Trail of the Month: December 2009
Before the railroads reached Xenia, Ohio, locals had to depend on turnpikes and other back roads for travel between nearby communities. Those often unreliable routes made commerce a real slog in wet weather and icy winters. But after the Little Miami Railroad arrived in 1845, Xenia suddenly found itself fluidly connected to markets in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and beyond. Trains through town shuttled everything from Civil War recruits and ammunition to farm goods and faraway passengers. On a map, Xenia looked like the hub of a great bicycle wheel, with rail spokes shooting out in from almost every direction.
By 1984, the last of those tracks had fallen out of service and into silence. Yet that spider web of unused corridors left the perfect blueprint for a rail-trail revival. Over the next 25 years, with the cooperative effort of towns and counties along the route, as well as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR), rail-trail supporters built the region into a recreational powerhouse.
The north-south spoke through Xenia gradually grew into the backbone of this trail network. Opened in 1997 and now running 78 miles from Springfield southwest to the outskirts of Cincinnati, the paved Little Miami Scenic Trail is now one of the most recognizable and well-integrated rail-trails in the country. It incorporates more than a dozen communities, and like a mature vine the pathway has planted deep roots. Each stop and station along the route sprouted bicycle shops and ice cream parlors, bed-and-breakfasts and local festivals. Trail users feel cared for and catered to, treated to Midwest charm with big city ease—and the result is one highly popular pathway.
"Whether you're a novice rider or a road warrior, it's perfect," says Chrisbell Bednar, director of Greene County Parks, which manages about 14 miles of the trail surrounding Xenia. "People build vacations around this trail."
Mile 0 fittingly begins in Xenia, and you'll quickly understand the town's billing as the "Bicycle Capital of the Midwest." From the parking lot of Xenia Station, you can veer northeast to London on the Prairie Grass Trail, west to Dayton on the Creekside Trail, or directly east on the Jamestown Connector Trail. "We're real proud of the trails we have in Greene County," says Bednar. "It's kind of like our interstate recreational trails system."
Bednar says the trail has been incredibly fortunate to have sturdy political and public backing. Indeed the Little Miami Scenic Trail has thrived in no small part because of an exceptionally active coalition of supporters—folks who've been as willing to chip in financially as roll up their sleeves for maintenance.
In 2008, when Hurricane Ike pressed into Ohio, the storm snarled trees up and down the pathway. The Ohio DNR manages more than 50 miles of the trail as the Little Miami State Park, and that stretch included some of the hardest-hit areas. But the state didn't have the budget or resources to clear the pathway right away, says Alan Ferguson, assistant park manager for Ohio State Parks. Local businesses didn't want to wait and lose important customers, so they quickly organized the Friends of the Little Miami State Park and rallied volunteers almost overnight. Within a matter of days, says Ferguson, they managed to re-open the trail. "They've been just wonderful in garnering support and goodwill."
That level of volunteer dedication is hardly unusual on the Little Miami Scenic Trail. Perhaps the most vigorous contribution has come from Tom Recktenwalt, who has spent the last 12 years cataloguing Ohio's rail-trail progress from the seat of his bicycle.
Recktenwalt remembers searching in vain for some online information about the Creekside Trail in the 1990s. Not finding any, he decided to produce his own. Recktenwalt bought two bikes, a pair of helmets and a bike rack and started touring local pathways with his wife. He has since volunteered countless hours exploring trails in southwest Ohio, taking meticulous notes and more than 6,000 photos along the way. You can find all of Recktenwalt's play-by-play trail accounts on his website, Miami Valley RailTrails, which he has maintained since 1997.
What attracts such committed supporters, of course, is precisely what draws visitors from all over the state and country. In the course of 78 miles, trail users get to cruise a continuous, well-maintained, largely shaded and cool route—including a gradual downhill grade heading south from Springfield. They get to enjoy the Little Miami National Scenic River, as well. as protected wildlife areas and an Ohio countryside of grassy pastures, wildflowers, farmsteads, soybean and corn fields. They get to explore quaint downtowns, sample trailside ice cream parlors or stock up within feet of the pathway.
There's a little of everything, really, and what you get from the trail could change with every visit. So whether you're into birding or biking, ambling or antiquing, the Little Miami Scenic Trail has a way of feeling tailor-made just for you.
For more information, photos and user reviews of the trail, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.