For those whose hearts call out for adventure as the summer begins in earnest, the fully paved, sinuous Great Miami River Trail irresistibly beckons. Nestled within western Ohio's Miami Valley, the 86-mile trail winds through woodsy parks beneath the soft rustle of tall, broad-leafed trees, quietly glides into the rich green and gold hues of farm country, and resonates with all the vibrancy and excitement of Dayton at its center.
"The variety is what draws me in," says Andy Williamson of Bike Miami Valley, a regional advocacy organization. "Within 10 to 20 miles, you see so many different communities and environments: authentic downtowns with historical Main Streets, long vast stretches of backcountry—then you get right into downtown Dayton. It's a celebration of the diversity of our communities. It highlights everything."
While its sheer length and eclectic scenery are enough to put it in the higher echelons of trail touring, it gets better: the Great Miami River Trail serves as the western pillar of an H-shaped network of paved, off-road trails totaling 330 miles, one of the largest such networks in the country. Seamless connections to other trails extend the route eastward to its twin pillar, the Little Miami Scenic Trail, itself a 78-mile journey that reaches Cincinnati's doorstep and has the added distinction of being in Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Hall of Fame.
When it comes to the management of a trail of this length, a lot of hands are in the cookie jar. But the turf wars, financial conflicts and power struggles that one might anticipate with such a scenario have never emerged.
"The trail is a great example of multi-jurisdictional cooperation between townships, cities, park districts and a conservancy district," says J. Scott Myers, executive director of Miami County Park District. "It's a great story about how all these government agencies can get together to do something great for the community."
Photo of a northern section of the trail in Miami County
courtesy Miami County Park District
Angela Manuszak of the Miami Conservancy District adds, "All the leaders of all the different organizations have kept a high-minded vision of what the trail can be, and should be, for the whole region over and above who owns what. Everybody said, 'This is a great thing; let's make it the best that it can be.'"
For trail-goers, that means a blended, cohesive trail system through dozens of communities and more than half a dozen counties that has an easy flow from one trail to another as if one were following a single thread.
"At the bottom of the trail sign, in the small print, is who manages that particular section," says Matt Lindsay of Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission, the area's transportation planning agency. "But we just want them to feel, 'I'm on this regional trail that connects me from one section to the next.'"
But how did such a massive, interconnected web of paved trails develop here in the rural Midwest? Like the railroads that once crisscrossed the country, the region's unique system of rivers provided the ideal linear corridors for building trails. In Dayton alone, the Great Miami River converges with the Stillwater River, Mad River and Wolf Creek.
"A lot of rivers come through southwestern Ohio, feeding down to the Ohio River in Cincinnati," says Myers. "The rivers lend themselves to trails because there's space available for a trail. They provide natural corridors in which to build them."
Photo of trail along the Great Miami River inside downtown Dayton's RiverScape MetroPark by Mary Lou Guizzo
Unfortunately, this incredible asset was also a liability, as Ohio experienced in the Great Flood of 1913. The flood was one of the state's worst natural disasters, with damage on the level of superstorm Sandy in today's world. Heavy rain began to fall on March 23, and within a couple of days, downtown Dayton was completely flooded, as well as several other communities along the river. More than 400 people lost their lives, and thousands lost their homes.
To prevent such a tragedy from happening again, the Miami Conservancy District (MCD) was formed, and a flood-control system was developed that was the first of its kind in the country. The organization built five earthen dams and dozens of miles of levees and made many other improvements along the river. In the process, the MCD also preserved thousands of acres of waterfront for recreation, land which later became the basis for the area's popular park system and the Great Miami River Trail.
Championing the trail's development was the man behind one of the most well-known bicycle manufacturers, Huffy Corporation. Dayton native and former president of the company, Horace M. Huffman Jr., pushed for the creation of the city's "Original 8" segment (so named for its mileage) that traveled along both banks of the river.
"The trail started as a loop downtown in the mid-1970s," says Lindsay. "Since then, we've been funding the project piece by piece, extending the trail south and north."
Photo of trail walkers courtesy Miami County Park District
Today, except for a small gap of less than half a mile on its northern end near Troy—which will be completed this coming July—the Great Miami River Trail stretches continuously from Piqua to Franklin, a distance of more than 60 miles. Other disconnected segments south of Franklin bring the trail's total mileage to 86, though those southern gaps will one day be closed as well.
"They're actively pursuing the connection from Middletown to Hamilton," says Williamson. "But it's not a funded project yet."
Says Lindsay, "The goal is to create a fully accessible bike transportation network. These trails are viewed not just as recreational facilities, but as transportation facilities, too. Each piece built makes the network more valuable."
Photo of Urban Bikes at Urban Nights bike ride courtesy
Five Rivers MetroParks
For a city wanting to become the next big thing in biking, Dayton is making all the right moves. It passed a Complete Streets policy in 2010 (which improves access and safety on public streets for pedestrians and bicyclists), earned a bronze-level designation as a bicycle-friendly city that same year and has adopted a comprehensive bicycle action plan with more than 70 projects and programs to implement through 2025. The city's latest endeavor, a bike-share program, will launch next spring with 22 stations and more than 200 bikes.
This push for improved car-free transportation starts at the top with Mayor Nan Whaley. "Bicycle and pedestrian issues have always been among her top priorities," says Lindsay. "Her support has been critical to Dayton's development as a bicycle-friendly city. But she doesn't just say it, she pedals, too."
The mayor herself says that though she's not a "Lycra-wearing person," one might see her in a sundress biking across town to catch a meeting, or enjoying her favorite recreational jaunt with her family between Dayton's Island MetroPark and the Taylorsville Dam along the trail.
Photo of Island MetroPark's Gayle B Price Jr Bridge by Patrick S O'Donnell
At its heart in downtown Dayton, RiverScape MetroPark offers trail users respite from miles of trail in either direction. Situated on the south levee of the Great Miami River, the park connects with the trail at a popular café and a covered pavilion, where you'll find free music concerts and events—such as yoga or Zumba—offered throughout the summer. Shade trees, reflecting pools, fountains, statues and porch swings adorn the waterfront, a perfect setting to enjoy a sunset after a long trek along the path. MetroParks' Bike Hub is also located here, offering publicly available amenities, including bike parking, maps, a tire pump, bike rentals, coin-op lockers and restrooms.
"I think these trails are fantastic," says Whaley. "They're great for beginners because there's not a ton of hills, and they're beautiful because they're along rivers."
Photo of Great Miami River and trail south of downtown Dayton by Alan Bell
In addition to its string of emerald parks, the Great Miami River Trail and its spurs connect a series of significant aviation heritage sites unique in the country. Before their famed forays into flight, the Wright Brothers started with a more grounded form of transportation: bicycles. In 1896, they began manufacturing their own brand of bicycles and selling them at the Wright Cycle Company, which can be toured in downtown Dayton less than a half-mile from the trail.
"The Wright Brothers had bike shops before they started tinkering with planes," says Dan Sahli, cycling coordinator with Five Rivers MetroParks. "And they used bike parts to help steer planes."
South of the city, the trail swings by Carillon Historical Park, where the original Wright Flyer III, which the brothers first flew in 1905, is on display. On the east side of the river, the trail intersects with the Mad River Trail, which heads to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, one of Dayton's most highly rated attractions. More than 300 aircraft and missiles are on display, including rare planes such as the B-29 Bockscar that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the XB-70 Valkyrie, which could fly three times the speed of sound, and nine presidential aircraft, such as Kennedy's Air Force One.
But perhaps the trail's greatest charms are its small towns, places like Troy, which Manuszak says "doesn't have a fake downtown
it's an authentic place with friendly people," and Miamisburg, where "there are ice cream shops, wineries, cafés, chocolate shops; something for families, couples and athletes," according to Manuszak. "It has exactly what weekend bike tourists are looking for that you can't replicate in other places."
On its north side, the trail ends in the blue-collar town of Piqua under a canopy of mature trees. Two blocks from the trail, Myers recommends Susie's Big Dipper on Main Street, a welcoming place with homemade ice cream and board games on the tables. For small businesses like Susie's, the Great Miami River Trail has a big impact. A trail user survey conducted just last year showed that the regional trail network brings in $13 million annually to the local economy.
"All I hear is good feedback," says Lindsay. "These trails are beloved."
For the first time, our Trail of the Month story featured a non-rail-trail. What do you think? Should we feature more trails like the Great Miami River Trail in the future? Let us know! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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