Norton blazing trails toward brighter future

Roger Davis • Oct 15, 2016 at 7:00 PM

NORTON — Standing atop the overlook at Flag Rock Recreation Area, most visitors can see tiny features on the distant mountains or in the city 1,100 feet below. Shayne Fields’ eyesight is considerably sharper: He can see the future.

It’s a vision in which the commonwealth’s smallest independent city (and sole woodbooger sanctuary) bolsters its economy, attracts visitors and improves its quality of life by capitalizing on the park’s vast potential for adrenaline-churning recreation, mostly mountain biking.

Norton blazing trails toward brighter future

And with the help of volunteers, a part-time assistant, Job Corps students and AmeriCorps members, Fields is building that future one foot at a time.

“I’m hoping (to have) somewhere between 35 and 40 miles (of trails) on city property by the time we’re done, and then if everything works out all right with the Forest Service, my hopes are that we’ll be able to tie into some stuff on national forest land also.”

It’s a vision that has been enthusiastically embraced by municipal leaders.

In May 2011, Fields — accompanied by Andy Mullins, who was then president of the Lonesome Pine Cycling Club — made a pitch to the City Council.

They pointed out that club members who are into mountain biking “are constantly on the road going to places to ride: Warriors Path, Asheville, Chattanooga. And they said, in essence, that it’s frustrating to us because these places don’t have anything that we don’t already have — except the trails,” said City Manager Fred Ramey.

“So they asked ... if City Council would allow them to build a beginners mountain bike trail with the hopes of doing a system, and Council was very open to the invitation and the offer and accepted it.”

That June, construction of the initial trail began, but progress was frustratingly slow.

“Ultimately, through a lot of volunteer effort ... we got that first section open and it’s really taken off. Getting that first section of trail has just kind of allowed us to kick in gear and get some of these others done that Shayne’s been working on like Twisted Forest,” Ramey said.

Recently, Fields, Mullins and International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) representative Anthony Duncan accompanied the Times-News on a tour to show just how far the Flag Rock Area Trails system has come over the last six months.

New signs provide directions to routes with names like Rock Candy and Lake Lake Show as well as location numbers for first responders. Older stretches of trail have worn in nicely, while newer parts have been roughed in, and the outlines of future sections are marked with tiny flags stuck in the ground and ribbons tied to trees. “Under construction” signs warn bikers that other segments are not quite ready. An almost finished trail snakes gracefully back and forth across the hillside connecting the parking lot and the Upper Reservoir, crossing over a series of beautifully crafted retaining walls.

“Shayne is very much an artist in the way he builds trails,” Ramey said.

However, those who prefer their outdoor activities with a shot of excitement will find more than mountain biking opportunities at Flag Rock.

Fields and Mullins pointed out a massive rock outcropping called the Pulpit. It’s one of several formations that should prove irresistible to climbers.

“According to the Access Fund (a Colorado-based organization), we have some of the finest bouldering ‘problems’ in the state,” Fields said.

The city is working with the Access Fund and the Southwest Virginia Climbers Coalition to open up some other areas such as the Labyrinth and Inner Sanctum for climbing activities.

Fields is confident, however, that the city’s monumental biking and climbing project will generate more than adrenaline.

“Before we ever broke ground and I went to City Council and spoke with them, the idea was that this trail system would be an economic engine. ...

“When you have outdoor recreation in the form of mountain bike trails or rock climbing venues or whitewater or whatever, you always have these businesses that are built around it like shuttle services and bike shops and all those things. But also, people who ride mountain bikes want to hang out in cool places where you have microbreweries and good restaurants. So you’ve got a bunch of different kinds of businesses that tend to spring up around these sorts of things.”

Such new opportunities for entrepreneurs, said Fields, are just what Norton and the surrounding area need.

“Most of the money that’s been made in the coal industry has gone away from here.”

So far, about eight miles of trails are open — far shy of Fields’ grand vision, but enough to give visitors a taste of what Flag Rock has to offer and a sense of what it will ultimately become.

“We’ve been hesitant about marketing it too much until we felt like we had a critical mass, that it would be enough to tease people to come back,” said Ramey. “I think we’re there.”

He encourages first-time visitors to go to www.frat.bike, to call Norton City Hall at (276) 679-1160 or the Parks and Recreation Department at (276) 679-0754.

“We would have people to go out and meet them and show them around, make sure they find the trailheads and explain the trails and different things they may want to do or see.

“Hopefully, some folks in the Tri-Cities will be looking for some different trails instead of riding the same ones and come over since (Highway) 23 goes both ways.”

Fields, meanwhile, isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s expecting to have the services of an AmeriCorps crew later this month and hopes the extra help will mean that he can finish some additional sections of trail before winter sets in.

“Our goal is to double the amount of mileage (by this time next year),” Ramey said, “and we hope we can get it. ...”

Ultimately, Fields envisions an all-encompassing network offering routes for every skill level, gravity trails stretching from the very top down to Legion Park at the bottom of the mountain and an intermediate-level, cross country route seamlessly linking Legion Park with downtown and the larger system. Such a corridor would also connect Norton businesses with hungry and thirsty bikers and climbers.

“Success will breed success and opportunities and funding,” Ramey said.

“We really think we’ve got an opportunity to create something special. ... “It’s hard not to be excited.”

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