On most warm, sun-drenched weekends, a smooth blacktop trail just south of Hancock, Md.'s Main Street teems with cyclists, walkers, runners and the occasional inline skater.
Hancock is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts from all over the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond. In particular, visitors come to the small town of 1,800 residents to journey along the 22.5-mile Western Maryland Rail Trail, which retraces a piece of the former Western Maryland Railway.
Perhaps it's because the town sits midway along the trail, making it a convenient starting point for cyclists and foot travelers. From Hancock they can trek about 11 miles east to Big Pool—near Fort Frederick State Park—or the same distance west to Pearre. And for those starting their trip from either end of the trail, the town's stores and restaurants make it a perfect place to rest and get a bite to eat.
Just off the trail on Pennsylvania Avenue is the C&O Bicycle shop, which rents and sells an assortment of one-seater, tandem and recumbent bikes. It also provides repair and shuttle services and has a small convenience store and primitive bunkhouse for those taking overnight trips along the towpath. Also situated on Pennsylvania Avenue where it intersects with the trail, the Reel Deal sells bait and fishing accessories and rents canoes, kayaks and river tubes. It also sells cold drinks, ice cream, food and snacks.
Consider, as well, Hancock's central location near the Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders, where I-70, I-68 and U.S. 522 converge. As a destination from so many directions, it's no wonder the community is such a well-trafficked gateway to the trail.
Features that make the Western Maryland Rail Trail a regional favorite include its smooth, asphalt surface, thick tree cover and stunning views of the Potomac River's rushing rapids. The corridor also parallels the 184-mile, dirt-packed C&O Canal towpath, which stretches from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md. A bridge at the Hancock trailhead spans the old water-filled canal bed and connects directly to the towpath. Visitors to one trail can cross over to the other for a different experience.
"If you have a non-vehicle trail, and you've got that tied in with a paved trail, you've got yourself a gem," says Dennis Hudson, owner of C&O Bicycle.
The trail's user-friendly features also attract many locals, says Penny Pittman, president of the Hancock Chamber of Commerce and the Western Maryland Rail Trail Supporters. She also owns Weaver's Restaurant and the Blue Goose Fruit Market and Bakery, both Main Street businesses.
The smooth trail surface makes it walkable for families with young children, the elderly and people with physical limitations, she says. Even residents of a local retirement home can travel along the trail in wheelchairs without much trouble. "A lot of them have motorized scooters, and they use the trail as a transit corridor from one end of the town to the other."
While the Western Maryland Rail Trail has been a great way for locals to enjoy the outdoors, it has also become a welcome source of revenue for the town, once beleaguered by multiple factory closings and hundreds of job losses.
An impact study conducted by the Urban Research & Development Corporationfound that trail user spending was nearly $3 million in 2006, about a third of which was spent in Hancock. That was up from 2002, when only 14 percent of spending had reached the town's businesses.
"The powers that be realized that we had to turn our sites on something else to survive besides manufacturing, because it's not here anymore," Pittman said. "So now we've really tried to become a tourism-related town."
Adding bike racks along Main Street and installing light posts and banners along the trail are just some of the ways the town has tried to cater to trail users.
Though no economic studies of the trail have been carried out since 2006, the pathway continues to draw a steady flow of users from outside the area. Last year, an estimated 165,000 people visited the trail, more than half of whom came from out of state, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Since the unveiling of the trail's first 10 miles in 1998, its western leg has been extended twice, adding 12.5 miles from Hancock to Pearre. Now town officials and residents are anticipating another trail extension. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service are exploring several versions of a plan that could lengthen the western end eight to 14 miles from Pearre to Paw Paw, W.Va.
The consensus locally and among members of the Western Maryland Rail Trail Supporters has been in favor of the 14-mile alternative, Pittman says, primarily because it would include three tunnels and six trestle bridges tied to the Western Maryland Railway's history. This option would maintain the seamless experience of the rail corridor and further open up its historical character to the public.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been urging the National Park Service to endorse an eight-mile alternative that would travel along the same route west to Pearre, while circumventing the three tunnels to protect Maryland's bat population from the spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS), says Chris Stubbs, chief of resource manager for the C&O Canal National Historic Park.
Spreading in the past few years from New England down into West Virginia and Virginia, the deadly disease has already killed more than 5.5 million bats in the Northeast and Canda—especially devastating species that hibernate in caves and mines, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. WNS is now threatening to spread farther west and south, and Maryland wildlife officials are scrambling to stop it from taking hold within the state's borders. Because the disease clings to human clothing and shoes, trail users could potentially spread the disease to the bats that congregate in the tunnels, Stubbs says.
"The tunnels are the largest hibernation spot for them in all of Maryland," he says. "We are keeping our fingers crossed that something in the tunnels is keeping out the white-nose syndrome."
The eight-mile extension would re-direct trail users around the first tunnel via the C&O Canal towpath and then back onto to the Western Maryland Rail Trail until reaching the second tunnel. From there, they would have get on the towpath again and take it around both the second and third tunnels before reacquiring the rail trail just north of Paw Paw. As with the 14-mile alternative, the final leg of the Western Maryland Rail Trail would also end in Paw Paw, home of the 3,118-foot Paw Paw Tunnel, the largest manmade structure along the towpath.
All told, trail users would travel roughly the same distance with both plans. But the chief difference with the eight-mile option would be the loss of access to the historical trestles and tunnels and other rail features. A decision to detour around the tunnels, though, might not preclude future reconsideration of opening the structures to trail users should conditions allow it (pending an environmental assessment).
A final decision on the trail extension will be announced in August 2012. Since part of the extension will traverse property owned by the C&O Canal National Historic Park, Stubbs says the National Park Service will manage that portion of the trail in partnership with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Western Maryland Rail Trail.
Regardless of the outcome, an extension of any length is sure to attract more visitors to the trail, says Angie Hummer, manager of Fort Frederick State Park and the Western Maryland Rail Trail. "It will definitely attract more people to the trail just because there is more trail to bike and because of the beauty of the area."