Trail of the Month: September 2011
In a place renowned and envied for its parks, trails and general outdoors vibe, choosing the best of anything can be a major challenge. So when Mel Huie says the Springwater Corridor, a 21.5-mile rail-trail winding from the banks of the Willamette River in downtown Portland to the rural exurbs, is "the region's premier trail," it's saying something.
As the regional trails coordinator for Metro, the Portland regional government, Huie helps coordinate planning work and funding for trails in and around the city. In more than two decades on the job, he's been involved with most of the region's 200-plus miles of bicycle and pedestrian pathways—and he puts the Springwater at the top of the list.
"It's the longest trail, it's the second-most used, it connects a diversity of people in different neighborhoods—going through affluent, middle-income, working class and even industrial areas—and it goes through natural areas," Huie says. "It's important both for recreational purposes and as an active-transportation commuter corridor. It's been a very, very successful story."
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy agrees, and that's why we recently named the Springwater Corridor to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. This program, which began in 2007, recognizes exemplary rail-trails around the country and now has an elite membership of 24 trails.
The Springwater's history stretches back to the early 1900s, when a rail line was built to bring people, produce and timber from areas south and east of Portland into the growing metropolis. Known variously as the Portland Traction Company Line, the Cazadero Line and the Bellrose Line, the railroad finally adopted the name of the Springwater Division Line—likely because of hopes that it would one day stretch to the town of Springwater, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Portland. (In a bit of historical irony, neither the railroad nor the trail that bears the town's name ever reached this small community.)
In the early decades of the past century, the railroad carried thousands of passengers each year, and several towns and neighborhoods sprang up and prospered along the route. To encourage weekend use, the owners of the line built recreation areas along the route, including an amusement park in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland. But as the automobile gained dominance, the Springwater line faded, and it finally ceased carrying passengers in 1958.
Freight- and timber-hauling operations continued for three more decades, but by the 1980s derailments were common along the aging Springwater line, says Bob Akers, president of the 40-Mile Loop Land Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated to trail development in the Portland region. "The tracks were so bad, the train engineers would flip a coin and the loser would have to drive the train out and pick the lumber up," Akers recalls.
Akers and others convinced the city to buy the railroad corridor and turn it into a multi-use trail—a key element of the land trust's goal to build a loop of trails around the city to connect parks, other bike paths and public transportation facilities. The main 17-mile segment was purchased in 1990, with remaining sections purchased in subsequent years.
The first leg of the Springwater Corridor opened in 1996, and the bulk of the current length of trail was completed in 2006. (A gap of about 20 blocks in southeast Portland still remains; planners hope to close that in the next few years.) Residents of the Portland area quickly flocked to the trail, and the section nearest to downtown now gets more than 1.2 million users annually, making it the city's second-most popular trail, Huie says.
A key element of the Springwater's popularity and importance is that it connects the region's urban core with several suburbs, and then continues out to farmland and pasture far from the frenzy of city life.
"At the start of the trail, you've got views of the Willamette River and downtown Portland and different business districts," says Akers. "Then as you start going east, you go through residential area and along Johnson Creek, and you follow the creek most of the way to the city of Gresham. From Gresham toward Boring, you're out in agricultural land, and you get some beautiful views of Mt. Hood. You get such a wide variety of views and scenery—to me, I love it."
Along the way, the trail passes through or near several parks and refuges—including Powell Butte, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, Tideman Johnson Nature Park, Beggers-Tick Wildlife Refuge and Leach Botanical Garden—and offers many chances to commune with nature.
"You always see red-tailed hawks and great blue herons, and I've seen eagles over the trail," says Akers. "A couple weeks ago when my wife and I biked from Gresham to Portland, we saw four deer along the trail. It's funny, because I remember when we were talking about creating the trail, people were worried it would scare the wildlife away!"
Equally important, the Springwater serves as a crucial and easily accessible link in the city's active transportation network. "It's not a trail by itself—it's interconnected to bike lanes, transit, light rail, buses and other regional trails," says Huie. "It connects business and industrial areas and residential neighborhoods with downtown Portland, and the commercial and shopping district east of downtown. So for active transportation, it's a big commuter route."
But regional planners, citizen groups, government officials and other supporters of the Springwater Corridor aren't content to declare victory and call it quits. "We have future plans to extend the trail all the way to Mt. Hood and the Pacific Crest Trail," says Huie. "The goal in 10 years is that you can take the trail eastbound all the way from Portland to Timberline Lodge."
"This is a trail that keeps growing—it's never finished," Huie adds. "I think that's one of the most exciting things about it."
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