The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

National Park Service pedals toward construction of mountain-bike trails and concessions in Wears Cove

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Foothills parkwayNational Park Service via WBIR

Feds and boosters have considered trail network since completion of the “Missing Link”

WEARS VALLEY The National Park Service moved this week into the latest public-input phase regarding proposed construction of a Smokies-area mountain-biking destination on federal land near the current terminus of a recently completed section of Foothills Parkway that runs from Walland to Wears Valley.

The plan calls for miles of single-track mountain bike trails of varying skill levels and vendors catering to bicyclists. Park service documents indicate a rest station with picnic facilities, bathrooms and bicycle rental and repair facilities sited in Wears Cove southeast of the parkway terminus at Wears Cove. The parcel is already part of a federal easement for another extension of the parkway that would connect with the Gatlinburg Spur. 

“The Wears Valley portion of the Foothills Parkway could provide visitors new opportunities to experience the Park through mountain biking because it is within the Park’s general development zone and transportation management zone and is not managed as wilderness,” according to park service documents.

Based upon initial public response and concerns about karst formations and their attendant ecological value within the affected area, the park service produced a revised environmental assessment (EA) that must be completed under the National Environmental Policy Act on most federal lands prior to any potential disruption to public natural resources. Management of the parkway currently falls largely to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so Smokies officials are leading the environmental surveys and public-comment process on the project.

The National Park Service (NPS) will accept comments on the revised Wears Cove bicycle proposal through March 10.

Comments on the original EA included concerns the project would affect wildlife and pose threats to creeks and waterways that thread the area.

The park service maintained in initial biological assays that only 4 percent of the natural environment within the proposed mountain bike system would be affected by new mountain bike trails.

The park service also said in the EA, citing studies between 1968 and 1984, that Wears Valley should be more “highly developed.” The Foothills Parkway currently runs from Chilhowee Lake to Wears Valley, and from I-40 in Cocke County to Cosby.

A plan is also under way to complete the remaining section that would connect from Wears Valley to Cosby, thus finally completing the parkway that was planned by 1940s-era federal planners.

“Previous NPS planning efforts completed between 1968 and 1984 indicate that the Wears Valley portion of Section 8D should be one of the most highly developed along the Parkway based on its central location and other factors. Build-out of previous recreational development concepts for the Wears Valley area has not been achieved because Section 8E of the Parkway, which connects to the northern end of Section 8D and provides improved access to this area, was only recently completed and opened to the public in 2018,” according to an online brief describing the project, which appears to have the support of the park service.

The Conservation Fund was among the initial stakeholders that floated the idea of a mountain bike park. There was also a heavy political hitter involved.

“The office of Senator Lamar Alexander helped coordinate several meetings in Sevier and Cocke counties with county and city leaders to explore possible collaborations for the development of recreational opportunities on the unfinished sections of the Foothills Parkway, from Wears Valley to Cosby,” said Smokies spokeswoman Dana Soehn via email.

“Through that brainstorming effort, several opportunities were considered and prioritized for further exploration. The development of bike trails on the section of the Foothills Parkway in Wears Valley was conceived at that time.”

This story was updated with comment from the National Park Service.

Here is the full release from the National Park Service announcing the beginning of its public comment period for the revised environmental assessment:

In October 2020, the National Park Service (NPS) solicited public feedback on the original EA for development of a mountain bike trail system. Based on review of public input, park managers determined the need for additional information about karst resources to aid in the planning and decision-making process. A dedicated study was conducted in 2021 to obtain additional information about karst resources in the project area and to inform the environmental analysis. The revised EA includes additional information about karst resources, additional analysis of potential impacts, and additional measures to protect karst resources.  

The public is invited to review the revised EA and provide comments on new information through the following portals:  

For additional information on the revised Wears Valley Mountain Bike Trail System EA and how to provide comments please visit: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/WearsValleyBikeTrails."

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