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© Bryce Hall/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy©Courtesy of Mel Huie/Metro
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Trail of the Month: September 2011
Oregon's Springwater Corridor

This trail is a recipient of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame Award. Click to learn more. In a place renowned and envied for its parks, trails and general outdoors vibe, choosing the best of anything can be a major challenge. So when Mel Huie says the Springwater Corridor, a 21.5-mile rail-trail winding from the banks of the Willamette River in downtown Portland to the rural exurbs, is "the region's premier trail," it's saying something.

As the regional trails coordinator for Metro, the Portland regional government, Huie helps coordinate planning work and funding for trails in and around the city. In more than two decades on the job, he's been involved with most of the region's 200-plus miles of bicycle and pedestrian pathways—and he puts the Springwater at the top of the list.

"It's the longest trail, it's the second-most used, it connects a diversity of people in different neighborhoods—going through affluent, middle-income, working class and even industrial areas—and it goes through natural areas," Huie says. "It's important both for recreational purposes and as an active-transportation commuter corridor. It's been a very, very successful story."

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy agrees, and that's why we recently named the Springwater Corridor to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. This program, which began in 2007, recognizes exemplary rail-trails around the country and now has an elite membership of 24 trails.

The Springwater's history stretches back to the early 1900s, when a rail line was built to bring people, produce and timber from areas south and east of Portland into the growing metropolis. Known variously as the Portland Traction Company Line, the Cazadero Line and the Bellrose Line, the railroad finally adopted the name of the Springwater Division Line—likely because of hopes that it would one day stretch to the town of Springwater, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Portland. (In a bit of historical irony, neither the railroad nor the trail that bears the town's name ever reached this small community.)

In the early decades of the past century, the railroad carried thousands of passengers each year, and several towns and neighborhoods sprang up and prospered along the route. To encourage weekend use, the owners of the line built recreation areas along the route, including an amusement park in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland. But as the automobile gained dominance, the Springwater line faded, and it finally ceased carrying passengers in 1958.

Freight- and timber-hauling operations continued for three more decades, but by the 1980s derailments were common along the aging Springwater line, says Bob Akers, president of the 40-Mile Loop Land Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to trail development in the Portland region. "The tracks were so bad, the train engineers would flip a coin and the loser would have to drive the train out and pick the lumber up," Akers recalls.

Akers and others convinced the city to buy the railroad corridor and turn it into a multi-use trail—a key element of the land trust's goal to build a loop of trails around the city to connect parks, other bike paths and public transportation facilities. The main 17-mile segment was purchased in 1990, with remaining sections purchased in subsequent years.

The first leg of the Springwater Corridor opened in 1996, and the bulk of the current length of trail was completed in 2006. (A gap of about 20 blocks in southeast Portland still remains; planners hope to close that in the next few years.) Residents of the Portland area quickly flocked to the trail, and the section nearest to downtown now gets more than 1.2 million users annually, making it the city's second-most popular trail, Huie says.

A key element of the Springwater's popularity and importance is that it connects the region's urban core with several suburbs, and then continues out to farmland and pasture far from the frenzy of city life.

"At the start of the trail, you've got views of the Willamette River and downtown Portland and different business districts," says Akers. "Then as you start going east, you go through residential area and along Johnson Creek, and you follow the creek most of the way to the city of Gresham. From Gresham toward Boring, you're out in agricultural land, and you get some beautiful views of Mt. Hood. You get such a wide variety of views and scenery—to me, I love it."

Along the way, the trail passes through or near several parks and refuges—including Powell Butte, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, Tideman Johnson Nature Park, Beggers-Tick Wildlife Refuge and Leach Botanical Garden—and offers many chances to commune with nature.

"You always see red-tailed hawks and great blue herons, and I've seen eagles over the trail," says Akers. "A couple weeks ago when my wife and I biked from Gresham to Portland, we saw four deer along the trail. It's funny, because I remember when we were talking about creating the trail, people were worried it would scare the wildlife away!"

Equally important, the Springwater serves as a crucial and easily accessible link in the city's active transportation network. "It's not a trail by itself—it's interconnected to bike lanes, transit, light rail, buses and other regional trails," says Huie. "It connects business and industrial areas and residential neighborhoods with downtown Portland, and the commercial and shopping district east of downtown. So for active transportation, it's a big commuter route."

But regional planners, citizen groups, government officials and other supporters of the Springwater Corridor aren't content to declare victory and call it quits. "We have future plans to extend the trail all the way to Mt. Hood and the Pacific Crest Trail," says Huie. "The goal in 10 years is that you can take the trail eastbound all the way from Portland to Timberline Lodge."

"This is a trail that keeps growing—it's never finished," Huie adds. "I think that's one of the most exciting things about it."

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Related Links

The 40-Mile Loop Land Trust

Metro Regional Trails & Greenways

 

Trail Facts

Name: Springwater Corridor

Used Railroad Corridors: Springwater Division Line

Trail website: Portland Parks and Recreation

Length: 21.5 miles

Counties: Clackamas and Multnomah

Start Point/End Point: SE Ivon Street in Portland to SE Dee Street in Boring

Surface type: Asphalt up to the Multnomah/Clackamas County line; final section east to Boring will be paved in 2012.

Uses: Hiking, cycling, inline skating; wheelchair accessible. Limited equestrian use on the eastern end of the trail (east of I-205).

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Getting There: The nearest major airport is Portland International. From there, it's about 10 miles via I-205 South to the Springwater Corridor. There's a multi-use pathway that parallels I-205, so it's possible to ride your bike directly from the airport terminal to the trail!

Access and Parking: The Springwater is easily accessible along its entire length from the many on-street bike paths, off-street trails, parks and refuges it crosses. For a helpful map showing access points, parking areas and other information, check out the Portland Parks and Recreation website

Also, to navigate the area with an interactive GIS map, more photos, user reviews and ratings, and loads of other trip-planning information, visit RTC's free trail-finder website, TrailLink.com.

Rentals: Why rent when you can bring your own bike and ride directly from the airport to the trail? If you'd rather not hassle with boxing and re-assembling your bike, however, there are plenty of businesses in Portland that can provide a temporary ride. Try Pedal Bike Tours at 133 SW 2nd Avenue (503.243.2453), which not only rents by the hour (from $8) or day (from $35), but offers regular guided bike tours in and around the city.

© Courtesy of Mel Huie/Metro

© Bryce Hall/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

© Bryce Hall/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

© Bryce Hall/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

© Bryce Hall/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

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