After frequent summer rains, a new mountain bike trail at Concord Park is a mass of muddy red clay. The tough stems of thick vines pop out of the path like knee-high flags. The side of the trail is strewn with piles of tree trunks and occasional chunks of asphalt.
Early one morning, my daughter and I abandoned our bikes quickly once we recognized the amazing sticking power of the clay. But this work in progress nevertheless shows lots of promise. Despite the pancakes of mud weighing on our shoes, we were charmed by the interesting rocks, huge mossy hardwoods, luscious ferns, and lively wildlife on this one-mile loop.
Besides its natural beauty, this trail offers something unusual to Knoxville's vast network of urban wilderness trails: A trail for beginning mountain bikers.
The trail is a collaboration between Knox County and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, which has built dozens of miles of trails, mostly with its own sweat.
The new Concord Park trail is located on land between the Concord traffic circle and the fishing pier up Northshore Drive. The 60-acre parcel was always part of the park but has been difficult to use because it's so steep, says Doug Bataille, senior director of parks and recreation for Knox County.
Designing a beginner trail requires managing water, grades, and people traveling at various speeds.
"It's a unique skill set," says bike club president Brian Hann. "We always set out to build a beginner trail, and for some reason, it always turns out to be more complicated. Around here, you hit a rock that's in the way, and it's like it's connected to the Earth's central core."
For the first time, a professional trail builder was called in to construct this and one other beginner trail. That path will be near South Doyle Middle School, on land recently donated by the Wood family. Work began on a mile-long beginner's loop and a quarter-mile kids' loop there in June.
Concord Park was chosen for a beginner trail partly because the park's roughly 10-mile trail system has been heavily used since a dog park was added there, Hann says.
Hann and Bataille both report that beginners have been asking for some broader, smoother mountain bike trails countywide. One of the main barriers to trying the sport has been removed in Knoxville, Hann says: Bikers no longer have to drive long distances before they can start pumping pedals. And he added that the new converts aren't necessarily young.
"We're seeing an influx of beginners who are older, who are trying biking as an alternative to running because of their knees," Hann says.
But as always, the new trails are being built to accommodate both bikers and hikers. The Concord loop begins near the park's fishing pier, climbing a hill beside one of the old quarries that first brought residents to Concord. Out of sight of Northshore Drive but visible from the trail, a cliff of stacked rock rises to the right before the trail quickly buries itself in shady woods with a soundtrack of birds and crickets.
Part of the loop will consist of a broad, straight old access road that mostly parallels Northshore, although the traffic isn't visible through the trees. The newer portion of the trail, with many small hills and gentle curves, snakes closer to Fort Loudoun Lake. The water flickers distantly through the summer leaves, but will probably be a bigger part of the trail experience when leaves fall in winter.
This end of the trail features some really fine, large hardwood trees, often with funky-shaped bases that are partly hollow. Hugging one would take three or four adults holding hands. Their smoothed, spidery root systems lie in wads beside (but not in) the path.
The trail winds by large rocks, some tilted into diagonal slabs. Others have been worn into fluid whorls centuries ago by the now-distant water. One large stone seems to hold out its arms for an embrace; others resemble creeping creatures.
Currently, felled trees along the path remain messy. One large one has recently fallen completely across the trail and is tough to get around with a bike. No doubt this will be cleared in the coming months. In one spot, 2-foot-high chunks of tree trunks have been neatly sawed and set next to the path like stools.
Where the trail winds down toward the lake, we spied bees swarming around a hive in a hollow snag immediately to the right of the path. There were lots of fun surprises for the slow walker, including caches of 30 to 50 newly-hatched centipedes in piles. We counted 13 of these "nests" on a dozen feet of bare path.
For those moving at a faster pace on wheels, the trail dodges dodgy rocks (as promised for beginners) and offers twists and turns without the danger of large drop-offs. A series of tiny roller coaster hills is built in.
People are already trying out the trail. Bataille said most reach it by parking near the pier at Concord Park and crossing Northshore Drive. By the fall, the county plans to eliminate the need for crossing the busy road by finishing a half-built connector trail. It will link the new loop with The Cove by crossing the fishing pier and passing the Concord Yacht Club.
Bataille says River Sports Outfitters, which already rents canoes and paddleboards at the Cove, might even begin offering bike rentals, a rare opportunity outside downtown.
Bataille adds that he expects the trail will officially open in the fall, hopefully with an additional single-track trail intersecting the existing loop.