By Melonee Hurt
The newly-opened Tannery Knobs mountain bike park in Johnson City, Tennessee, is small at just shy of four miles of trails on 40 acres of land. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in impact for this burgeoning mountain town.
Although Johnson City has always been surrounded by natural beauty nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, the city has just begun to embrace and promote itself as an outdoor destination. With a new tagline “Go. All. Out.,” all this East Tennessee town lacked was a crown jewel.
Local businessman Grant Summers approached city mayor Jenny Brock with an idea. The two met at the local Dairy Queen where he offered to donate to the city 40 acres that sit atop a big hill just a stone’s throw from downtown Johnson City, the interstate and the neighboring Tweetsie Trail bike path which connects Johnson City to neighboring Elizabethton.
The only caveat was that he would donate the land, but the city had to build mountain bike trails up there.
“I had been working on an outdoor task force because we’ve never leveraged the outdoors around here,” Brock said. “When I heard Grant’s dream about a mountain bike park, I saw it as being a portal. A keyhole to all this outdoor stuff we’d been talking about.”
The city agreed. Then residents and area bikers got wind of this exciting plan and were seen wearing Tannery Knobs T-shirts before a logo for the park was even designed. Now Tannery Knobs is set to put this bustling East Tennessee town on the map as a mountain bike mecca of the South.
“The city redesigned its logo to have mountains in it. That’s a pretty awesome thing to have been a part of,” said Chad Wolfe, owner of the local Trek store and champion of the cycling movement happening in Johnson City. “Five or six years ago, Johnson City didn’t have an identity beyond being in a couple of songs.”
Constructed by IMBA’s Trail Solutions with the help of hundreds of volunteers from SORBA and other advocacy groups, Tannery opened to the public in early June.
Steve Kasacek was IMBA’s man on the ground at Tannery and he initially had his reservations about the piece of land after he saw the topo map.
“It looked like an ugly piece of property that was not ideal for trail building at all,” Kasacek said. “It had mega-steep side slopes with predominantly hard, crumbly shale on these knobs and it wasn’t very large.”
But once the project got started, he realized what a gem of a park was emerging out of this funky knob of land in the heart of the city.
“I am super impressed with it and I am honored to have been a part of that project,” he said. “I don’t think I realized what a big splash this little project would make.”
The park may be small but it is packed with a diversity of trails from green to blue to black in level of difficulty that take advantage of the steep changes in elevation.
“There’s rocky trails, old-school cross-country-style trails, bigger rollers and then a great jumpy black trail,” Kasacek said. “It feels up there like a community ski hill would have felt like in the ‘60s in small-town New England. I enjoy technical riding, so we decided with the black trail, Passe’s Club, to drop off the fall line and make it steep. All those rocks on that trail were pretty much brought in by hand. We built a trail that is, I think, super impressive. It’s a great trail.”
In addition to trails, Tannery also has an impressive pump track built by Velosolutions.
“The pump track is the cherry, the whipped cream and the nuts on top,” said Marc Upton, president of SORBA Tri-Cities. “We went after a grant to fund the pump track and we got it.”
What’s also exciting about Tannery Knobs is what’s at the bottom of the hill. The property is visible from I-26 and just a short ride into downtown Johnson City — a town eager to serve bikers a cold, post-ride Yee Haw brew.
It may not be Tannery alone that puts Johnson City on the mountain biking map, but the ripple effect it is creating. Tannery Knobs
is just one very important link in the chain of what could ultimately become the Appalachian Trail of mountain biking.
“If we had a magic trail wand, we could build a couple hundred miles of trails right now,” Upton said.
Tannery adds to the existing trails at neighboring Winged Deer Park to one side and the Tweetsie Trail on the other. Feasibility studies are already being done for trails on Buffalo Mountain, which sits a few miles from Tannery and has some 600 acres of virtually untouched mountainside.
“We have what other cities don’t have and that’s proximity to the Cherokee National Forest,” said Wolfe. “We will have the ability to leave Johnson City on a trail, ride to a completely different community, stay overnight and come back. There’s nothing in those mountains right now. It’s a massive blank canvas that East Tennessee is poised to capitalize on.”
Summers said he sees that Johnson City is attractive for its quality of life — and its mountains — and that it was time to leverage that.
“The city has thousands of acres within a couple of miles of downtown that literally nobody else in the country has,” Summers told the crowd at the park’s grand opening ceremony. “As we continue to develop this, we can not only be regionally renown, but we can be among the best in the world.”
Kasacek from IMBA doesn’t think Johnson City is done yet.
“I have high hopes for them. They have a ton of potential, the passion and a lot of public land. Where else do you have a bike park this close to downtown? They aren’t there yet, but they are very close to being able to ride out of downtown, put in some real, true, big backcountry riding, then ride back into town for a beer.”
For more information on Tannery Knobs, visit www.ridetk.com