the Watauga Task Force contributed about half of that match, Lanman said.
The remainder of the match comes from statewide contributions and the general fund of Friends of the MST.
Lanman also invested about six months obtaining the environmental, archaeological and historical structure approvals from the U.S. Park Service, as well as a lengthy process for funding approval, which required additional studies and exams.
As a result of the volunteers' work, hikers can now cross the creek more safely and without getting soaked -- a special treat for through-hikers who may walk 15 or 20 miles in a day and need to avoid wet socks and shoes, Lanman said.
The bridge is the latest milestone in the long history of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which was originally envisioned two decades ago, he said. The full trail stretches from Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks.
Trail construction in Watauga County began in earnest around 2007, Lanman said, and in 2010, the group celebrated the completion of the northernmost 10 miles.
Volunteers gathered again in spring 2011 ready to build the final six to seven miles, but damage from a Christmas ice storm required the team to essentially redo the 10 miles completed the previous year, Lanman said. The final stretch was eventually completed in fall 2012.
"This 16 miles was the last major section in the mountains to be completed," Lanman said.
Statewide, about 600 of the trail's 1,000 miles is on true trail, while the remaining 400 is along roads, Lanman said.
As more and more trail is completed, conquering the Mountains-to-Sea has become a more common challenge. In 2012, at least 10 through-hikers completed the entire trail, according to Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Those included endurance athlete Diane Van Deren, who set a new record last year by completing the trail in 22 days, five hours and three minutes.
In June, Trevor Thomas became the first blind person to navigate the trail with only the help of his guide dog, Tennille.
Shelton Wilder, trail crew leader for the Watauga County section, has chronicled the trail progress on his blog at mstwatauga.blogspot.com.
He said that despite the recent fame, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail remains hidden from many residents.
"In my opinion, it's a well-kept secret," Wilder said. "People know about it if they know about Mountains-to-Sea statewide, but as far as locally being known, I think most people always go back to the traditionals, like the (Boone) Fork or Wilson's Creek, where the trails have been here for 20 or 30 years."
Wilder said that most of the trail in Watauga County is level enough even for trail runners to use -- not the rugged, rocky and steep picture one might expect.
Because so much of the trail is within the Blue Ridge Parkway's federal land, "you're walking on your property at all times," he said. Plus, following the parkway means hikers can never truly get lost.
"I think this day and time, people harbor a fear of nature that inhibits them from getting out and going on an unknown trail," Wilder said. "But a really good thing about our Watauga Mountains-to-Sea Trail is you never have to have that fear."
Visit http://www.ncmst.org to learn more about the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.