• Photo/Debbie Gilbert Yonah Preserve's 44-acre lake will eventually be opened to fishing and non-motorized boating.
  • Photo/Debbie Gilbert Currently, 7.5 miles of trails are available to hikers and bikers at Yonah Preserve. Ultimately, the trail system will comprise more than 20 miles.
  • Photo/Debbie Gilbert The White County Schools' Warrior mountain-biking team prepares for an early-evening practice run on the Yonah Preserve Trails.
  • Photo/Debbie Gilbert The biking/hiking trails at Yonah Preserve meander through the forest and also provide lovely views of the lake.

Hitting the trail

Yonah Preserve is a fresh destination for mountain bikers

Once upon a time, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources owned a huge tract of land in White County — more than 1,000 acres, heavily forested, with a beautiful lake. But the DNR didn’t want to spend the money to develop and manage the property, so they handed it over to the White County Board of Commissioners — for the grand sum of $1.

For the past few years, county officials have been working to transform this incredible windfall into a park. Eventually, the master plan will include a recreation complex with ball fields, and fishing/boating opportunities on the lake.

But the first amenity to open to the public was a portion of the hiking/biking trails system, which will ultimately comprise more than 20 miles. When the 7.5-mile initial section became available to users in June 2018, the trailhead parking lot filled up almost immediately, and its popularity has continued to grow.

“It’s more than just bikers. We’ve got hikers and runners and dog-walkers,” said avid cyclist Woody Wood, who owns Woody’s Mountain Bikes in Helen.

What came as a surprise was how many bike riders were coming up from metro Atlanta to experience the Yonah Preserve trails.

“People come for the mountain views, fewer crowds, and the design and construction of the trails, which just flows so well,” Wood said.

The Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) partnered with the county to hire IMBA Trail Solutions (for design) and Flowmotion Trail Builders (for construction). SORBA members have also volunteered their time and labor for trail building and maintenance.

“It’s a sustainable design, with good drainage, proper angle and slope, and a compacted surface,” Wood said.

The result is bike trails that don’t dissolve into mud pits every time it rains. But such quality doesn’t come cheap.

“All of these things increase the cost of construction,” Wood said.

SORBA was able to obtain grants through the federal Recreational Trails Program to help pay for the first two phases of the trails system, and fundraising is under way for the third phase. Eventually, Yonah Preserve should be able to host events such as bike races.

“There are people knocking on the door wanting to hold events here, but the infrastructure isn’t ready yet,” Wood said.

Besides adding more miles of trail, the county is planning to build a restroom/visitor center at the trailhead. Meanwhile, in an unforested area of the park, construction is under way on the ballfield complex.

“It is a challenge,” said White County manager Mike Melton. “Most counties don’t have 1,000 acres to devote to recreational uses. I think (Yonah Preserve) will be an asset to the county. We’re already seeing a huge number of users out there.”

Yonah Preserve is expected to boost tourism in the county, drawing visitors from throughout the Southeast for everything from sports tournaments to fishing rodeos. But for now, the main focus is the trails — and as a cyclist, Wood couldn’t be happier.

“In getting this park, things just came together,” he said. “It’s almost as if God planned it.”

For additional information, including directions to the trails, visit yonahpreservetrails.com.

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