EVARTS, Ky. — Tony Novick leaned against his ATV on an Appalachian ridge top, downing a lunch of beans and franks and enjoying the view of a distant mountain shrouded by clouds.
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The New Lexington, Ohio, man is one of a new breed of tourists flooding into the mountains to ride four-wheelers across seemingly endless miles of abandoned roads left behind when mining companies pulled out.
"What a great place," said Novick on the first day of a four-day visit to the remote city of Evarts in Harlan County. "The views are incredible."
Local leaders have developed a plan to turn the roads that wind around steep ridges and mountaintops into an off-road paradise. Now state officials have stepped forward with a $50,000 federally funded grant to help with the cost of the initiative.
Darrell D. Brock Jr., head of the Governor's Office for Local Development, visited Harlan County in March to announce the grant from the Federal Highway Administration's recreational trails program.
Brock said the hope is that the Harlan County tourism initiative will beef up an ailing coalfield economy.
Already, people from across the nation are coming to Harlan County to ride the rugged trails. Some pull in trailers laden with all-terrain vehicles. Others favor brawny rock-crawling machines.
"It's awesome," said Brock, who went on a trail ride after the check presentation. "You've got views for miles in every direction. It doesn't get any better than this."
Novick said he decided to vacation in eastern Kentucky after reading about the rocky, rutted mountain roads in the coalfields. He was one of about 30 people, some from as far away as Illinois, eating lunch at an isolated picnic spot on an early spring afternoon.
"I like the steep trails," Novick said. "It's nice to get up top and be able to see everywhere, for miles."
While many other places in Kentucky frown on off-roaders, Harlan County welcomes them, said Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop. He believes the tourism potential could help spark an economic revival in the county where unemployment is rampant.
The grant will be used to develop a trailhead and recreational vehicle parking area in Evarts, the coal town closest to the mountaintop mines that are home to most of the off-road activities.
"Our town is ATV-friendly," said Benny Coleman, owner of an Evarts hardware store. "You can ride your ATV through the city and not be ticketed."
Coleman said the city council made sure of that by passing an ordinance a year ago to give ATV riders that freedom.
Preston McLain, president of the ATV club Harlan County Ridge Runners, said some of the eastern Kentucky back roads wind through the mountains for 100 miles or more, linked through a network of abandoned surface mines.
McLain said he foresees a day when counties throughout the mountain region join to promote off-road tourism. Already, several other counties are considering following Harlan County's lead.
"We have views that rival the Smokey Mountains," McLain said. "The tourism potential is incredible."
"I know, the way this is going, they're going to have to build more motels," he said. "When people find out about this place, they're going to come, and they're going to come back."
If You Go...@
GETTING THERE: Harlan County is located in southeastern Kentucky on the Virginia border and is most easily accessible via U.S. 119. From Interstate 75, about 90 miles north from Knoxville, Tenn., or south about 160 miles from Cincinnati, Ohio, take exit 29 at Corbin. Follow U.S. 25E east to Pineville, then take U.S. 119 north to Harlan.
HARLAN COUNTY RIDGE RUNNERS: www.kyoutdoors.com/hcrr/ or (606) 837-3546.
KENTUCKY MOUNTAIN CRAWLERS: www.kymc.org.
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