EAST Marks Trails Progress in First Year
Beautiful natural settings and outdoor recreation opportunities abound in the Elkins area, but residents and visitors alike have long wished for even more robust trail systems suitable for mountain biking, hiking, and running. Efforts to expand shared-use, bike-optimized trails are now taking off thanks to the work of the Elkins Area Shared Trails (EAST) working group.
The group, which comprises more than 30 member organizations, has a steering committee that includes City of Elkins, Woodlands Development & Lending, Mon Forest Towns, Davis & Elkins College, the Highlands Composite Mountain Bike Team, and the Brad & Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC) at WVU.
Although EAST members met for the first time only about one year ago, the group has already been awarded $80,000 in grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) to fund planning for trails in and around Elkins. The organization is now in the process of becoming a 501(c)3 organization with help from Woodlands Development & Lending.
Jessica Sutton, the Elkins city clerk, and a founding organizer of the EAST group, says that the group’s membership was inspired to take action in response to growing frustration at the limited recreation opportunities in the area.
“Aside from the Allegheny Highlands Trail, which is a fantastic resource for certain kinds of users, Elkins is really a trail desert,” says Sutton. “We sit at a major regional crossroads and are the largest gateway community to the Mon Forest, but regional trails are surprisingly hard to access from town. That means both residents and visitors must travel elsewhere for recreation opportunities that they really should be able to access right from downtown.”
EAST is currently reviewing bids from design firms to plan bike-optimized shared-use trail systems on three properties (236 acres total) and to design and flag up to 10 miles of bike-optimized trails as a shovel-ready demonstration project, with a construction start date planned for 2023.
Progress on trails isn’t coming a moment too soon for Randolph County members of the West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League (WVICL), which formed several years ago to facilitate competitive middle and high-school mountain biking.
“There was a lot of interest from area families in participating in this league, but there again, participants from the Elkins area were at a disadvantage,” says Sutton. “There just aren’t that many suitable public trails in the area for mountain bike training. The few trails we did have were too challenging for new riders to learn on, so parents were having to drive their kids to other counties for practice.”
The prospect of new trails is also good news to EAST member Davis & Elkins College, which in 2021 announced that it was planning to form the state’s first collegiate USA Cycling mountain-biking team.
Expanded trail systems don’t just benefit the people who ride, hike, and run on them. They are increasingly recognized as powerful drivers of local economic growth. After the Snowshoe Highlands was designated as a in 2019, thousands of riders and fans visited the area for the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Final later that year. Now designated a Silver-Level Center, the Snowshoe Highlands attracted similar numbers of participants and attendees to the 2022 Bike World Cup. These events, which are only first steps in leveraging the growing popularity of this sport, have already generated considerable economic activity to the benefit of communities in this area.
Outdoor recreation opportunities are also a prime factor in helping people with disposable income decide where to live. Among other programs, OEDC oversees Ascend WV, a talent attraction and retention program designed to support remote professionals and their families as they relocate to West Virginia in pursuit of high quality of life and an outdoor-driven lifestyle. Elkins was the fourth West Virginia city accepted into the Ascend program, in late 2022, and Sutton says that the fact that the area is moving rapidly toward expanded shared-use trail systems was key.
“OEDC and Ascend see trails as a big driver for the economies of cities like Elkins, with the potential to make our community even more attractive to new residents,” says Sutton. “Our acceptance into that program represents a solid vote of confidence from experts in this field that they recognize our region’s commitment to economic development through outdoor recreation.”
Sutton says that she is now confident that EAST’s efforts will be successful.
“All of the EAST partners are excited to see the results of this planning process,” says Sutton. “With support from the community and various organizations, the future of trail development in the Elkins area looks bright.”