LAUREL BLOOMERY — The Laurel Creek Trail is a showcase of Johnson County’s beauty.
The three-mile trail parallels Laurel Creek and Highway 91, which was once a horse and buggy tract for those traveling to and from Virginia. By summer 2012, the bikers, hikers and equestrians of today will be able to trod a similar path that may eventually connect with the Creeper Trail in Damascus, Va.
“We wanted this trail segment to convince people in Johnson County that this is a good idea,” said Howard Moon, president of the Johnson County Trails Association, the nonprofit organization that has worked to secure funding for trail development along Laurel Creek, near Camp Ahistadi.
The concept to create a multi-use interstate trail system started as an economic revitalization effort for Johnson County. Howard and wife Linda, the secretary of JCTA, began meeting with county leaders about a decade ago and thus started the long process toward what they say could become an eco- and agri-tourism success story similar to that of Damascus, Va., which generates $3.5 million annually from outdoor tourism.
“Everybody was interested in it because it means economic enhancement for them,” Howard said. “There was concern about the excessive traffic on the Creeper Trail and the National Forest Service sees this as providing some relief. A lot of things have to happen to make the development occur.”
At this point, much of the necessary hoops have been jumped through, at least for the Tennessee portion of the trail connection. Monetary backing has been received from a number of grants plus public and private donations. The JCTA has gotten plenty of help from volunteer groups and a number of labor hours from a Northeast Correctional Complex inmate crew. The trail has tent sites and picnic tables, and also has the same user profile of the Creeper Trail that can accommodate hiking, biking and equestrian enthusiasts of all skill levels. Howard said the trail head, restrooms, a parking lot and finishing touches to the trail itself are some of the last items needing to be completed before Laurel Creek Trail can officially open by mid-summer 2012.
“It’s just a beautiful place to walk with family or take a short hike,” he said. “Every time I’m out there I’m walking and I can’t get the smile off my face because it’s so pleasant.”
About two and a half miles of trail, possibly through the Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia, is the remaining development needed to connect the multi-use system at the state line. Howard said a route the JCTA suggested has no easement problems and the state wouldn’t have to go across private property. And since the group can’t raise funds in Tennessee and put the money to use in another state, Virginia must fund and develop the additional tract.
“We feel confident it will connect,” said Moon, who continues to meet with members of the Creeper Trail Advisory Board.
Others living in Johnson County have hopes for the connection, too. Sherry Sulder works at the Coffee House Café in downtown Mountain City and says customers frequently ask her for directions to the Creeper Trail, but the mother of two can’t wait to point them in the direction of Laurel Creek Trail.
“We need new commerce and bigger ideas,” she said. “We like it simpler here, but there’s nothing for kids to do. We have to go out of town.”
Charlie and Sylvia Schmidt say they are looking forward to spending time on the trail. Sylvia, a retiree, is anxiously awaiting the opportunity to ride her pink cruiser across state lines.
Even if that never becomes a reality, Moon will be satisfied with the accomplishments he and the JCTA have made through the last decade. Plus, the new trail does give hikers access to Damascus by walking the connecting Butt Mountain Trail up to Iron Mountain Trail.
“We take the position of connecting Mountain City to Damascus, but if that doesn’t happen we still have a nice facility that can be used by our community,” he said.
The interstate trail connection is one phase of the Johnson County Trails Plan that also calls for an additional eight mile tract to join Laurel Creek Trail to Ralph Stout Park. Other phases include the development of a countywide trail network that would link areas like Laurel Bloomery to Gentry Creek Falls, Shouns Crossroads to Watauga Lake and Damascus to Shady Valley.
“We love Johnson County,” Moon said. “We’ve lived here 13 years. We like riding bikes. I would love to be able to get on a bike at home and go downtown and go the bank.”
Laurel Creek Trail is a beautiful piece of nature waiting for admirers to camp out, take photos and go on a relaxing stroll by foot, wheels or hooves. Although construction is still ongoing, Moon says people may use the trail by parking along Highway 91, outside the red gate that closes off the soon-to-be parking lot.
To visit Laurel Creek Trail from Johnson City, take Highway 67 to Mountain City. At the first light in Mountain City, (RiteAid on left), turn left onto Highway 421, then proceed about a half mile to State Highway 91 and turn right onto Highway 91. Continue on Highway 91 for 9.4 miles and the trail head will be on the left.