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Rail Trail honored nationally

At 28 miles long but only 100 feet wide, it has to be one of Utah’s most unusual state parks.

It contains no lakes, no golf courses, no campgrounds. It supports more weeds than trees and grass. And visitors spend most of their time admiring the vistas outside its boundaries. However, in almost 20 years, it has attracted many thousands of walkers, runners, cyclists, equestrians and cross-country skiers.

Its proper name is the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park, and it stretches from Park City to Echo Canyon.

Last November, the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy recognized the Union Pacific Rail Trail by inducting it into its Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. It was the 24th rail-trail in the country to be recognized, and only the sixth west of the Mississippi. On Saturday, June 4, National Trails Day, everyone is invited to take the Rail Trail to the Promontory Equestrian Center for a celebration of the induction beginning at 11:30 a.m.

For about a century, beginning in 1880, the Rail Trail was an active spur of the Union Pacific Railroad, used to support Park City’s mining economy. However, by the early 1980s, local rail traffic had all but vanished. In December 1988, Union Pacific asked the federal government for permission to abandon the line.

But a group of Park City officials led by Myles Rademan, then public affairs director, and Jennifer Harrington, a landscape architect and trails planner, had other ideas. By this time they had a template to follow: In 1985, trails enthusiasts across the country had formed the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy to turn unused rail beds into public trails. Why couldn’t that work here?

In a complicated transaction brokered by Park City attorney Craig Smith, the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation agreed to accept the trail, in exchange for a tax write-off, from a salvage company that had bought the property from Union Pacific for the value of the rails and ties.

However, as Rademan noted in a 1989 interview, there’s a long process between acquiring a right-of-way and creating a trail. Not the least of the problems was the presence of heavy metals in a key three-mile stretch of the trail east of Park City apparently deposited when much of the Prospector area was covered with a mine-tailings pond. John Knudson, then the project manager for State Parks, recalled that testing for contaminants was done as quietly as possible.

"We had people riding mountain bikes, wearing respirators and things like that, on a Sunday morning when a lot of people wouldn’t be seeing them," Knudson said.

The simplest solution was to cover the trail with a layer of new soil. In the summer of 1992, the 116th Engineers from the Utah National Guard used their two weeks of summer training to scrape soil from land due to be swallowed by Jordanelle Reservoir and use it to cover the three-mile stretch of trail.

Help also came from another unlikely source. The Flame ‘n’ Goes, a group of inmates from the Utah State Prison trained to fight wildfires, signed on to build decks and rails on the 17 railroad trestles along the route. Members of the Park City Rotary Club stained and varnished the decks and rails. The Park City Board of Realtors and students from Treasure Mountain Middle School also chipped in. Overseeing the construction was local activist Sally Elliott.

The almost-finished trail was dedicated in October 1992.

Though officially a state park, the trail is now managed by the Mountain Trails Foundation under contract with the state.

Knudson, who now owns a home in Wanship overlooking the trail, said people in some of the outlying communities initially thought the trail "was a waste." But attitudes have changed. Today, from his front porch, he sees a steady stream of equestrians and cyclists. "I see people come by all the time with very happy faces."

Joseph Donnell, the park manager at Rockport State Park and the operations manager for the Rail Trail, said sensors placed on some of the bridge decks reveal a growing number of users in the Coalville area. However, the largest numbers still show up on the sensor just east of Prospector, with the heaviest use now coming in the winter months. Last August, for example, it recorded 5,310 people. In January and February (combined), it counted 14,700 many, no doubt, on their way to ski in Round Valley.

Sally Elliott, who is now a member of the Summit County Council, said the completion of the Rail Trail was essential in the development of a local trails network. "It came at a time when we were still arguing with developers over the demand that they have trails into their subdivisions," she said. "The Rail Trail was the critical link in the thinking that the trails would connect to something meaningful."

Earlier this year, the Rail Trail was connected to the Poison Creek Trail in Park City with a tunnel under Bonanza Drive. And Donnell said work is due to begin this summer on the first of two trestles that will take the trail across Interstate 80 to the frontage road serving the towns of Echo and Henefer.

The Promontory Equestrian Center is located just off the trail at the Promontory Trailhead. There will be refreshments, guest speakers, and music by the Motherlode Canyon Band beginning at 11:30 a.m. Guided trail rides (covering points of interest and local railroad history) will leave for Promontory from Park City at 10 a.m. and from Wanship at 9:30 a.m. Shuttles will be available for those who would like a ride back to either starting point. Volunteers are also being recruited to work on the Rusty Shovel trail in Round Valley beginning at 8:30 a.m. For details visit http://www.mountaintrails.org.


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