As people listened to the speakers tell the story of the 10-plus-year effort to bring the trails to fruition, many eyes wandered with anticipation from the stage set up in the trailhead parking lot to the trail’s mouth.
Tracy Huffman of Gadsden was in his bike gear and on his bike, ready for his first ride on the trail minutes after the ribbon cutting.
“I actually took a vacation day for this,” Huffman said. “If the state’s going to spend money to put in a trail like this, I’m going to show support.”
Huffman, who moved from Virginia — “mountain bike city galore” — to Gadsden two years ago, was excited about the prospect of having a trail so close to home. In Virginia, he could leave work and be on a bike trail in 15 minutes and he rode three to five times a week, he said. Here the distance to trails limits his rides.
“You don’t realize what a resource it is until you don’t have it at your disposal,” Huffman said.
Preston York, a local bike club member who has put more than 200 volunteer hours into the new trails, said the mountain has put Anniston on the map in many ways. He said the trail has already been mentioned in national mountain-biking publications and he expects it to draw people from all over the Southeast and the country to Anniston. Eventually the mountain, part of the Forever Wild land holdings, could have as much as 60 miles of trails.
Mike Poe, a member of Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, one of the local partners that helped create the trail, said it already has drawn visitors from as far away as Ohio. Just last weekend, some visitors called him from the trail after they had arrived expecting it to be open. He arranged for them to ride with a group of local bikers before they headed home after the holiday weekend.
Scott Brightwell, owner of Parker House Bed and Breakfast in Anniston, said two of their guests at the house came to ride the trail this opening weekend and the Cheaha Mountain trails.
Joe Jankoski, executive director of Calhoun County Community Development Corporation, is working with Jacksonville State University to study the trails’ potential to bring economic benefit to the region.
“We anticipate somewhere around 100,000 unique users annually,” Jankoski said. “Obviously the people will need places to stay. They need food to eat.”
To local business owners, that can mean economic opportunity, he said. But while some people are touting the economic benefits the trail provides, others are just excited about the experience.
Anniston residents Dodie and Tony Atwell came to the opening with their children, Zoe, 7, Ethan, 6, and Marina. They are all bike riders.
“We all ride on the Chief Ladiga Trail,” Dodie Atwell said, balancing 3-year-old Marina on her hip. “I have never done the mountain biking.”
Her husband, though, rides mountain bike trails and wants their children to experience it.
“Mountain bikes are fun,” Tony Atwell said. “I want these guys to do them.”
Ethan, who said he wants to bike like the BMX racers on television, had already had his first ride on the trail and Zoe was hesitantly getting ready for hers.
Oxford resident Bobby Phillips said having this resource will benefit the entire community including its younger members. Although children are often exposed to technology, they are losing touch with the outdoor activities that their parents may have enjoyed.
“Kids these days, if they don’t have something like this, they’re going to lose out,” Phillips said. “Stuff like this hopefully brings that back.”
About 20 minutes after his ride on the trail, Huffman was just as enthusiastic as he was before the ride.
“Definitely one of the best trails I’ve ridden,” Huffman said. “Great. It was a blast.”
The trails have been funded by state, federal and grant money. The state funded the access road for $500,000 and $450,000 has been allocated to the trails, Poe said.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.