By Stephen Smoot
As Pendleton County looks to develop tourism’s potential in the area economy, Experience Learning and its partners are expanding bike trails in the scenic eastern section of the county.
The organization plans to construct nine miles of trails with the opening date set for the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Experience Learning’s Sweetwater Farm in Sugar Grove serves as a home for “small and sustainable farming programming,” as the website describes. The property has 565 acres surrounding an 1800s era farmhouse. Experience Learning has also added a modern community and education center for many of its activities.
As Melinda Brooks from Experience Learning describes, phase one will see two miles of mountain biking trails opened up by the end of this year with seven more scheduled to open by the beginning of June. Eventually 30 miles of trails and unique educational experiences will be available to visitors and youth coming for summer camps.
“We don’t want to be limited to mountain biking,” Brooks said. She added that 60% of the finished trail network would be for non-motorized multi use, including hiking, and only 40% would be “bike optimized.”
Additionally, the first trails will have designs favoring beginners. Brooks explained that “we will put in diamond and black trails later” for more experienced riders.
Experience Learning also will conduct a series of camps to draw youth from both in and outside of the state. Beginner camps for children between second and eighth grade will teach the fundamentals of mountain biking and also about the environment. Campers between eighth and 12th grades will take on more challenging routes, especially as Brooks says, “the rocky, rugged, rooty trails that are not for beginners.” The advanced camp will include field trips to trails on Snowshoe Mountain, Tea Creek, and elsewhere.
West Virginia based Appalachian Dirt and Trail Labs have joined Experience Learning to help create the trails and ensure that the network remains supplied with the safest and highest quality equipment. As Appalachian Dirt’s website notes, they have a commitment to “organically sourced, sustainably crafted, and thoughtfully created” trail construction. The company has “spent the better part of two decades using, maintaining, creating, and enabling use on great trails.”
Brooks explained that Experience Learning will split revenues evenly between themselves and their private sector partners, but each will retain a strong commitment to philanthropy. She also sees the community as both a potential market and a partner, saying “we’re thrilled with the outpouring of support” from the area, especially the Pendleton County Economic and Community Development Authority.
She discussed the potential benefit to the community as well, saying that Experience Learning wants to “lean into efforts to promote tourism” because “Pendleton County is getting momentum.” One of her goals lies in “looking for out-of-state and out-of-town visitors to spend money in Pendleton County.”
The trail network when completed will also incorporate other facilities and attractions for the use of visitors and camp participants.
The EDA has also served as a vital partner for development of the new trails. Laura Brown, executive director, stated that the EDA supported an unsuccessful grant application for the proposed trails. Although that did not turn out favorably, Brown said “the broadband council knew that broadband was essential for the project.”
When Pendleton County Schools and the Pendleton County Library system later successfully applied for an Emergency Connectivity Fund grant, they had included Experience Learning’s Sweetwater Farm facility due to their profound commitment to serving youth. Brown stated that “broadband services will be installed at Sweetwater Farm in August 2023.”
Looking ahead to the future, Brooks says “we’re just fired up about Pendleton County and offering more opportunities for people in the county. We’re also fired up about bringing outsiders into Pendleton County.”