Discover Elkin, North Carolina’s Next Great Trail Town

Signs of Elkin's transformation to a true trail town are all over the city, including its public art.
Signs of Elkin's transformation to a true trail town are all over the city, including its public art. Rob Glover
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There is no doubt that Elkin, North Carolina, is a town in transition. The “Main Street” sign that marks Elkin’s central thoroughfare could be hanging above any quaint Carolina mountain town. The three blocks or so that make up downtown feature locally owned art and antique shops, restaurants, a book store/coffee shop, and a winery.

But just a block away, between Main Street and the Yadkin River, are the rough and weathered reminders of Elkin’s past. A rusting train trestle harkens to the days when the Elkin & Alleghany rail line moved goods around the region early last century. The Smith-Phillips Lumber building, its faded yellow paint peeling off in great chunks, is an abandoned monument to several industries that vacated this part of North Carolina long ago.

In Elkin, however, these are not signs of decline or stagnation. Instead, they are waypoints along a road, or more aptly a trail, of reinvention. A large section of the old E&A rail line is now footpath (Elkin received a Golden Spike Award from the North Carolina Rail Trails Association for its work). And the old lumber building is about to see a whole new life as a Heritage and Trails Center—a focal point for all trail activity not just in town, but for this entire region of the Tarheel State.

It is, in fact, trail activity that is the impetus for much of this change. Many weekends find dedicated volunteers clearing miles of hiking path. Several new pedestrian bridges connect Elkin to long-distance and historic Carolina trails. A recently added boat launch offers paddlers access to downtown and all its amenities. And new mountain bike singletrack will get riders off-road without leaving town.

With the help of a few of the most dedicated engineers of this transportation town’s transmogrification, we offer this overview of some of the best activities, locations, and events in and around Elkin.

Hitting the Trails in Elkin

The EVTA is building the trail to connect the granite dome of Stone Mountain to downtown Elkin.
The EVTA is building the trail to connect the granite dome of Stone Mountain to downtown Elkin. Rob Glover

Elkin is perfectly placed to become a great trail town. Two of the most popular state parks in North Carolina are nearby, and three significant trails pass through Elkin. Several recurring events make great use of these paths as well as the scenic, rolling hills that surround the little burg.

Downtown Elkin sits at the bottom point of a long, narrow triangle. At either end of the inverted “base” are Stone Mountain State Park and Pilot Mountain State Park. Stone’s 600-foot granite dome and thundering waterfall attract hikers and climbers from all over the southeast. The cylindrical edifice that is Pilot Mountain has acted as traveler’s waypoint for thousands of years and is home to a magnificent view of the northern Carolina Piedmont. Roughly a 30-minute drive from each, Elkin is well situated to act as either basecamp or post-hike refuel stop.

The Mountains to Sea Trail is an ambitious 1,150-mile project that crosses North Carolina from east to west. While the MST is currently walkable, it still requires many miles of travel along roads. The Elkin Valley Trail Association is the driving force in building an off-road section of the MST that will connect Stone Mountain to Pilot Mountain State Parks, passing through town on its way.

The new Cultural and Trail Center is just a part of the bid for the city to become a designated MST Trail Town. Informational kiosks that help hikers navigate needed amenities like the post office and provisions are in the plans. A group of Trail Angels (volunteers who produce “trail magic” in the form of warm meals, campsites, and rides to shops, etc.) is already at work, offering comfort to weary walkers. And the Byrd’s Branch Campground, located on the MST, offers a convenient place to sleep and restock.

Through trail and bridge building projects, the  EVTA has been the driving force in creating the local section of the Mountains to Sea Trail.
Through trail and bridge building projects, the EVTA has been the driving force in creating the local section of the Mountains to Sea Trail. Elkin Valley Trail Association

Besides the MST, the town is a confluence of two other notable trails. The Elkin and Alleghany Rail Trail, which the EVTA continues to expand, is a smooth, well-graded path designed for foot and bike traffic. You can connect to the “in town” portion from Municipal Park, just north of Main Street. Another completed 1.5 mile section of this trail creates a wonderfully convenient link between Byrd’s Branch Campground and Grassy Creek Vineyard.

Dating back to 1780s, the Overmountain Victory Trail traces the steps of Colonial Militiamen who mustered from around the southeast to win an important battle at what is now Kings Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina. One tendril of this Federal Linear Park follows along Elkin Creek west of downtown.

Riding Country Roads and Off-Road Trails

Not just for hiking, the EVTA is building a 6-mile singletrack trail for mountain bikers.
Not just for hiking, the EVTA is building a 6-mile singletrack trail for mountain bikers. Elkin Valley Trail Association

Flowing past farm, field, and forest, the curvy country roads of the western Carolina Piedmont are a haven for cyclists. Little automobile traffic covers these back byways, especially on weekend mornings, so riders rule the blacktop. Cruising past the vast vineyards that have grown up in Carolina’s wine country, the Yadkin Valley Tour de Vino adds a distinct new dimension to organized rides. Each May the Tour takes riders on either a 31, 50, 71, or 100-mile ride over the hills and through the woods. As the name suggests, there is wine. Your registration includes a tasting ticket for the Yadkin Valley Wine Festival as well as showers and a post-ride meal.

The superheroes of the EVTA aren’t just working on a footpath. They’re also carving out a swiftly flowing 6-mile singletrack trail close to downtown. The trail takes advantage of the natural topographical changes around Big Elkin Creek.

Exploring Elkin on the Water

Several launches near town, including the new put-in at Crater Park, create multiple paddling trip options along the Yadkin River Blueway.
Several launches near town, including the new put-in at Crater Park, create multiple paddling trip options along the Yadkin River Blueway. Yadkin River Adventures

According to William Blackley, group chairperson for the EVTA, the goal is to have the water of the Yadkin River clear within two years. The river, he says, is already clean, but work is being done with local landowners to reduce sediment entering the waterway.

That focus is great news for paddlers. The Yadkin River Trail, a 165-mile blueway, flows past Elkin and a recently added launch at Crater Park connects travelers to the town. Yadkin River Adventures not only provides several day-trips on the blueway, but also an alternative to thru-hikers of the MST.

“The Elkin Valley Trail Association has stepped up with the Mountains to Sea Trail,” says Paul Carter, owner of Yadkin River Adventures. “Now the Yadkin River is designated as a paddle alternative to hiking and walking from the city of Elkin down to Pilot Mountain State Park.”

Carter and crew can help you experience this section of the river like a through hiker. An overnight trip begins at Crater Park in town, floats 15 miles to the primitive camping spot at Yadkin River Adventures, then finishes on day two with a 12.5-mile trip to the take out at Pilot Mountain State Park. This stretch of the river is suitable for beginners, Carter says.

Relaxing in Wine Country

The recently remodeled Brushy Mountain Winery in downtown Elkin mixes modern flair with an eye on the past.
The recently remodeled Brushy Mountain Winery in downtown Elkin mixes modern flair with an eye on the past. Rob Glover

Being smack in the middle of wine country, you can find plenty of places to enjoy a taste. Among the most convenient and lively—with local music most Friday and Saturday nights—is Brushy Mountain Winery. Much like the town itself, the recent redecoration of the tasting room brought a beautiful update that celebrates, rather than covering up, the site’s past. A row of painted signs, highlighted during the remodel, expose the building’s previous occupant, the Elkin Canning Company.

A short walk down Main Street lands visitors at 22 Public House where well-done versions of pub-fare favorites, and a few southern classics, await. Pizzas, made in a wood-fired stone oven and topped with house-made mozzarella, are featured here, while the beer list offers a collection of regional and national craft brews with a good eye on variety.

Before all the wine and beer though, a stop at Diana’s for a morning warm-up is a great way to start a day of exploring. The locally owned coffee shop/bookstore has been a staple in the community since 1993.

So if you’re looking for a great place to start exploring the region, Elkin has everything going for it. Better find out for yourself soon before the secret gets out.

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