Knoxville's Urban Wilderness North

Mountain bikers unite to expand the trail system around Sharp's Ridge

Close your eyes and you might not really believe you are in the woods.

You can hear the roar of Interstate 275, a repeated echo of loud train whistles, and a rooster crowing.

That's because these woods in Sharp's Ridge Memorial Park overlook the full array of what Knoxville has to offer. The towers of downtown, the industrial complex that helps run them, and the homes and farms where its residents live are all visible through the open forest.

An underutilized city-owned park in North Knoxville dedicated to the area's war dead, Sharp's Ridge is known mostly for a single overlook with its panorama of the city shadowed by the Smoky Mountains. But it offers a 1.3-mile biking and hiking trail through the woods just beneath, and the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club is teaming with the Legacy Parks Foundation to further expand the trail system.

It's significant not only as an addition to Knoxville's urban wilderness options but because there are no mountain-biking trails in North Knoxville, says Luke Grieve, champion of the Sharp's Ridge project and owner of the nearby Fountain City Pedaler mountain-bike shop.

"You have to drive at least 10 miles to mountain bike," he says. "Since I moved to Fountain City in 2006, I'd look around at these ridges and think, ‘Man, that would be a great place to bike.' So I'm excited that it's really happening and proud to be a member of the Appalachian Bike Club."

Club members built almost two miles of trail this spring, just beneath and parallel to the existing trail. When its final mile is finished, probably this summer, the two will connect to create a loop roughly four miles long, Grieve says. As always, the bike club is building the trails to serve both bikers and hikers.

He said the club has also proposed another lower trail to stretch three or four more miles, which will probably take another year.

The long-term goal is to wrap a trail around the north side of the mountain, providing views of the Cumberland Plateau to the north and creating a total of eight to 12 miles of trails.

"Ultimately, if we can build a trail on the north side, it would be awesome," Grieve says.

But expansion on that side of the mountain is more challenging because the land there is privately owned and features a hoard of huge broadcast towers.

That's where the Legacy Parks Foundation steps in. Carol Evans, the nonprofit organization's director, has been approaching landowners on the other side of the ridge, most of whom she describes as "very receptive." She says she hopes a trail route will be agreed within a year.

Legacy Parks and the bike club have been driving forces behind the 42-mile urban wilderness trail system that is attracting outdoor tourists to South Knoxville. Evans says the success of that effort has become a model, making other landowners much more willing to grant easements for similar trails to cross their property.

For now, the unmarked trails at the park begin just through a gate at the dead end of Sharp's Ridge Memorial Park Drive. They rapidly split into two, both hugging the steep incline up to 100 feet above the valley. The open forest allows long views while still offering some shade. For most of their distance, the paths run within sight of each other, but it's hard to see the upper trail from the lower one until a biker skims by above.

The new trail is more narrow, rockier, and punctuated with tree roots that offer bikers more technical challenges than the upper trail.

"For bikers, it's a strenuous trail," Grieve says. But, he adds enticingly, "it's probably the only trail in Knoxville that drains well after a rain."

In spring, tiny purple ephemeral wildflowers cluster along the trail bank. The woods, full of tulip poplars just sprouting tiny green leaves, were peppered with white dogwoods, redbuds, and a few wild pink azalea.

One tree, which appears to have been struck by lightning long ago, bends over into a perfect arch of peeled bark tall enough for a man to walk under. Branches continue to grow from its top, which touches the ground.

The new trail winds down into small coves and onto smaller foot ridges that the upper trail bypasses. Lizards sun themselves on the weather-whitened bones of the fallen trees that crisscross the green ravines.

Grieve would like to see similar trails on other North Knoxville ridges, although the patchwork of ownership complicates efforts to duplicate the growing Sharp's Ridge trail network.

"These ridges you can't really develop because they're too steep, but they are a great place for greenways and to get outdoors in North Knox," he says.

He sees potential in another ridge on the opposite side of Broadway, following Interstate 640 toward Knoxville Center mall; a service road to access billboards on another ridge on the north side of the interstate; and a ridge between Adair and Dutch Valley roads which already has some unofficial trails, Grieve says. He envisions connecting a ridge trail to the city greenway system at Adair Park.

Preserving the North Knoxville ridges has been a goal of Legacy Parks since before it became involved in the high-profile urban wilderness efforts in South Knoxville, Evans says.

"We think if you can promote the recreational use of the ridges, that's a form of having people value and protect them," she said, adding that she has been working on easements for ridge property for more than five years.

"It's definitely one of our areas of focus," Evans says. "We are a ridge and valley community, and we just don't think about that. We look up and see green, and it's a big part of who we are."