Utah's Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park

Posted 11/01/10 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park, Utah | Photo courtesy Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Trail of the Month: November 2010

Northern Utah is known for its voluminous snowfall and winter sports culture, but the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park gives tourists ample reasons to visit the area in all seasons, even when the fresh powder has all but vanished.

The 28-mile rail-trail runs from the charming streets of Park City, Utah, and through the smaller communities of Wanship and Coalville before arriving at Echo Reservoir. From a starting elevation of approximately 6,800 feet in Park City, users can cruise down the gentle two-percent grade of the trail as it follows Silver Creek for 14 miles through a narrow volcanic canyon. As the scenery transitions to wetlands and farms near Wanship and Silver Creek Canyon, a menagerie of wildlife including fox, bald eagles, herons, moose, deer and beaver—often appears near the trail.

After passing through the outskirts of Coalville, visitors will emerge at the bottom of Echo Reservoir, a Summit County water source and hotspot for recreational boating and fishing. Not only does the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park showcase the environmental diversity of this area, it helps celebrate the region's rich history.

The rail-trail follows the route of a historical railroad line that transported coal and silver ore during the region's mining heyday in the 1860s. To help commemorate this heritage, Summit County's Restaurant Tax Grant Committee provided the Mountain Trails Foundation with funds to place 16 plaques along the trail. These markers highlight the early Mormon settlers and ill-fated Donner family wagon train, the trail's intersection with the once-influential Lincoln Highway and the excavation site of Ice Age mammoths, among other historical sites and events.

Constructing the rail-trail would not have been possible without the help of local activist and current Summit County Commissioner Sally Elliott. She says the pathway, opened to the public in 1992, has been a catalyst of increased summer tourism and an integral part of the recreational identity of the Park City area.

"The rail-trail was the absolute lynchpin in our trails product," she says. "It's the spine of our entire trail system, [and] we have seen an enormous increase in non-winter tourism, much of which is due to our rail-trail."

The pathway may be relatively new, yet recreation has been the name of the game in Park City for decades. As a haven for skiers since the 1980s, the three ski resorts in town draw more than a million visitors per year. The number of summer tourists has risen to a comparable amount in the last few years, as well, largely due to the plentiful recreational activities, very much including the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail. It serves as a connector to several hundred miles of technical mountain bike trails—single-track paths requiring more skill that zigzag throughout the area.

"I think it is definitely a draw to have [the rail-trail] here along with the more technical trails," says Rick Fournier, field manager/rail-trail administrator for the Mountain Trails Foundation. "You've got something for everybody here."

The summer weather doesn't hurt, either. While temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees in Salt Lake City (only 30 miles away), the higher elevation of Park City and its proximity to the Wasatch Mountains keeps the trail around 15 to 20 degrees cooler in the summer. Temperatures rarely leave the 80s, says Fournier, and riding the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park is often a refreshing experience.

"The sun shines here almost every day in the summer, and we get very little rain because of the high desert environment," he says.

Fournier has been grooming and maintaining the trail for about five years, as the Mountain Trails Foundation has a contract from Utah State Parks to manage the corridor. He has witnessed the rail-trail become a central part of the Park City community lifestyle.

"[Park City] is a very outdoor-minded recreation town," he says. "People are always out on their bikes or jogging, and the trail is a huge part of that. It ties the community together."

John Knudson, trails coordinator for Utah State Parks and a resident of Wanship, agrees. His home overlooks the path, and he has watched trail use surge and diversify firsthand.

"We had a lot of community support in Park City getting this thing established," Knudson says. "Now it has been operating so long that I have seen hundreds and hundreds of people come down. There are people from 80 to 85 [years old] walking up and down the trail, and you always see people pushing their kids in strollers."

Elliott managed the original construction efforts of the Mountain Trails Foundation and witnessed the collective efforts of the National Guard, a team of inmates from a local prison, the Park City Rotary Club and other community organizations bring the rail-trail to fruition.

"It was truly a local project," she says. "[The rail-trail] is a place where the entire population meets and mixes and one of the few places where we all appreciate exercising together."

Much used and much loved, the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park has grown into a pipeline of activity in Park City and surrounding communities. Whether you visit during the snows of winter or the sunshine of summer, you'll find out right away why local residents are so proud of this trail, which has just been named to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.


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