Work continues on Boone’s Ridge wildlife park

Published 3:18 pm Wednesday, December 7, 2022

JORDAN BROOKS

jordan.brooks@middlesboronews.com

With more than a year to go, construction is moving along on the Boone’s Ridge wildlife park. Located in Miracle near the Wilderness Road that Daniel Boone made famous more than 200 years ago, the 12,000-acre park owned and operated by the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, is dedicated to preserving the area’s native wildlife. When the park opens, visitors will have a unique opportunity to experience Appalachian wildlife, that just a few generations ago were not in the area, and hunted to the verge of extinction. The park itself is located near Daniel Boone’s “Wilderness Road,” situated near Cumberland Gap. The Appalachian Wildlife Foundation is a 501c nonprofit organization, and all the proceeds and donations that are made goes towards their mission.

“In this area, you can’t only focus on conservation, you have to focus on education and economics as well,”  said David Ledford, Founder and CEO of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.

Boone’s Ridge is designed to help other tourism entities and local businesses by encouraging business in the area. Ledford says the Appalachian Wildlife foundation plans to help local schools, and emphasized the foundation’s partnership with Cornell University and K-12 programs on environmental and ecological education that meet state standards for STEM education. Boone’s Ridge is not only built with the conservation of birds, elk and bears in mind, but also to improve water quality in local streams and in the Cumberland River.

“We’ve been working on this since January of 2014,” Ledford said.

The Appalachian Wildlife Foundation considered a great deal of properties in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia before deciding on Bell County. After Ledford visited Bell County, he decided on a 12,000-acre site that once was home to an industrial park.

Construction on the building has been going on for quite some time now, and will be finished by late next year, and will open to the public in spring 2024, Ledford said.

“We’ve hit delays in the past few years with several issues,” said Ledford. “Just one concern we have with timing is supply chain issues.”

Ledford also explained the conservation efforts the park is taking. The park is anticipated to be especially popular with wildlife enthusiasts all over the region.

“In a single calendar year, you can see close to 300 species of birds here, counting the migration,” said Ledford.

He explained that there are close to 56 million birdwatchers in the United States, and that Boone’s Ridge wants to reach all of them. The park should appeal to more than just birdwatchers, he said.

“The main building is not the only thing we’re going to have,” said Ledford.

An arts and cultural center also is planned for the site and will provide insight into Appalachian history.

“We’re going to work with local artists, regional artists, and national artists,” said Ledford. “Sort of like a mini Dollywood.”

Upgrades are coming to a trail system that will offer guests walking, hiking and picnic opportunities. The park will have a special 2.5-mile nature trail, accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.

Along that trail there will be different art displays… and roughly 3 to 4 a acres of native wildflowers should attract pollinators, Ledford said.

“We’re going to have a huge petting zoo for children, with baby goats,” said Ledford. “We’re also going to have raptor houses, we’re going to have a bald eagle, and some other hawks.”

Boone’s Ridge will also have a playground, built near the main building, with playground equipment that looks like animals and mountains. Ledford explained that the playground and arts and cultural center will be close by to the visitors center.

Boone’s Ridge will be home to one of the longest aerial gondolas in the world. The gondola will offer a 360-degree view of the park, with a 4.5-mile-long cable car route. The first “Boone’s Village” station will be just west from the visitors center, on a journey to the second station, a place where riders can disembark and get a view of three states: Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. From the second station, Boone’s Knob, to the Grassy Knoll station, visitors will go over fields of elk and bears. At this station, visitors can decide to go on a picnic or hike on several trails. The line itself is about 23,903 feet, with 76 cabins holding eight people in each.

“At first, they may be going to Gatlinburg or Sevierville,” said Ledford. “Say they’ve seen our commercials, or they’ve heard about us, they’ve done some research, and they look at the route, and decide they’re able to spend the night right within 30 miles of Boone’s Ridge.

“In three years after opening, the park is estimated to hit 1 million visitors and 1 million paid attendees, and that is with numerous feasibility studies and numerous assessments, and a lot of consulting.”

Back in 2015, the initial focus began with a focus on the preservation and conservation of wildlife in Appalachia, and the opportunity to see wildlife. Upon further research and reflection, it became clear that offering an enjoyable experience no matter what the weather is like outside. This will make Boone’s Ridge appeal to a bigger demographic.

Nearly $100 million has been invested into the park, and according to Ledford, Boone’s Ridge is anticipated to boost the economy of eastern Kentucky with 1 million visitors expected each year four years after their opening.