Middle Fork Greenway: The Natural Connection between Blowing Rock and Boone Becomes Reality
You can enjoy the Middle Fork Greenway Trailhead this winter! The completed portions of the trail are open year-round for walking, hiking and biking. Don’t forget to wear layers and come prepared for changing weather. There are no snow removal services, so plan accordingly.
By Karen Rieley
The past five years have been busy ones for staff and volunteers working on the Middle Fork Greenway, a project of the Blue Ridge Conservancy (BRC). While some of the work has by necessity been behind the scenes, evidence of the efforts is becoming visible to the general public with more opportunities to experience the Greenway planned for 2024.
The Middle Fork Greenway is a seven-mile, multi-use, recreational trail in progress from Blowing Rock to Boone, providing residents and visitors of all ages safe and healthy access to the natural world while protecting the environment and strengthening the local economy. Middle Fork Greenway is a BRC Project in partnership with Watauga County, the Town of Boone, the Town of Blowing Rock, Tourism Development Authorities and many federal, state and community partners.
“Having a safe trail/greenway connecting Boone and Blowing Rock is a tremendous asset for tourism as well as for local residents,” said Wright Tilley, executive director of Boone and Watauga County TDAs. “The portions of the greenway that are already complete are very popular.”
The Greenway was a concept of founding members and High Country enthusiasts who felt that while the widening of US 321 to four lanes between Blowing Rock and Boone in the late 1970s made for more efficient transportation between the two towns, it hindered neighbors being able to easily walk or bike to see each other. The group became the nonprofit Greenway Association in 2000 and completed one segment of the Greenway. In 2015, the association partnered with Blue Ridge Conservancy, knowing that their staff understood how to acquire land and build the trail..
“We partner with local communities to protect valuable resources and construct spaces the public desires. Connecting Boone to Blowing Rock along the Greenway advances the health and recreational interests of those two communities and the area in general,” said Charlie Brady, BRC Executive Director.
“The Greenway is a connector trail,” he added. At its northern most point, the Middle Fork Greenway Trail will meet with the Boone Greenway. From Boone, the Northern Peaks State Trail (NPST, also under construction) will connect to Elk Knob State Park, West Jefferson, and Mount Jefferson State Natural Area. The 40-mile NPST is primarily a hiking trail with lots of entry points. Toward the south end at Blowing Rock, the Middle Fork Greenway connects visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), which links westbound hikers to Moses Cone Memorial Park, and ultimately Clingmans Dome and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hikers who head east on the MST can follow the trail all the way across the Piedmont and Coastal regions of NC, ending at Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks.
“Middle Fork Greenway has always been a grassroots, ground-up project,” said Wendy Patoprsty, project director for the Greenway. “It is community-driven with funding from a diverse array of organizations and people.”
For the last six years, BRC has worked to raise funds for land acquisition and to develop parks, trailheads and the trail.
“We only work with willing landowners and would never pursue eminent domain,” Brady explained.
In 2022, the Conservancy purchased 33 acres of land, including 2,000 feet of frontage along the Middle Fork South Fork New River. The frontage will be known as Boone Gorge Park and will connect to Payne Branch Park, a popular spot for fishing, picnicking and enjoying nature along the mile-long nature trail.
“The restoration will improve the stream habitat for trout and other aquatic insects and animals,” Brady said. “This part of the Middle Fork of the New River has the most heavily fished trout in Watauga County.” According to Brady, trout fishing brings in more money into the northern part of North Carolina than any other recreational pursuit.
Boone Gorge Park construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2024. In addition to providing public access and recreational opportunities, protecting this portion of the New River is important to Boone, as it is located just upstream from the city’s primary source of drinking water.
Payne Branch Park is about one mile south toward Blowing Rock on Hwy 321. Access the park by turning right onto Payne Branch Road. In a few hundred feet, you can park off the road in one of the gravel parking spots on the right side, before a very large rock.
“The conservation easements ensure that, not only will people be able to experience nature, but also natural resources will be forever protected,” Patoprsty said. “We conducted a river restoration prioritization plan with funding from the State of North Carolina to inventory the river and determine what segments need restoration or planting,” she added. The Greenway will parallel the Middle Fork South Fork New River from Boone to Blowing Rock.
As noted, segments of the Greenway have already opened. Walkers, hikers, fishermen, and bikers have begun to experience the beauty of the land between Blowing Rock and Boone, and an increasing number of visitors is attracting new business activity.
A good example of a new business is Birdies Coffee & Treats located in a little camper between Boone and Blowing Rock, at 3737 US Hwy 321 South. The coffee shop offers a walk-up and drive-thru option for those on the go by car or those on foot as they travel the newly opened portion of the Middle Fork Greenway.
Sterling Creek Park, a 3.7-acre park at 1 Whitener Mountain Road near Blowing Rock, is already open and is a part of the emerging Middle Fork Greenway. Visitors can enjoy a picnic there and then walk along the one-mile segment of the Greenway to reach Mystery Hill, Tweetsie Railroad and High Gravity Adventures Aerial Adventure Park. To experience the completed sections of the Greenway, travel south on Hwy 321 towards Blowing Rock, past Tanger Outlets to the Blowing Rock Trailhead on the right at the “Welcome to Blowing Rock” sign. As part of the NCDOT 321 widening project, the 321 Trailhead and its mile-long trail was developed and funded through NCDOT, NC Division of Water Resources and private donations. It will connect to the 1.2-mile section of the Greenway currently in the design, engineering, and permitting phase. An underpass is under construction to connect trail sections on either side of Hwy 321 at Tweetsie Railroad in the spring of 2024.
The Watauga County Arts Council has received a $5,000 grant to construct pads on the Greenway where sculptures from local artists can be placed. Primary areas of interest for the placement are the new trailhead on Hwy 321 and Sterling Creek Park across from Mystery Hill. Interpretative signage will be added to the Greenway, as well, to tell stories about the 8,000-year archeological history of the land.
The Conservancy has worked to make the trail as accessible as possible for everyone. For example, Boone Gorge Park to Payne Branch Park will be wheelchair friendly, including the fishing pier.
“Topography is admittedly a challenge but wherever possible we have created the trail with no more than a five percent grade and 10-foot-wide paved asphalt,” Brady said.