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Trail Towns

Delaware & Lehigh Trail | Photo by Thom Carroll

“A Trail Town is a community through which [a trail] passes that supports [trail users] with services, promotes the Trail to its citizens and embraces the Trail as a resource to be protected and celebrated. Trail Towns are built on a relationship between a town, the Trail and its volunteers.”

Trails can be valuable community assets and attractive destinations for visitors, drawing them into neighboring  communities and stimulating local businesses through spending on meals, lodging and gear. An economic impact study of the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail from 2004 revealed that non-local trail users generated $1.6 million in economic impacts in Washington and Grayson counties in southwest Virginia and supported the equivalent of more than 27 new full-time jobs. In South Carolina’s Greenville County, tourists drawn by the popular Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail boosted the local economy by $6.7 million.

However, the mere presence of a trail is usually not enough to reap such returns; strategies to maximize their economic potential need to be employed. Enticing people off the trail and into adjacent communities, where they can spend money and stimulate local economies, is the impetus behind the concept of trail towns.

Trail Town Programs

Formal trail town programs have traditionally been organized around long-distance trails, and they are most commonly found along hiking-only trails, such as the Appalachian Trail. However, a region can leverage any kind of long-distance trail for the creation of such a program: rail-trail, towpath or water trail, or trails dedicated to equestrian, snowmobile or off-highway vehicle use, for example.

In fact, the most well-known example of the concept can be found along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150-mile multi-use rail-trail between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland. The Progress Fund created the Trail Town Program® in 2007 to help revitalize communities along the GAP. The program’s activities include conducting economic impact studies and trail counts, producing consistent trail-wide marketing, establishing a business network, coaching business owners and providing them needed capital. These actions have allowed the program to register measurable successes: since its inception, visitors to the GAP have increased tenfold, and 65 new businesses and 270 new jobs have been created. The overall economic impact of the GAP now reaches a remarkable $50 million each year.

Along the Appalachian Trail –   which receives more than two million visitors and $27 million in local spending annually – fs  towns have every incentive to become a designated Appalachian Trail Community (ATC). The ATC program provides branded signage, media support and networking to its member communities, which now number more than 40. In Ohio, the Buckeye Trail Association maintains a dedicated Trail Town Coordinator staff position to manage their Buckeye Trail Towns Program. The staffer helps identify ways towns along the Buckeye Trail route can capitalize on the trail’s benefits. The Arizona Trail Association’s Gateway Communities benefit from marketing and technical advice to businesses. Their program includes towns directly along the Arizona Trail, but unlike other programs, it also includes nearby communities that offer amenities to trail users.

Some trail town programs cover a larger geography that encompasses multiple trails, such as a state. For example, Kentucky’s Office of Adventure Tourism certifies trail towns within the state.

ProgramTrail TypeYear LaunchedDesignated Communities
Trail Town Program ®Rail-trail200721 (along 6 trails)
Appalachian Trail Community™ ProgramSingle-track201040+
Canal Townships PartnershipMulti-use Path20109
North Country Trail Town ProgramSingle-track201119
Buckeye Trail Town ProgramSingle-track, multi-use, on-road201119
Arizona Trail Gateway Community ProgramSingle-track201133
Kentucky Trail Town ProgramVarious201214

Starting a Trail Town Program


Any trail town program should try to achieve these basic objectives:

Strategies for Success

Think regionally: It’s more effective to focus on a network of trail-friendly communities along a trail than it is to have an isolated effort in one town. A  region with a cohesive tourism strategy may attract more non-local visitors, amplify gains for individual communities, and also make trail town programs more attractive to funders.

Quantify success: Ensure that you are tracking your efforts. Use assessments to set a baseline and determine what indicators you will be using to measure your progress. The Progress Fund’s Trail Towns Program® measures growth through annual spending, business openings/expansions and jobs created. Invest in tracking results and focus on outcomes more than outputs. Check out Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Impact Survey to develop trail user baseline data of your own.  

RTC’s “Making the Value Case for Trails” webinar helps trail planners and advocates envision the full benefits of a trail network, including understanding how to assess and define the economic value of trails to make the case that public investment in trails has a long-term net positive value to residents and to government.

Attract heads on beds: According to research on the GAP, an overnight visitor will spend six times more than a day trip visitor. In order to benefit from this, communities along the trail will have to invest in accommodation, food, entertainment and bike retail options. This is an easier sell when the trail is long-distance. The longer a trail, the farther people will travel to reach it, and the more time they will spend traveling on it.

Getting Started

The Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) published the very first trail towns guide in 2005.Since then, its process has served as a model for other programs. The ATA’s strategy was itself adapted from the successful approach to downtown revitalization developed by the National Main Street Center. Their “Four Point Approach” consists of four parts: Organizing, Design, Economic Restructuring and Promotion. More recently, The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Program® and others have elevated the conducting of assessments as a crucial activity to establish baselines and measure progress, so it should be considered its own phase. In fact, the most recent Trail Town Guide (2017) produced by The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Program® comprehensively details the steps required to successfully run a trail town program and should be read by anyone considering starting their own program. The Guide breaks down the process into five parts: Partnerships, Assessments and Research, Connecting Town to Trail, Development, and Marketing.

Trail Town Guide

The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Guide comprehensively details the steps required to successfully run a trail town program.


Assessments & Research

Visitor, community and business assessments should be conducted to help you understand the current relationship between the trail and the town. The assessments, usually in the form of surveys, will help you understand where any service gaps are, and will guide you as you make an action plan to meet those needs. Furthermore, the surveys will help establish baseline metrics from which you can then track progress. When conducting an assessment, it’s important to take time to think through what information you want to collect beforehand.

Connecting Town to Trail

The trailhead is the gateway into your community; a good one will inspire trail users to explore the town further and temporarily dissuade them from proceeding on the trail. Use signage to make information about the town available at the trailhead and improve wayfinding. Get quick wins by adding amenities such as water fountains, restrooms, bulletin boards and bike repair stations. For more information on signage and wayfinding, visit the Trail Building Toolbox.

Make physical improvements to enhance connectivity between the trail and the town. Install bike racks and other amenities outside stores. Add touches like public art displays and interpretive signage to accentuate the character of the town, highlight historic or cultural points of interest and establish a distinct sense of place.


Help to expand existing businesses and recruit new ones to fill the gaps identified in the assessments. Work with community and economic development organizations to identify resources to help businesses adapt, including financing, business coaching and business networks.

Traditional funders may be reluctant to provide the kinds of capital small trailside towns and businesses need. In the case of the GAP, it helped that The Progress Fund, which runs the Trail Town Program®, is a Community Development Financial Institution. A CDFI is a non-traditional lender that promotes access to credit for underserved groupsAs such, they are more likely to take risks than traditional banks. Read more about CDFIs below. 

Financing Your Program

Conducting assessments, creating and installing signage, helping to expand and recruit new businesses, and marketing a trail and its towns all take money. While there are plenty of federal, state, local and private grant opportunities to support various aspects of trail development, funding trail town activities might require you to tap into other sources of funding not typically available for trails. A mature and successful trail town program may even be able to serve local businesses as a financier themselves, such as by becoming a Community Development Financial Institution.


A notable federal grant opportunity for trail towns is the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supports economic and community development in rural communities through competitive grants and loans. Its Rural Community Development Initiative grant program provides assistance to non-profits and communities for development of community facilities and economic development projects. The grant amounts range from $50,000 to $250,000 with a matching fund requirement.

Rural Business Development Grants provide funding ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 channeled through non-profits, local governments and other entities. Depending on the type of grant, the money can go towards initiatives like technical assistance (business training, product/service improvements, market research), jobs training, feasibility studies and business plans, and commercial remodeling.

At the state level, trail town initiatives stand to benefit from funding sources as diverse as development grants from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (or equivalent) to grants from statewide economic development corporations. In Michigan, communities along the Tip of the Thumb Heritage Water Trail secured funding to support a trail town master planning process through the Coastal Zone Management Program. Communities that are certified as trail towns in Kentucky receive funding assistance for signage from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Business Network

The partnerships and relationship-building with local businesses can be extremely important when seeking funding. Use the research you have compiled from your needs analysis and action plan to demonstrate how investing in trail town activities would benefit businesses. For instance, suggest that a business sponsor the wayfinding signage from the trail to their store. Court companies to invest in trail town activities to build up goodwill and community support. Approach local businesses like restaurants, breweries and hotels to sponsor special trail-related events.

Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI)

Due to the unique circumstances of a trail town, which often includes small, rural start-ups or expanding businesses with seasonal cashflows, it can be difficult to get support from a traditional lender. CDFIs fill this lending gap by providing credit and financial services to groups traditionally overlooked by mainstream banks. They provide flexible financing schemes and tend to be more willing to engage in intensive relationship-building and technical assistance than conventional lenders. Even though CDFIs are mission-driven, they will still want to be assured of a borrower’s ability to repay the loan before investing.

A non-profit serving a target market such as small businesses can become a CDFI by applying for certification to the US Department of Treasury. Via its CDFI Fund, the Treasury Department provides both monetary awards and technical assistance to help build the capacity of CDFIs. See the website for eligibility criteria and application process details .   

You can find a list of registered CDFIs here.

Traditional Lenders

As mentioned above, conventional lenders like banks are often quite conservative when it comes to lending to the small trail-related businesses in rural communities—but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore this option at all. Creative solutions may be possible to meet the needs of both the bank(s) and local businesses.

For example, recognizing that in order to improve the trail experience, they also needed to invest in the amenities around it, trail advocates for West Virginia’s North Bend Rail Trail designed a loan program consisting of $100,000 pledges from five local banks. A Business Loan Committee reviewed loan applications for how well it met trail needs and make recommendations to the bankers. Borrowers could receive up to $15,000 with interest set at 1.5 percent below the prime rate. Beginning in 1995, the loan program made approximately 15 loans over a four year period, and defaulting did not emerge as a significant problem.


Marketing is absolutely essential to the success of a trail town program. Use it to project a positive trail town image to residents, businesses, investors and visitors alike. Establish a brand, and develop a unified visual language for signage and promotional materials that can be used across the region. Digital marketing (websites, blogs), retail promotions and special events can all be used to bring attention to communities. For example, the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance holds an annual bicycle tour of trail towns in the fall, with involvement from local businesses and trail groups. The event is used as a fundraiser for the trails.

Amy Camp of Cycle Forward provided research and background information for portions of this summary.


‣ Webinar – Trail Towns: Proven Steps to Boost your Trail Town Growth

‣ Manual – Central Ohio Trail Town Framework

‣ Manual – The Trail Town Guide 

‣ Manual – Kentucky Trail Town Program Workbook

‣ Blog post – Preparation Key to Successful Trails Tourism

‣ Blog post – Local Businesses Rejoice at Reopening of Towpath

‣ Blog post – TrailLink: Best Trail Towns 

TrailNation Collaborative

TrailNation Collaborative is a nationwide peer learning community from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy that brings together advocates, leaders and professionals from across disciplines to establish and accelerate trail networks across America. The collaborative provides proven tools, methods and resources, combined with RTC’s expertise and network of partners across the country, to accelerate the development of connected trail systems. When trails are connected across regions and states, trail networks have a proven transformative impact—they are essential infrastructure that creates thriving, healthier communities.

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