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Northern Peaks Trail Bill Signed by Governor Cooper; Trail Would Run Through Watauga and Ashe Counties

By Nathan Ham

The Northern Peaks Trail moved another step closer to creation after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper signed S.L. 2019-74 into law, effective July 1.

Senator Deanna Ballard, who represents both Ashe and Watauga County in the state senate, sponsored the bill.

“I am pretty excited about it. I think what is important is that many stakeholders have been involved in the discussion,” said Sen. Ballard. “We’re really working together to make it happen for the district.”

Ballard said that many groups have had their input in this project, including the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, the tourism development authority and the chamber of commerce in Ashe County and Watauga County, Blue Ridge Conservancy, as well as plant conservation organizations and wildlife resource organizations.

The master plan, designed and presented by a local Boone business, Destination by Design, gives people a rough draft of sorts for what the trail could look like and the locations that it may travel through. Ballard said that the exact route itself has not been determined yet.

“We are really trying to design and construct the trail that will be protective of various plant species in the area and be what is in the best interest of communities on either side of the trail,” she said. “This is just the beginning stages and by no means is it the final route for the trail itself so we’re just continuing to work on that moving forward. Ultimately, it’s going to be designed and built to protect all of the wonderful features we have in our area. We’re really excited about working with our state park folks and how we might best support them as well as maintaining the trail once it has been constructed.”

There are many positive impacts that a trail like this will provide for the High Country. Areas around here have already become such popular tourist destinations for outdoor activities. Another trail like this one, especially one close to other popular trails like the Virginia Creeper Trail, Mountains to Sea Trail and the Appalachian Trail, will certainly bring even more economic impact to the area. Ballard says this trail will have a lot of significance to the area.

“The length from one county to the next and the natural beauty that we have in the mountains will attract visitors from all over, from Virginia and Tennessee and across the state. I think that’s pretty exciting,” Ballard said.

The idea of the Northern Peaks Trail has been tossed around for a few years and now with the signing of this bill, the park is officially part of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources trail system. Money can be allocated towards the project to purchase land and accept land donations.

“There has been a lot of local support since 2017 for this. Multiple discussions have been had that even I have been a part of,” said Ballard. “I am excited to get it off the ground so that folks can come together and what funding needs to be addressed and raised, we can do that together and ensure we’re all operating in the best interests of the district.”

Eric Woolridge, the president of Destination by Design, said that it took approximately 12 months to come up with the master plan for the Northern Peaks Trail that has been presented by the local TDA’s and stakeholders in the project. 

“The master plan features four focus areas that are primarily centered around really significant connections or highlight areas in which wildlife resources or North Carolina State Parks control a majority of the land,” said Woolridge. “In terms of the specific routes that are on there, they are pretty general at this point, based on either direction from public land managers or the path of least resistance that addresses environmental impacts or the fewest number of landowners impacted.”

Destination by Design has been in business in Boone since 2012 and are no stranger to big design projects such as this. They recently presented the master plan for a newly-redesigned Howard’s Knob park and are working on other projects across the country including Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Wyoming to name a few. 

“We’re doing a lot of work all over based on major recreation opportunities towards economic development and downtown revitalization. We’re an 11 or 12-person firm based here in Boone doing work all over the country really,” Woolridge said. “But it has been really cool to work in our own backyards with things that impact our own families.”

To learn more about the Northern Peaks Trail, visit the trail’s website. The master plan for the trail can be viewed below.