Columns » Hiking Bob

Rails to Trails opens up new opportunities, travels back in time

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The history of the United States can't be told without including a discussion of the role that railroads played in the westward expansion in the 1800-1900's.  Railroads made traveling between far-flung towns an easier task than using horseback or wagons, and the ability to haul large loads of machinery and building materials helped the country grow. It cannot be denied that the railroads helped make the western US what it is today. However, the evolution of the automobile, trucks and a large, interconnected highway system, not to mention aircraft, made many railroad lines unnecessary, and they stopped operating and in many cases, were abandoned. 

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was established in 1986 with the goal of converting unused railroad right-of-ways around the country into trails. According to Eli Griffen, RTC's Manager of Trail Development Resources, the conservancy has had a hand in converting 23,000 miles of railroad into 2100 different trails around the country. In 2015 the Doppelt Family Trail Development Fund was established to provide grants to user groups to help create more trails out of railroads. Their Project Transformation grants help to fund trail construction or other infrastructure projects and their Community Support grants help with things like interpretive signage, maps, websites, etc.  Recently, the RTC gave a $5,000 Doppelt Community Support Grant to the Greater Arkansas River Nature Alliance (GARNA) in Salida for the Stage and Rail Trail. The trail follows an old stagecoach road that closely parallels a railroad that ran 70 miles from Leadville to Salida. According to Julie Mach, Conservation Director for the Colorado Mountain Club, which provided assistance to GARNA in getting the grant, the funds will be used to develop interpretive signage, a website with interactive maps and eventually a mobile app for the trail. Also in the works is an automated audio tour, that when downloaded to a users phone will trigger a narrative when the phone's GPS indicates they are near a point of interest. 
View of Mt. Princeton from the Midland Bike Trail - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • View of Mt. Princeton from the Midland Bike Trail


Building recreational trails on old railroad beds is a smart idea for a number of reasons. Since land doesn't have to be cleared to build the trail, costs, time and additional environmental impact is greatly reduced. Also, since trains are limited in how much of an incline they could climb, trails that follow old railroads tend to be fairly flat or have gentle inclines. And, since the railroads connected communities, the trails built on them provide great connectivity to other towns and trail systems. These trails also provide a glimpse into the history of the west.  On a recent trip to the Buena Vista area, I hiked a 7 mile stretch of the Midland Bike Trail, built on the bed of the Colorado Midland Railroad, which operated from the late 1880's to the early 1900's. At times during the hike, the massive Mt. Princeton would pop into view, seemingly filling the sky.  I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be a traveler on the train, and to come around a bend and be met by such a grand sight.  The Narrow Gauge trail, which runs on a ledge on the north slope of Mt Antero, runs on a section of the Denver, South Park and Pacific rail line that connected St Elmo to Nathrop. At about 4 miles round trip, the trail provides stunning views of Mt Princeton, the Chalk Cliffs, and if you look closely enough, Agnes Vaille Falls, across the valley.
Information sign at one end of the Narrow Gauge Trail - BOB FALCONE
  • Bob Falcone
  • Information sign at one end of the Narrow Gauge Trail
Closer to Colorado Springs, the popular Rock Island Trail, parts of which are managed by either El Paso County or Colorado Springs Parks Departments is steeped in history and connects neighborhoods in Colorado Springs and also Falcon and Peyton in eastern El Paso County. The trail is built on the Rock Island Railroad that ran from Chicago to Limon and then split into lines that ran to both Denver and Colorado Springs. Popular hiking and cycling venue Gold Camp Road was at one time a railroad line that ran from Cripple Creek and Victor to Colorado Springs. 

You can explore and find trails that were at one time railroads by using the RTC's TrailLink website.

Be Good. Do Good Things.

Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for more than 26 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.

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