Fifteen years ago, members of the Middle Fork Greenway task force obtained grants to secure land for three parks along the Middle Fork of the New River: Payne Branch Park, Goldmine Branch Park, and Sterling Creek Park. After removal of the South Fork dam and extensive stream bank restoration, Payne Branch Park is now open to the public. Sterling Creek Park opened in 2014, and Goldmine Branch Park is currently under construction, slated to be finished by the end of the year. Funding for Payne Branch Park was provided by AppHealthCare, ZAP Endurance, Watauga County Tourism Development Authority, and Blue Ridge Conservancy.

The South Fork dam, used to produce power for Boone from 1924-1972, was removed in 2020 in a partnership between Resource Institute, Appalachian State University, New River Light & Power (NRLP). Now that the water is flowing freely, fish and other aquatic organisms can migrate up and down the river corridor, and native trees, shrubs and flowers provide wildlife and riverbank protection. The Middle Fork Greenway task force, a committee of volunteers, is keeping the park clean, pruned, and ready for visitors.

“I really enjoy getting out there and keeping the trail clean for the community to use. I love seeing people enjoying nature and having access to our beautiful river”, said Ben Edwards, one of the founders of the Middle Fork Greenway.

John Welch, Chair of Watauga County Board Commissioners, understands the importance of supporting fitness and recreation-focused infrastructure projects. “Watauga County is committed to creating and maintaining trails and parks to provide residents and visitors opportunities to get outside and lead active lives. We are fortunate to have Blue Ridge Conservancy leading the project and Watauga County Tourism Development Authority continuing to fund the Middle Fork Greenway.”

AppHealthCare awarded Blue Ridge Conservancy $10,000 to support improved access to Payne Branch Park, which includes Watauga County and Appalachian State University-owned land. Blue Ridge Trail Works constructed the trail and amenities, which are already being used by many human and animal visitors. This park will eventually connect to the Middle Fork Greenway, which will connect Boone to Blowing Rock.

“AppHealthCare is pleased to partner on this project that provides additional outdoor access for our community to promote healthy living and physical activity. There is great benefit to our overall health when we are able to be outdoors and be physically active. The funding for this project is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the Preventive Health Services Block Grant (PHHS), and we are grateful for their commitment to improving the public’s health,” said Donna Hill, Director of Community Health Services with AppHealthCare.

ZAP Endurance funds the majority of the Middle Fork Greenway administrative costs, including the development of Payne Branch Park. ZAP owner Zika Rea says “I think about what values I want to teach my kids – that no matter what you’re doing, you have a responsibility to make where you live better, and I think the Greenway will make our community better.”

Directions to Payne Branch Park: Travel one mile south toward Blowing Rock on Highway 321. Turn right onto Payne Branch Rd. There are gravel parking spots on the right side of the road, before a large rock. Please be sure to park off the road.

For more information about the Middle Fork Greenway, please visit the website.

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