A new state park is among the many things people in West Virginia can look forward to once the quarantine is lifted. And while spirits are dampened, they're sure to rise along the lower Elk River where the park is being developed.
Delayed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the opening of the first phase of the Elk River Trail State Park was planned for spring. In the meantime, state and local officials are looking forward to an economic boost and the birth of new businesses along the way.
Mark Wylie, district administrator of West Virginia State Parks, says that when a new state park opens, there is often a financial benefit to the business community and the community in general.
“We at State Parks are very excited that we are going to have a new park in an area of the state where we don’t have a presence now," Wylie said.
"Very often a project like this is a large revenue maker for the local area, with businesses coming up to support an influx of tourists with supplies for biking and hiking, fishing, restaurants, and so forth.”
That's welcome news to many in the lower Elk River region, which lags behind other areas in tourism development despite its scenic beauty, recreational potential, and high interstate access.
Mitch DeBoard, president of the Clay County Business Development Authority, says the park, which follows the Elk River through much of Clay County is highly accessible and ideally suited for development.
“If you take any one of the exits off of I-79 from Clendenin up to Servia, you’re only going to be about 15 minutes from the trail. From any of the exits,” he said.
Governor Jim Justice while cutting the ribbon for the park in 2019 agreed it was long in coming to an area that badly needed investment.
"It is hard to fathom 72 miles of a park where people can enjoy everything from swimming to boating to fishing to kayaking," he said.
"It is unbelievable what this will do for an area in our state that is starving for this.”
The park, which will follow the Elk and two of its tributaries, will open in stages, officials say, and the first should be ready for the public to enjoy within two to three months of the quarantine's lift.
The principal trail will travel 54 miles along the Elk River, beginning at the southwest at Clendenin, a drive of about 30 minutes from the state capital at Charleston, and ending at the northeast at Duck, a drive of about 20 minutes from Sutton and the US-19 expressway.
Along the way, the trail passes through the county seat at Clay, with a population of fewer than 500 residents, and beside many fishing camps, vacation homes, and historical villages.
DeBoard says new restaurants and lodging accommodations and kayak liveries are opening or are planned along the way.
Another spur, approximately 18 miles long, will incorporate the Buffalo Creek Recreational Trail, which has been open to the public for several years and includes small tour trains and “rail bikes,” which are specially made pedal-operated cars that can be run on the creek's rails.
The rails along the Elk River have been taken up, however, and the trail will be used exclusively for hiking and biking and will provide easy access to local boating, fishing, and kayaking opportunities on the Elk.
Fishing is particularly popular on the cool-water Buffalo Creek, which is included in West Virginia’s trout stocking program, and the Elk River is well known for its musky, walleye, and smallmouth bass.
The park was made possible when railroad developer Frank Jorgenson agreed to sell a large tract of land to the state. The last time a state park opened in West Virginia was almost thirty years ago in 1991, when the 72-mile North Bend Trail opened between Parkersburg and Clarksburg.
Following the routes of two historic railroads, the trail will incorporate many historic resources, and education and interpretation will be key to the visitor's experience, said DeBoard, who is now installing interpretive stations on the Buffalo Creek spur.
“We will have historical kiosks featuring QR codes along the way, where it will be possible to just scan them with your cell phone and see pictures and information about the place where you are standing," he said.
The Elkhurst Swinging Bridge, downstream of Clay, is an outstanding example of a historical attraction the trail will access. The bridge was in danger of demolition, but the development authority is now working with a contractor to save it.
DeBoard said many people go about their daily routines near the location of the new park and are largely unaware of the area’s rich history.
“Two of the bridges along this route were blown up in the mine wars,” he said, “and this rail-trail is along the site of the last commercially operated steam-train line in the country.”
Despite the pandemic, operations have not ground to a complete standstill, DeBoard said.
Volunteers and others are still working to help complete the project as soon as is practicable, and the volunteers are encouraged to engage in development through a new park foundation.
"Volunteers are still needed to really bring this into being," DeBoard said.
“Many state parks in West Virginia have foundations associated with them in order to maintain, fundraise, and support that particular state park.”
The foundation for Elk River Trail State Park is already in place, and those interested in becoming part of this project should watch for announcements online and in local and social media.
Kenneth Tawney, a member of the Elk River Trail Foundation, said people may also send questions or expressions of interest in volunteering for the new state park to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are several areas where volunteers may help, he said. Needs have been identified in grant writing, administrative assistance, trail upkeep and maintenance, the construction of improvements, leading hikes or educational tours, and helping with special events and membership.
Individual memberships for the Elk River Trail Foundation are $20 annually, he said, and membership checks and donations of any amount may be sent to Elk River Trail Foundation Inc., in care of Michelle Martin, 978 Lincoln Drive, South Charleston, WV 25309. The foundation’s new Facebook page is at Elk River Trail.
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