By Brian Lazenby
Leaders in Jackson County are working to take advantage of the area’s most valuable resource — its natural beauty.
Tourism officials and outdoor enthusiasts are working to have McKee designated as an official “Trail Town” along the Sheltowee Trace, a long-distance trail that begins in Pickett State Park in Tennessee and runs north-northeast through Jackson County to Roan County, Kentucky, near Morehead. A spur trail would connect McKee to the main 307-mile trace so it could serve as a stop-off for long-distance hikers. Currently, hikers pass right by McKee without ever putting a hiking boot in local shops, restaurants or hotels.
“The trail is the one golden thread that we can build upon,” says Bob Gabbard, owner of the Town and Country Motel in McKee. He is spearheading the proposed trail connector. “It is not the answer by itself, but I think it can go a long way to helping us develop the area’s economy.”
The Jackson County Department of Tourism has already submitted its permit application for McKee to be designated an official Trail Town. Jackson County Tourism Chairman Demian Gover says the feedback from the U.S. Forest Service has been very positive.
“They seem to be very happy with our plan,” he says.
Both he and Gabbard are eager for the permit to be approved and are hopeful that it happens this spring, but they know it may take until summer before they get the go-ahead.
“It looks like this will be a banner year for us in the trail business,” Gabbard says.
Currently the Sheltowee Trace bypasses McKee by about a mile and a half, and a portion of that section travels along U.S. Highway 421. Gabbard says the proposed new section will eliminate the on-road section of the trail.
Officials have already built one new trailhead in the Hamilton Bottoms area near the McKee welcome sign. Another is planned at the other end of town across from the post office, where hikers could have mail and supplies shipped ahead of them.
Both trailheads will connect to one another by a trail running parallel to Main Street, but it will pass off the roadway behind businesses and houses.
Both trailheads will connect to the trace, which sees thousands of outdoor enthusiasts each year. Plans are underway to link the trace with other trails to form the Great Eastern Trail running from Alabama to New York, similar to the Appalachian Trail.
While the Sheltowee Trace is primarily used by hikers, it is a multi-use trail and allows horses, mountain bikes and all-terrain vehicles in some designated sections.
Gabbard and Gover want to bring those using the trail into McKee, where they will hopefully spend the night, eat dinner or replenish their equipment.
“We want to be there for the hikers to re-fuel and re-equip,” Gover says. “They are going to do that somewhere. Why would we not want to be there for them when they do?”
It isn’t clear what the economic impact will be if the plan is approved, but Gover says Livingston built a visitors center across from a Sheltowee trailhead in Rockcastle County, about 30 miles southeast of McKee, and is already seeing positive economic results.
“It is not the end-all, be-all for the economy in McKee and Jackson County, but it could be that stimulus and catalyst we need,” Gover says.
Down the road
People inhabited this region as early as the 10th century, says Gabbard, who is also a paleontologist. He says once the connector is approved and built, there are additional plans to capitalize on the “adventure tourism” crowd with a village to honor those early inhabitants.
“If the plan goes through, in five years we want to have a replica native Appalachian village,” he says. “We have the beauty of our natural resources, and those assets need to be promoted.”
Officials are working closely with Native American groups, and a portion of the village will be dedicated to them.
Gabbard says the proposed trail will not only attract hikers to McKee, but it will also bring bird watchers, naturists and other outdoor enthusiasts to the area.
“This is an ancient land, and it is very fossiliferous,” he says. “There is a lot to see here if people will take the time to look for it.”