ELKIN — Looking back, the founders of the Elkin Valley Trails Association recall they just wanted to build a hiking trail from the Elkin Recreation Center to the Shoe Factory Dam along the old Elkin and Alleghany Railroad bed. There was an existing footpath, a mere 18 inches wide. The idea included navigating a creek crossing, so a bridge would be necessary and that would need fundraising. The budget ballooned from $25,000 for the trail and bridge construction to $185,000.
“When any organization starts, you have all kinds of dreams,” said Bill Hillyer, of State Road, who was among the founding members of EVTA. “That’s what we were. We were like, ‘Oh, we can do it, we can do it.”
They didn’t just blaze a trail.
Now celebrating their 10-year anniversary, the EVTA has built more than 16 miles of hiking trails, six miles of mountain bike trails, and more than 24 bridges that ranged from six feet long to 190 feet long. They have forged partnerships and land access agreements with a slew of landowners, helping carve community access to Carter Falls, linking Elkin to Stone Mountain State Park and the Mountains-to-Sea trail, and connecting the area’s treasured vineyards to footpaths.
EVTA members joke that they have built so many bridges that they aren’t a trails group but a bridge building business.
Along the way, help and support has come in many different ways. Annually, volunteers typically log 5,000 hours of helping build and maintain trails. Even amid the pandemic, in 2020, the group logged 3,000 hours. Sometimes the collaboration is through traditional fundraising — bridges are expensive — or landowners offering easements to allow a trail to pass through their land. Or, there was the time the county helped double the size of the parking lot that serves the Carter Falls trail. Then there was the gentleman who walked up to them as they were preparing to build their first bridge.
“This old man came walking up and asked what we were doing, and we said were going to put a bridge right across here,” Hillyer recalled, adding that they had engineers and surveyors help with the planning.
“He said, ‘I don’t know but I think there’s a big sewer or water line that goes under there,” Hillyer recounted. “Sure enough, it’s not shown on any maps but there is a water line under there and if you know what you are looking at, the trail now jogs to the right about 20 feet and then dives back.”
Hillyer called the EVTA’s work to bring the 60-foot waterfall known as Carter Falls into the public domain “a coup.”
“We had been talking to Dan Park, the owner of the falls, and it was in his hands for decades,” Hillyer said, adding that many locals didn’t even know the privately-held waterfall was there. EVTA member “Bill Blackley was his neighbor. We talked to him for 5 or 6 or 7 years and said, ‘Will you give us a trail across it?’ And he finally said he would give us an easement.”
“Shortly after that the state got involved and we convinced Dan to sell all the land.”
The owner put another 13 acres in an easement that conserves the trail area, Hillyer said. Next came EVTA’s plan for a small parking lot, but like most small ideas birthed by EVTA, it grew.
“County commissioners told us to double it and it’s a good thing because with COVID, people have just packed it,” Hillyer said.
The accomplishments come through enormous efforts by EVTA members. During weekday trail maintenance volunteer sessions, Hillyer said he recently looked around and noticed he was the youngest there. He is 71.
“The big thing that impresses me is how driven everyone is, how well everyone gets along,” said Keith Sidden, who joined EVTA just over two years ago and was recently elected to the group’s board. “As Bob said, a lot of people in the group are retired and we’re looking now at how do we, as the next generation, keep their vision going.”
True to the group’s ambition, they don’t treat their anniversary as a time to celebrate their accomplishments, but instead dream bigger and invite more people to explore the trails. They are planning to build a 190-foot bridge over Big Elkin Creek. There is still more fundraising needed for the bridge. They call it the “Bridge of Dreams.” EVTA is also working to build a trail joining Jonesville and Elkin, as well as a river boardwalk.
Sidden is promoting a hike per month during this anniversary year. The hike for the month of March is to Carter Falls. Trail maps are available on the group’s website at www.elkinvalleytrails.org.
Lisa Michals may be reached at 336-448-4968 or follow her on Twitter @lisamichals3.