COLUMBIA — A 2.75-mile trail opened Friday at Finger Lakes State Park for hiking and mountain biking.
The Kelley Branch Mountain Bike Trail is the first in the park devoted exclusively to hiking and biking. Development and construction began two years ago, said Dawn Fredrickson, field operations and Katy Trail coordinator.
The new bike trail is within the 90-acre Kelley Branch Restoration Area. To preserve the land, the path was cut using hand tools rather than machinery, Fredrickson said.
It starts in the picnic area in the southwest sector of the park with a portion running along the Kelley Branch stream. Yellow blazes on trees indicate the path’s direction.
The trail is a one-way loop considered moderate in difficulty. It takes an estimated two hours to hike, with steep hills 20 to 30 feet high.
Fredrickson said hikers can expect a trail that is "very forested, very hilly and very pretty." During wet weather, there is also a small waterfall.
The park supports a variety of Missouri wildlife, including deer, raccoons, opossums, wild turkeys, hawks and owls.
"The trail is not what people would expect. People will be pleasantly surprised with how beautiful the area is," Fredrickson said.
The official opening was marked Friday by a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by park staff, volunteers and hiking enthusiasts.
Ryan Flaherty, who frequently hikes, attended the ceremony with his daughter, Kendall, and son, Jameson. He said the trail is rugged and provides great exercise.
Kelley Branch Mountain Bike Trail differs from other trails at Finger Lakes State Park because it is closed to off-road vehicles like four-wheelers.
As off-road vehicle traffic increased on existing trails, mountain bike use began to fall off, Fredrickson said.
"It's not that (mountain biking and off-road vehicles) aren't compatible, it's that some users don’t feel very safe," she said.
"When we set Kelley Branch Mountain Bike Trail aside, it was always our goal to reintroduce mountain bikers to the park, and we thought this was the perfect opportunity."
The new trail has a number of technical features that mountain bikers might find appealing, Fredrickson said, including hills and a few long bridges. The surface is dirt, gravel and rock.
"It's not a boring flat trail but something that is a little bit challenging and requires some effort," Fredrickson said.
Cary Maloney, who helped design the new trail with the Osage Regional Trail Association, said he has biked it many times and it is tough.
"It is definitely a skills trail," Maloney said. "It really challenges your balance skills."
Finger Lakes State Park was created in the 1970s after the Peabody Coal Co. withdrew from the land.
In the early '70s, the government began a program that reclaimed old mining sites that were no longer viable. These sites, including Finger Lakes State Park, were replanted and turned into recreation facilities, Fredrickson said.
"The landscape is rugged, with many ups and downs, mounds and lakes left over from the mining operations," Fredrickson said.
The State Park Youth Corps, a jobs program established by Gov. Jay Nixon last year, also contributed to trail construction. Fredrickson said the program was based on the Civilian Conservation Corps established during the Great Depression to help put young people back to work.
Those involved in the youth corps build trails, paint and repair park buildings and work as trail guides.
"We encourage them to be outdoors and even sometimes start recruiting them for long-term employment," Fredrickson said.
The trail was funded from a portion of money Missouri State Parks sets aside every year for building and facilities.
It was originally scheduled for completion in the spring, but Fredrickson indicated fall was good timing.
"We're just glad we can open it this year," she said.