Summer 2021, we hardly knew you! Your guess is as good as mine how the season of sun and sizzle went by so fast, but fall is here, and October is upon us. At least we have plenty of advance warning autumn is coming, with the barrage of every conceivable food and drink option converted to a pumpkin spice-flavored version starting in September.
As much as we all love a good pumpkin spice seltzer followed by a brisk brushing with pumpkin spice toothpaste (actual products!), perhaps the best part about early fall is the cool and crisp weather that can make this one of the most appealing times of the year for outdoor exercise.
In particular, this is an unbelievably awesome time for biking, running or walking on your local rail trail. Whether you’re a frequent visitor to a rail trail or have never stepped foot on one in your life, the network of trails is a remarkable resource we have throughout the U.S. that’s worth knowing more about.
If you’re a rail trail veteran, you may already be up to speed on some of the information below, but there may also be some facts you may not be aware of. (First rail trail? 1965 in Wisconsin…boom!)
To start at the beginning, in 1976 the first law was passed to deregulate the U.S. railroad industry.
It didn’t take long for the railroads to begin abandoning unused lines, and Congress was concerned about the many miles of retired track crisscrossing the country suddenly serving no purpose. In 1980, the National Trails System Act was amended, and ‘railbanking’ was created.
Essentially, this made it relatively simple for sections of a railroad line in any state to be converted into a ‘rail-trail’ because the process took place with the agreement that no change of actual ownership was taking place.
In 1986, the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was founded by Peter Harnik and David Burwell. They had support from the National Wildlife Federation and the connections that came with the relationship: legal, political and financial. The RTC’s primary objective was to help people anywhere in the country get their unused local railroad line turned into a trail that the community could use to enjoy the outdoors while getting their exercise in.
RTC knew the steps and process for getting the approvals and making things happen. The group was also ready, willing and able to assist people who reached out from anywhere in the country.
Word spread, membership grew and great things were happening. Specifically, progress with lots of new trails!
A big year for rail trails was 1988. President Ronald Reagan signed the National Trails System Improvement Act, membership in the RTC was up to 7,000 and the 200th trail was about to be opened. Figuratively speaking, this RTC train was on the tracks and gaining speed! By 1995, the 600th trail was open, and membership was about 67,000.
Many milestones happened in the following decades, but to jump ahead in time to the 30th anniversary of the RTC in 2016, membership had grown to 160,000 people and 22,000 miles of trails in the U.S. were being enjoyed.
If we zoom in on just the state of Pennsylvania, there are currently 194 rail trails totaling 2,135 miles and 82 rail-to-trail projects in the works. The RTC has a Top Ten ranking of trails by state, and out of the 194 in PA, the Lehigh Valley made the list with the D&L Trail and its 140+ miles of scenery and plentiful ties to U.S. industrial history.
As awesome as the D&L Trail is, we need look no further than our own local Saucon Rail Trail (SRT) to take advantage of the full enjoyment these trails offer. Until recently, the SRT extended 6.9 miles from Bachman Street–north of Water Street Park in Hellertown–to Southern Lehigh Living Memorial Park in Coopersburg. In November 2020, the long-awaited Upper Bucks Rail Trail was opened, connecting the SRT in Coopersburg to Veterans Park in Richland Township, just north of Quakertown borough. This added 3.2 miles to create a trail that stretches more than 10 miles from Hellertown to Quakertown.
Admittedly, I’m biased, as I run on the SRT on an almost daily (or nightly) basis, and it’s near and dear to my heart. Still, I will also point out that there is a handy app that the RTC has created called TrailLink, which opens up the possibilities of a long list of trails you may never have known about. Both the website and app will tell you where the nearest rail trails are, wherever you may be in the U.S.
Of course, along with the trail location, it gives you all the info. you need along with the suitable activities, surface type, a trail map and reviews.
During my travels around the U.S. (more of a pre-covid thing) I’ve used this app often and have had the pleasure of experiencing rail trails I likely would not have known existed in various states. All of them unique and some better maintained than others, but each offering chance to enjoy some outdoor miles that would not have existed if not for the RTC initiatives.
If you want to learn more about this fantastic and continuously expanding outdoor enjoyment resource that the RTC is helping build, check out their site at TrailLink.com. Who knows, you may find yourself so intrigued with the program that you end up showing your support with PA Rails-to-Trails specialty license plate from PennDOT! (Says the guy with a rail trail license plate.)
I hope to see you on the trail soon, and if you want to join the next BAR40 group fun run, join the mailing list at BAR40.org, and you’ll be kept in the loop for upcoming dates.
Eric Bartosz is the founder of BAR40 and the author of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling book ‘BAR40: Achieving Personal Excellence.’ He lives in Center Valley with his wife Trish, daughter Riley and pug Piper, is an adjunct MBA professor at DeSales University and serves the community as an Upper Saucon firefighter, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and a local race organizer. Eric is a 20+ year runner and racer and can often be found logging miles on the Saucon Rail Trail.