Trail of the Month: December 2003
River's Edge Trail, Montana
The Lewis and Clark Expedition did a lot of walking through Montana from 1805 to 1806, exploring virtually the entire state. As a result, nearly half of the expedition's 8,000-mile journey was spent in Montana. Today, historical buffs can follow in the footsteps of the Lewis and Clark Expedition by taking a hike, bike ride or skate on the 25-mile River's Edge Trail in Great Falls, Mont., which follows almost the exact route of the well-known expedition.
In additional to the historical aspect of the trail, the city of Great Falls, with its magnificent falls and great rock cliffs, provides a compelling backdrop for the River's Edge Trail. The same waterfalls in the canyon of the Missouri River that forced an arduous portage of the Lewis and Clark Expedition provide today's trail users with spectacular views of the downtown area, the river canyon and distant mountains.
Much of the River's Edge Trail is located on abandoned portions of the Great Northern and Milwaukee Railroad lines that ran through the area. The 11-mile, urban portion of the trail is paved and links many riverside parks and attractions, including a waterslide park, boat launches, a skateboard park and native open spaces on both sides of the Missouri River. Also, a former Milwaukee Railroad bridge was recently converted for trails use. Funded with private donations, the bridge is one of four Missouri River crossings that provide separated bicycle and pedestrian facilities.
As the trail continues east, the urban environment gives way to a more rustic setting. This section enters the carved river canyon on a part of the former Great Northern Railroad right-of-way that is nestled into the canyon wall. Here the River's Edge Trail passes a boxcar and caboose trailhead display and passes Black Eagle Falls before entering Giant Springs State Park. New tunnels and trail segments link to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, the Montana State Fish Hatchery and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Headquarters and Visitor Center. The wheelchair accessible trail continues through the State Park to an overlook of Crooked Falls. 14 additional miles of gravel and single-track trail, suitable for hiking and mountain biking, extend along the reservoirs to Cochrane Dam, "The Great Falls of the Missouri" and Morony Dam.
The River's Edge Trail is an excellent example of a rail-trail constructed through the hard work and cooperation of an entire community. Begun in 1990, the River's Edge Trail is the product of a partnership between the city of Great Falls, Cascade County, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Department of Transportation, the utility company PPL Montana, the local nonprofit Recreational Trails, Inc., and an enthusiastic and supportive community. Donors have added almost 100 trailside benches, tables, shelters, drinking fountains and information kiosks over the years. Volunteers and crews from the Montana Conservation Corps have assisted the various public agencies involved with the trail effort with trail construction, maintenance and enhancement projects. These groups have also planted and continue to maintain hundreds of new trees and shrubs, and they have conducted an intensive cleanup of the riverfront and open space areas.
With its history, scenery and wide variety of recreational opportunities, the River's Edge Trail is a great rail-trail just waiting to be explored. Along the way, trail users can witness how one community has turned an old rail corridor into a tremendous community asset.