Experience history and nature on rail-trails

by Virginia Thompson

A view from the Heritage Rail Trail County Park.

A view from the Heritage Rail Trail County Park.

My husband is a huge fan of biking on rail-trails created by the conversion of unused railroad rights-of-way.  Within the past year alone, he has ridden on many trails in the Philadelphia suburbs, as well as throughout the Mid-Atlantic states.  On a recent trip, we rode on two rail-trails in southcentral Pennsylvania.

The Heritage Rail Trail County Park in York County, recently ranked by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy as the top rail-trail in the U.S. for American history, carried President Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg for his famous address and also carried his funeral party to Springfield, Illinois, following his assassination.  The trail follows the South Branch of Codorus Creek, connecting the City of York and many small communities with beautifully restored train stations that now serve other purposes.  The trail, next to an active rail line, also continues across the Mason-Dixon line and connects with the Northern Central Rail Trail in Maryland.

The Safe Harbor Dam as seen from the Enola Low-Grade Trail

The Safe Harbor Dam as seen from the Enola Low-Grade Trail

Another trail we biked recently was in Lancaster County—the Enola Low-Grade Trail—which parallels the Susquehanna River as it approaches the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.  One of the interesting facets of the trail is the juxtaposition of older and new forms of electric power.  On the cliffs above the trail are several large windmills, taking advantage of the height and open space to generate electricity.  Just below the windmills sits the Safe Harbor dam, reliably providing hydroelectric power since December 1931.  The fish congregating at the dam attract bald eagles, which can be seen flying above the dam. There’s nothing quite like experiencing history and nature by biking or hiking a rail-trail. At one stop on the trail, as I looked up at the windmills and down to the river and generating station, I felt small and insignificant in one respect, but also an important part of the natural balance.

Turning formerly used rail lines into biking and hiking trails is a great way to bring people closer to waterways in their regions. EPA’s Brownfields program has had a hand in converting unused rail lines, which often snake along picturesque rivers (our nation’s original highways), into prime recreational areas. The Harrison Township Mine Site in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania was assessed through a Brownfields grant, and is now part of the Rachel Carson trail, attracting area visitors as well as hiking and running events. Allegheny County is even acquiring additional land so that the Harrison Hills Park Mine Site will ultimately connect three trails – the Rachel Carson Trail, the Butler-Freeport Trail, and the Baker Trail.

Leave a comment below to let us know about rail-trails in your area.


About the author: Virginia Thompson works at EPA Region 3 and accompanies her husband on his rail-trail adventures as often as possible.



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