The Lower Gorge River Access site off of Guy Ford Road in Watauga County is open to the public thanks to the collaboration of several organizations and many individual donors interested in ensuring the riverfront property become a community park, according the Blue Ridge Conservancy. The park’s infrastructure including a parking lot, loading ramp, signage and railings were completed in August of 2020.

Historically, access to the Watauga River off of Guy Ford Road was privately owned. When a 2.3 acre riverfront property was listed for sale, enthusiastic neighbors and paddlers saw it as an opportunity.

In 2016, Blue Ridge Conservancy purchased the property with financial support of the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority , the Tennessee Valley Authority and 200 individual donors. Funding for the infrastructure came from the North Carolina General Assembly, Watauga County and the Watauga TDA.

“When I saw that the property was listed for sale, I began contacting organizations that might be interested in making it a park,” said Edgar Peck, a local whitewater paddler. “I also knew we needed to ask the public for support so I reached out to the paddling community and the response was amazing. Two hundred individual donors helped us raise $20,000 to put toward acquiring the land.”

“We received a tremendous amount of support from partnering organizations, volunteers, and donors who all have a personal connection and love for the Watauga River. These passionate supporters are dedicated to see the river remain accessible for everyone who enjoys canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and swimming,” said Eric Hiegl, BRC director of Land Protection and Stewardship.

“The Watauga TDA is committed to funding projects that offer outdoor recreation opportunities. This river access will be a popular place for both residents and visitors of the High Country,” said Wright Tilley, Watauga TDA executive director.

“The General Assembly decided to put $50,000 into the project to help pay for amenities including a parking lot with 27 designated parking spaces,” said State Sen. Deanna Ballard. “Access to places for outdoor recreation is very important to this community and its citizens.”

The river flows across the state border into Tennessee and experienced paddlers will run the section through the Watauga Gorge, a Class V whitewater section. It also serves as a take out for Section III of the Watauga, where access already exists at the Upper Gorge Park off of Highway 321.

“Additional river access points along the Watauga River enhance citizen quality of life and make this area an even better place to live, work and play,” said Clay Guerry, TVA Recreation Strategy Specialist. The Tennessee Valley Authority provides flood control, navigation and land management for the Tennessee River system and assists local power companies and state and local governments with economic development and job creation.

“I want to thank the Watauga County Department of Solid Waste and Recycling for constructing the retaining walls and loading ramp,” said Joe Furman, director of Watauga County Planning and Inspections. “It is great to see this property transformed to provide a safe and sustainable access to this very popular section of the river.”

Now, this access is part of the 21 mile Watauga River Paddle Trail, which traverses through Valle Crucis, a National Rural Historic District, and continues into Tennessee. The property is enrolled in the Public Fishing Access Program managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

“This year has vividly demonstrated how important access to public lands is to the physical and mental health of all North Carolinians,” said Charlie Brady, BRC executive director. “Blue Ridge Conservancy has been inundated with stories of individuals and families who are grateful to have greenways, blueways, parks and trails where they can spend time in the outdoors while practicing social distancing.”

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Tom Mayer is the executive editor of Mountain Times Publications, a group of five news newspapers, six websites and one monthly periodical in the High Country of North Carolina.

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