RIO GRANDE, Ohio — Fifteen miles of trails converge in a wood in Southeast Ohio and that has made all the difference for a group of volunteers which forged a partnership with the University of Rio Grande and, by default, those who utilize (and explore) those miles.
Gatewood Trail System sits on property now owned by the university, donated to it by Bob Evans Restaurants in 2018.
As reported by the Tribune at the time, approximately 270 acres of land across from the company’s Homestead Farm was given to Rio, while the company kept the property on which the restaurant and farm are located.
According to a press release from the university in 2018, “The contribution… continues the strong partnership with the University of Rio Grande and the commitment to the community that Bob Evans himself began many years ago.”
The trails are located directly across from the iconic Bob Evans Farm, past the catch and release pond, large shelter house and wooden stage. With signs of civilisation barely behind the traveler, another literal sign appears near the main trail head, simply stating, “Gatewood Trail System” on the front and “Get Lost” on the back.
Many growing up around Bob Evans Farm and Rio Grande are already familiar with some of the trails (at least during their previous versions) which have been in existence for years. Mainly used as bridal paths for horses back in the day, that has all been transformed into updated trails and courses, used exclusively by mountain bikers, hikers and runners – maybe a stray deer or two.
Kevin Lyles has been teaching art at Rio for 31 years. A biker his entire life, he first became aware of what were then the bridal trails about 18 years ago when a student introduced him to this maze in his own backyard. When he attempted to ride them the first time, he described a rough ride with definite wear and tear on his tire tread afterward.
Tony Daniels, has been with the university for 25 years as a faculty member and coach but came to Rio in 1987 as as student. Daniels said he used to run the trails “back in the early days” when Bob Evans still owned them and also mountain bikes among them now. He recalled a natural boundary between existing trails still owned and used by Rio and the “other side” then used primarily by the horses – a boundary that would one day disappear and evolve.
Like many around the immediate area, Rio Grande Mayor Matt Easter, who is a native of the village, also had an awareness of the trails but didn’t realize what they could be until meeting the late Jon Burris.
Easter credits Burris with the idea to redevelop the trails in the 1990’s to bring mountain biking to the area. “He’s the godfather of this idea,” Easter said, referring to those prior to the property being given to the university as the “OG guys.”
Tragically, Burris, who was originally from Point Pleasant, West Virginia, died at only 43 years old in 2013.
His obituary stated: “Jon was an avid cyclist. As the President of The Ohio Valley Bicycle Club, Jon started the Relay for Life ‘Ride for Life’ Fundraiser benefiting the Gallia County American Cancer Society for which he received multiple recognitions. In addition, he also started the Bob Evans Farmhand mountain bike race listed on the Bob Evans Farms, Inc., national calendar of events. He also participated in the First James Cancer Center Pelotonia to raise money for cancer awareness. Jon was a great friend, a wonderful storyteller, and a dedicated father among so many other positive traits.”
The Gatewood volunteers recently honored Burris with a new sign in his honor where he laid the groundwork with his vision for mountain biking, and cycling, in the area. The volunteers also paid homage to a world famous hiker who once called the hills of Gallia County her home. More on that, later. Let’s not jump ahead too quickly — much like the trails, this story was decades in the making.
Despite years of horseshoes, an occasional visit from a cow, the natural progression of nature taking over, as well as a derecho blowing through, hikers and bikers would still venture back into the trails with varying degrees of success. Six years ago, Easter was doing just that.
“I was back there hunting for a trail and that’s when I met another guy working and it spurred into a really good friendship that’s still going to this day, and I don’t know how the others got involved,” Easter said, equating it to a butterfly effect. “It spurred into this group of volunteers. It’s impressive. It’s inspiring.”
Easter said the group of trail stewards has no leader.
“We just know what to do,” he explained. “If a tree crosses a trail, it’s usually about a day before it’s gone…we work as a family back there to keep those things amazing.”
Lyles estimates there are 20 regulars who help maintain the trail – he is usually called out for tree removal, Daniels weed-eats (particularly handy during tick season) and Dave Newberry does design work on berms and bridges, to name a few, though certainly not all, who bring their skill-sets to the table.
“Everyone just pitches in,” Lyles said.
Newberry also built a secure donation box at the trailhead and monthly, on the Gallia Trails Facebook page, volunteers pull out the money and thank those who stopped by, using the funding for trail maintenance.
Lyles said he’s observed many of the donations are from local people who “show appreciation for what we’ve been given.”
Of course the level of maintenance on the trails began to take shape and evolve into where it is today once the university took ownership of the property. These volunteers familiar with the trails approached the university with a proposition to develop the system further and a partnership was born.
Easter said there was already an existing trail named Gatewood Trail on the property, and since Grandma Gatewood, famous for hiking the Appalachian Trail, was Gallia County’s own, volunteers asked the university if the entire system could be named after her as well. Rio agreed and the Gatewood Trail System was born.
“She was the Bevo Francis of hiking,” Easter said with certainty concerning the trail’s namesake.
A statement from the university describes the Gatewood volunteers as: “A local group of stewards. Some are university employees but all are volunteers with a passion for the trails and building community from them.”
“We’ve never been more grateful to the university,” Easter said. “They’ve been a pleasure to work with. I think we’ve proven ourselves to them to be good stewards. They trust us. Without this land we couldn’t have anything. I can’t express thanks enough to Rio for their belief in these trails.”
“We cannot believe how blessed we are to have this in our backyard,” Lyles said. “It’s a whole new world over there right now.”
The estimated 15 miles of trails in Gatewood’s system, criss-cross like a “bowl of spaghetti noodles” on maps, according to Easter. One of the benefits of the bowl of noodles is, all the trails are so connected, if a hiker or biker finds themselves turned around, they will eventually circle back to the familiar. All the while, sometimes the highway can be heard in the distance or cheers from the crowd at a Rio sporting event – close but not too close. Civilization is still accessible but can also be left behind depending on which direction a traveler chooses.
“You might get a little turned around but in the end, you can pretty much find your way out,” Lyles said.
The university reports even more improvements are coming to the trail system, stating, “We are currently working on maps, better trail head signage, and more trail markings. At this time, we are just in discussion stages for club sports that may utilize the trails: mountain biking and archery.”
The university explained though these club sports would not be funded as an athletic program, they would offer students an opportunity to compete.
Daniels noted, “There’s no other college campus that has its own mountain bike course on campus and I think [President] Ryan [Smith] has been great for the school, he sees it as diamond in rough as well. These hills are part of unity of Rio Grande.”
The improvements and care leave no doubt the trails have family who visit often and caretake the property. Like the trails, the stewardship is clearly visible.
“It’s our own little slice of heaven so to speak,” Daniels said. “I don’ t have to drive to (places like) Hocking Hills…it’s right here in my backyard.”
The trails also have the ability to draw people into Gallia County, particularly mountain bikers who are now showing up from Dayton, Athens, Chillicothe and beyond looking for a peaceful ride or challenging course features – Gatewood offers a variety.
No doubt this has the potential to spur economic growth.
Easter said the trails have seen a “massive uptick in people,” with part of this possibly attributed to the pandemic which forced many outside and into activities that utilized social distance.
Greeting mountain bikers, hikers and runners along the trails are berms, bridges, ramps and yes, even Bigfoot. Bigfoot (the namesake of a mountain bike race held at Gatewood) moves to various locations along the trail and on holidays, he leaves gifts to those who find him first. This spring, for St. Patty’s Day, someone was gifted with green Gatorade.
“There’s something to do here, it’s just finding it,” Daniels said. “During the pandemic we (his family) went hiking up there on a regular basis.”
Daniels, who is also the head soccer coach for the women’s team at Rio, also leads his players back on the trails to run, finding it a safe environment.
“You always see a friendly person, and it’s all word of mouth, not advertising except I think good things happen to good people,” Daniels said, adding good people who work hard are part of the equation and the trails are experiencing growth because once Rio is found, more is uncovered.
Daniels also credited the university, saying, “Rio gave its support to go ahead and build this, making sure it’s there for people.”
“The Gatewood Trail System provides opportunities for the local community to get out and explore nature,” the university stated. “It also delivers a destination place for people all over the state to visit our scenic area and hopefully visit some of our local businesses, get to see Rio’s campus, as well as surrounding areas.”
Easter said besides the trails providing healthy recreational options, they provide an opportunity to educate – learning to not only identify with nature but community.
“All of our trail volunteers, we are all so different from each other,” Easter said. “There’s a pastor working beside an atheist and none of that matters. We’re there for the trail…without that trail, we probably would never know the other exists. So many different walks of life coming together to make something. If you took away that one piece (the trail), I’d say we’d walk by in life and probably not even notice each other…we would’ve never have met. We learn from each other.”
As an art professor, Lyles was asked if he would describe the Gatewood Trails as a work of art? Though there is a medium out there called “Earth Art” Lyles said he wouldn’t exactly call the system “art.”
“I think art is something that communications to people something new…this isn’t really doing that,” Lyles said, explaining he felt the trails were “the glue that holds the community together. It’s a really a sublime intersection between nature and people and the community is involved in taking care of that nature.”
Easter added: “Politics, religion, and differences in life don’t exist amongst the Gatewood volunteers. Only trails and how to better them.”
Find the Gallia Trails Facebook Page for more information.
© 2021 Ohio Valley Publishing, all rights reserved.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.