Beyond a Bike Ride: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 2016 Sojourn Series

Posted 11/24/15 by Katie Harris in Trail Use, Building Trails

On the Sheepskin Trail during the 2015 West Virginia Sojourn | Photo by Katie Harris

For the past 15 years, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has hosted annual sojourns showcasing some of the country’s finest rail-trails and greenways, and the communities they connect. And this year, RTC is pleased to announce that it is expanding the series to four rides over the course of 2016 with our new Sojourn Series!

So what sets RTC’s sojourns apart from other trail rides? As trail development experts, RTC carefully crafts experiences that go beyond simply riding from point A to point B. Each sojourn aims to transform trail users into advocates and create the economic case for trail networks nationwide.

Economic Benefit of Trail Systems

Last year’s ride is a perfect example. The sojourn riders—all 300 of them—visited the small town of Dunbar, Pennsylvania. A community that once leaned heavily on the mining industry, Dunbar was left high and dry when the extractive industries moved elsewhere.

2015 West Virginia Sojourn | Photo by Kasia Martin

The sojourn passed through Dunbar because it is situated along the developing Sheepskin Trail. When complete, this trail will connect Parkersburg, West Virginia, to the Great Allegheny Passage and will create more than 500 miles of contiguous trail system through Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia!

For Dunbar, that means that there could be a new economic engine chugging down the line—an economy based around the trail with lodging, restaurants and gear shops. In fact, it is estimated that such a trail would generate more than $40 million in direct spending from trail users annually.

In 2015, approximately 300 sojourn participants stayed for two nights in Dunbar, saturating the markets at nearly every mom-and-pop shop in town. From the laundromat to the corner bar, sojourn riders shared stories with locals, enjoyed the small-town atmosphere and dropped some significant change on food, drinks, ice cream and lodging.

A majority of questions from the riders after their stay in Dunbar related directly to trail development. When will the Sheepskin Trail be finished? When can we come back and ride the next connection, visit new communities and explore new parts of the region?

This is what RTC sojourns are all about. While they are experiences in and of themselves—ways to see new trails, connect with people from around the country and explore new parts of the United States—the most important component of these sojourns is how they strengthen the case for trail economies.

The 2015 sojourn’s positive economic impact to the region through which we traveled was more than $248,000! RTC has the expertise to show this impact, and with these figures, we’re arming communities with evidence that helps justify their demand for new trail connections.

From Trail Users to Trail Advocates

“We hope sojourn riders leave with the desire to call for trails in their own communities,” says Tom Sexton, director of RTC’s Northeast Regional Office.

2015 West Virginia Sojourn | Photo by Cleo Fogel

And they often do. We heard from many participants after the 2015 sojourn, who said that after seeing the progress of the Sheepskin Trail running through Dunbar, they returned home with the desire to get involved in helping get trail projects in their backyards off the ground.

It’s a notable shift from trail user to trail advocate, and the sojourn has a way of transforming participants, seemingly overnight.

“Through the trail development focus of the sojourn, we teach people about what it takes to build these regional trail networks,” says Anya Saretzky, project manager for RTC’s Northeast Regional Office. “These trails take time, energy and community buy-in. They need support. And when the community understands the value that the trail brings to them, that support is vocal, ample and can’t be ignored.”

For more information about all four rides, visit the Sojourn Series Web page.

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