With about 70 miles of trails on the property, the park is attracting about 100-120 riders most weekends during the cooler months. Riders tend to avoid riding in the summer due to the daytime heat. The option of riding at night, especially during the summer, sets TOP Trails apart from other off-road areas.
“We had one lady who was adamant about night riding,” said park director Wes Pope. “She had been one of the people riding out here before the park was opened, and she just wasn’t going to give it up.”
Night riding gives riders a different experience and sense of adventure. Many of the off-road riders equip their vehicles with optional light bars that light up the area out front that greatly outperforms headlights in both brightness and area of coverage. But even standard headlights can provide enough illumination to navigate the trails.
TOP Trails is currently open 24 hours a day from 6:30 a.m. on Thursdays through 10 p.m. Sundays. Current gate admission is only $5 per person, and helmets must be shown upon admission. For $10 per night riders can also camp in the park.
“That’s something else unique about TOP Trails,” Pope said. “Other parks I’ve seen that have camping have it outside the gate. We have it inside the park.”
Right now only primitive camping is available. There are several port-a-potties on the property.
“Campers usually pick out one of the empty igloos and set up in front of it for the weekend,” Pope said. “There are times when it’s been raining that I’ve seen people set up their tents inside an igloo.”
While night riding is a special attraction, most riders enjoy the park’s trails during daylight hours.
With some 70 miles of trails and about 20 miles of paved roads in the park, there is a lot of ground to cover. Park employees have also completed installation of about 4,000 feet of water lines, a fire hydrant and other components of a water system on the property.
Some riders enjoy muddy areas, and others prefer the hills and curves and wilderness areas, and they can find them at TOP Trails.
Following plans laid out by trail designer Glenn Myers, a member of the Cheaha Trail Riders, park workers have cut about 30 miles of new trails. Most riders at the park ride four wheelers and another class of vehicles called side by sides. While four wheelers typically have motorcycle type seats and handlebars, side by sides have automotive type steering wheels and seating. They typically also have doors, roll bars and windshields, and some have seating for four or even six riders.
A group of volunteer motorcycle enthusiasts is also assisting with development of single-track trails at the park to provide a different riding experience.
The property, previously designated the Coosa River Storage Annex, contains a network of paved roads and 132 concrete “igloos” built for handling munitions during World War II. In the decades after the war the facility was no longer needed for national defense.
Eventually the federal government offered the 2,800 acres appropriate for use as a recreational area.
For years trail riders had been finding their way on to the property and found it to be a wonderful wilderness area for riding motorcycles and four wheelers. While technically trespassing, the riders established dozens of miles of trails that are part of the network of trails being used today.
The Talladega County Commission was granted the property to create a public recreational facility. A recreational trails park seemed to be a logical use for the property, but that plan met resistance from the commission. Chuck Roberts said the commission hired him to work on the project, but no funding for a park had been included in the budget.
Roberts and Danny Hubbard joined forces, and in conjunction with members of the Cheaha Trail Riders non-profit group and others began working on plans for a trails park. They turned to Lincoln Mayor Lew Watson, who was receptive to the idea, but the County Commission refused to transfer the deed to Lincoln even after their proposal was approved by the park service. They then approached the city of Talladega about forming a joint entity, and the Public Park Authority of the Cities of Lincoln and Talladega was created, The “TOP” in TOP Trails is an abbreviation for Talladega-Lincoln Outdoor Parks.
Hubbard said he and Roberts wrote a 10-year development plan for the park, encompassing a wide variety of amenities and recreational opportunities, including a shooting range, paintball, ponds for canoeing, equestrian trails and more, in addition to off-road vehicle trails. He wrote applications for Recreational Trails Program and Land and Water Conservation Fund grants, of which almost $2 million was approved. A groundbreaking ceremony in January 2012 marked the beginning of development.
Roberts was named to the original TOP Trails board, but resigned to become the board’s Professional Services Group contractor to develop and operate the park. Ethics rules forbade direct contact between board members and Roberts for two years.
“It’s a wonderful plan, but I don’t think proper consideration was given to Corps (Army Corps of Engineers) restrictions,” board chairman Tommy Spears said. “The Corps was contacted early on, but proper follow-up was not done. I don’t know whose fault that was.”
Friction and differences of opinion over priorities, control and expenses arose between some board members and Roberts’ firm. Two of Roberts’ employees and one board member resigned during this time, and Roberts requested cancellation of his contract.
The board recently hired the Kelley Group on a six-month contract to assist with grant administration and development planning.
There have been several disappointments during development. A grant for equestrian trails expired before any action was taken on that part of development. Development of an RV campground with hookups has been delayed. Plans for developing a shooting sports complex on the site appeared to end when the Civilian Marksmanship Program bought land not far from TOP Trails to build a stand-alone shooting complex, and the Cheaha Trailer Riders have stopped volunteering at TOP Trails. The trail riders’ volunteer hours were counted as a large part of matching funds for the park’s development grants. RTP grants require a 20 percent match, and LWCF grants a 50 percent match. Roberts said his firm worked with the trail riders and at times used grants as matches toward each other, as permitted by regulations, for a total of some $440,000 in credit for matching funds.
So far the park has won grant awards totaling $2.3 million, and has received about $800,000 of that amount. The board has also received approximately $900,000 from timber cutting in the park.
The board received a complaint from the Cheaha Trail Riders that too many trees were being harvested, and the board changed the specifications for basal area — the volume of timber remaining — for the remainder of the contract.
Progress came to a halt last winter when grant reimbursement checks from ADECA stopped coming. The request for reimbursement for some $300,000 for the Environmental Center building at the park was held up because volunteer hours by the Carpenters for Christ, who did the initial construction of the building, were not properly accounted for. Other requests were also reviewed. It was June before the next check arrived, and September before the board received $252,000 of the original Environmental Center request.
The Environmental Center building contains offices, restrooms, a meeting room and showers for riders and campers, but policies making the showers available have not been established.
Trail riding alone is not producing enough revenue to operate the park. During the past year gate receipts totaled $39,500, while fixed expenses — electricity, water, insurance, telephone service and garbage pickup — totaled about $27,000.
Outgoing board member Mack Ferguson said the board “ate our seed corn” by operating off of timber revenue to keep the park running when the grant money stopped coming in. Timber revenue has come to an end for now.
Ferguson, Hubbard and Roberts still believe a proposed ZipRider at the park would have been its “cash cow” to fund operations and development. A majority of board members were apprehensive about the cost of building and operating the ZipRider, and skeptical about projections that 45,000 people would come to the park every year for a two-minute ride.
As for the budget numbers, Ferguson said, “I don’t think it’s all that gloomy. Some of the things we can do are reimbursable with the grants we already have.”
The board is also seeking additional development grants.
Pope said he wants to get back in touch with equestrian enthusiasts and get the plans for horse trails back on track. An archery group also has some practice targets set up at TOP Trails, and plans to host tournaments there this year. He also wants to complete work on a fenced-in section of trails just for young riders, and he understands that it’s going to take more than off-road trail riding to keep the park going.
Spears, nearing the end of his term as a board member, was optimistic the park can turn the corner.
“I think we’ve still got a good opportunity and a good chance to make a go of it. We took steps to reorganize and cut expenses to a minimum and get us a concrete plan of going ahead. The place has got tremendous potential with nothing but trail riding, camping and associated activities. We just need more participation and more riders out there.”
The park board recently received its first audit report, which the auditor described as a “very good report for a new endeavor, especially one as complicated and far-reaching as this one.”
Other trails in the area, such as the Kentuck ORV trails in the Talladega National Forest near Munford, Minooka in Chilton County and Stony Lonesome in Cullman County, are giving trail riders more places to enjoy their hobby, and each set of trails offers something different.
The challenge for TOP Trails will be increasing the number of riders and campers and opening other attractions to make the park sustainable.