Through collaborative planning and a site visit in the fall of 2019, IMBA Trail Solutions has crafted this master plan to define the opportunities and constraints in developing trails on the O’Brien Watershed property inside the town of Erwin, TN. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the area and the potential of the trail system, Trail Solutions assessed terrain, slopes, existing infrastructure, and ecology. Every detail was examined, from soil types—which can affect trail tread compaction and erosion potential—to anticipated user numbers and trailhead needs. Regionally- and globally-experienced trail specialists gauged which established practices they would use and which of the latest innovations they could employ. These trail specialists ride similar trails in the region and understand the area’s outdoor culture. They interviewed local stakeholders to learn from their expertise, balancing the interests of community members and land managers in designing trail systems.
This trail system will capitalize on the growing regional demand for trails, specifically those that are optimized for mountain biking. It will serve the needs of the community by providing opportunities for a wide range of users to improve their physical health and experience the outdoors, as well as promote economic development through adventure tourism. Proximity to local schools, downtown, and Interstate 26 provide unique circumstances for significant benefits from trail development.
The project site has long been the water supply watershed for the town of Erwin. The site has amazing proximity to key landmarks and is located less than two blocks from the school complex, under a mile from downtown, and just over a mile from exit 37 on I-26. This creates a unique opportunity for connectivity to the community and a great way to showcase a modern trail system and downtown to visitors. The watershed abuts Shawnee Street at two locations, with a few private homes separating the road frontage. On its southern edge, the property comes close to Banner Road but does not directly abut the road.
The goal of the O’Brien Watershed Park plan is to develop a progressive network of trails that offers beginner- to advanced-level mountain biking as well as pedestrian opportunities. This includes multiuse and bike-optimized trails and bike-specific skill areas. As trails are developed and mileage increases, visitation from residents, visitors, and regional trail users will increase. The new trails will be bike-optimized, with careful consideration to meet the needs of hikers and runners as well and a future gateway connecting to the Cherokee National Forest.
The objectives of the high-quality trails master plan are:
The current master plan proposes that the O’Brien Watershed Mountain Bike Park be developed into three unique “zones” with experiences and features that take advantage of the natural beauty and resources available on the property. The zones have been mapped and designed as follows.
The planned trailhead is located off of Shawnee Street, which provides excellent connectivity to the school complex and downtown Erwin. Wayfinding signage is recommended to direct visitors—especially from downtown—to the trailhead. Additionally, a bike lane or path from downtown to the trailhead should be considered in long-term plans to increase the viability of visitors parking in Erwin and riding to the trails. This reduces the need for parking at the trails and, more importantly, makes it much easier for trail users to visit local businesses, restaurants, and watering holes before and after rides.
The proposed trailhead location has ample room for a parking lot with up to 30 car spaces, which is anticipated to meet the needs for the planned trail system. The trailhead should contain a number of typical infrastructure amenities beyond a parking lot, including:
The trailhead’s location near private residences and a residential street will help deter illegal activity.
The trailhead’s large, flat valley bottom is ideal for other recreational infrastructure. Because a trail system is the central goal with mountain biking as the focus, it is recommended that additional amenities be concentrated on building riders’ skills.
Progression is vital to mountain biking and unique to the sport in many ways. People learn best when they can practice skills and watch others who have mastered them. The trailhead location will provide a skills practice area, especially for children and new riders. Skills features, whether prefabricated or natural (such as rock) will be developed to provide excellent opportunities to work on balance, power, bike handling, and technical moves. A short skills loop will be close to the attentive eyes of parents, who could relax at nearby picnic tables or in the shade. This type of facility is widely popular and growing in demand. Additionally, a small tot track may be added, which could provide greater skill building and enjoyment for young riders. A tot track, much like a pump track, is a small series of rollers and berms that teach proficient “pumping” and weight transfer—skills which increase the fun on trails and are necessary for various maneuvers.
Zone 1 is defined as the area of low slopes, generally moderate (under 60%), found close to the proposed trailhead on the northern portion of the project site. This zone is just over 20 acres, mainly east of the existing water tank to the small, unnamed tributaries. Zone 1 contains almost 190 feet of usable elevation, topping out near 1,975 feet above sea level. There are numerous exposed bedrock spines throughout Zone 1, which has the only appreciable rock content of the entire project site. These rock outcroppings provide trail constraints and opportunities requiring careful and precise design and construction while allowing for optional skills-building features along the trails.
The wide valley bottom near the proposed trailhead provides the only flat area on the project site and also some of the thickest invasive species. The far southern end of Zone 1 edges on the thick rhododendron, which is mainly in Zone 2.
The school complex is audible in Zone 1, creating a close-to-town feel while still in the forest. The higher elevations of the ridge behind the water tanks have less dense tree growth, offering a welcome change from the typically thick vegetation on the site. Zone 1 contains some of the best views on the site, and will be one of the largest green trails in the region. Specifically, behind the open water tank, one can see across the wide valley to Buffalo Mountain.
Zone 2 occupies the northern slope from Zone 1 to the ridge saddle. Approximately 75 acres in size, this is the largest zone in the trails master plan. Zone 2 includes the steepest slopes on the project site and has the largest elevation difference—over 600 feet. Proximity to the trailhead and Zone 1 mean the majority of trail development is anticipated in this zone. Two of the unnamed tributaries create deep drainage valleys, and three distinct slopes exist. Combined, these provide a variety of terrain types for trail development.
The majority of this zone is covered in thick rhododendron, though near the saddle, the forest opens up more. The most southern property line creates a difficult constraint by running directly up the ridgeline, cutting off use of more mellow slopes on the other side. There are rocks present in the stream bottoms, but little rock was discovered during planning site review on other slopes. It is anticipated rock will be discovered during construction, but not large exposed bedrock like is found in Zone 1.
Like Zone 1, Zone 2 is within constant earshot of the school complex. On the higher elevations, I-26 is audible. This creates a sidecountry experience rather than a true backcountry experience where visitors expect silence and solitude. While the elevations are greater, no excellent viewsheds are currently in Zone 2. In numerous places views could be cleared, creating unique control points along trails for visitors to anticipate and discover.
Zone 3 occupies the remainder of the site—the southern slope from the ridge saddle down toward Odom Branch Road. The entire zone is almost 20 acres in size. Zone 3 is the driest zone on the project site, with more sparse vegetation cover than the other sites. This also provides the best views on the site, looking up Odom Branch towards the Cherokee National Forest and across the valley. There is one main stream on this side, which creates a small drainage valley. An existing old road marks the western property line. Surveyor paths are evident in some places.
Zone 3 offers the most remote experience on the site with the ridge blocking Erwin and I-26; however, neighborhood sounds on Odom Branch Road can be heard occasionally. The slopes are more moderate than the steep slopes found in Zone 2. Like Zone 2, this zone showed little evidence of exposed rocks during the planning site visit.
Zone 3’s usable elevation is similar to Zone 2, almost 500 feet from the saddle to the lowest recommended point for trail development. Currently, the property comes close to Banner Road but does not abut it; therefore, the only access is the proposed trailhead near Zone 1. Near the lower property line are a few small rock shelves above Odom Branch, most of them off the property, with a few possibly usable for trail development.
If you would like more information or specific details about the O’Brien Watershed Mountain Bike Park project, feel free to CONTACT US. We are currently seeking investment partners and donations to help bring this project to reality, and would appreciate your consideration for DONATIONS to help us grow Unicoi County’s outdoor adventure resources.