Trail of the Month: June 2019
“Our trail system has become so strong that it’s become a feature that appeals to our voters."
—Tim Cortez, the parks and recreation director for Casper
A pleasant stroll along Casper’s North Platte River would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. The oil refineries and other industries that had allowed the city to flourish nearly destroyed its most vital natural asset. Today, this legacy of the city’s “black gold” has been transformed into a sparkling treasure courtesy of citizen efforts to reform the river.
Ten miles of paved pathway now thread through a handful of beloved parks, rolling out along the water’s edge under a canopy of cottonwoods in Wyoming’s second largest city. A momentary pause on the Platte River Trail might yield a glimpse of a pronghorn antelope or mule deer darting through the underbrush, or an eagle or osprey searching for a meal in the river.
“You’ll see lots of wildlife, and that’s something unique to our river trail; even in its most urban setting, you can see a mink or an otter and all varieties of birds,” said Angela Emery, executive director for the Platte River Trails Trust, the nonprofit group that manages the pathway. “It’s just a beautiful natural environment steps away from downtown.”
Nestled in the heart of the Cowboy State, a journey down the trail offers a series of unexpected delights: the glow-in-the-dark labyrinth in Amoco Park, a towering wooden castle in Adventureland Playground, and outdoor yoga and tai chi classes in the riverside parks. Loaner stations offering life jackets for watersports have even been placed along the trail, as the experience is a two-for-one adventure with the river being the trail’s stalwart companion. The waterway offers its own charms as it winds through the town: the rush of whitewater rafting, a peaceful paddle by kayak and the thrill of a blue-ribbon trout catch.
A River Runs Through It
Popular sections of the river trail, like the route through Crossroads Park, see a quarter million visits a year, a sizable number given the city’s population of about 50,000.
“As far back as 1968, the community leaders started looking at the river more as a recreational resource,” said Emery. “Up to that time in Casper, the river was just a conduit for dumping. Along with the national Clean Rivers Act in 1972, we were awakening to the fact that we had this amazing resource in the North Platte River. We started making people aware that the river was there by building this trail along it and getting them down there.”
Annual cleanup efforts by the Platte River Trails Trust and the city’s Platte River Revival Volunteer Day in the fall now bring hundreds of residents to the river to keep its waters and the surrounding river banks pristine.
“It really is a jewel now,” said longtime Casper resident David Hough, vice president of the Platte River Trails Trust board of directors. “For those that grew up here, they remember the river being a nasty mess. Most communities would die for an opportunity to have a big beautiful river like the North Platte running right through the middle of town—and now people are recognizing it as the recreational asset that it is.”
The community supports the trail not only with their sweat and time, but also with their wallets. In Wyoming, voters can opt in to a 1-cent sales tax in which they pay an additional penny for every dollar they spend locally. Since its inception in 1974, the tax has been up for renewal every four years; it has never failed to pass and, last year, garnered its highest approval rating at 75 percent. The measure has generated more than $200 million for capital projects in Natrona County, including parks and trail development.
“Our trail system has become so strong that it’s become a feature that appeals to our voters to keep that 1-cent tax alive for funding those types of amenities,” said Tim Cortez, the parks and recreation director for Casper. “If we didn’t have it, we would be in a bind. It’s a huge funding source for us.”
Casper the Friendly Host
What’s remarkable about the city’s trail system is the strength of its ties to both the past and the future. A spur off the Platte River Trail meanders up the hillside to the National Historic Trails Interpretative Center, which chronicles 19th-century Casper as a hub for the pioneers making their long journeys to Oregon, California and other points west. But this city that once served as simply a stopover has become a thriving and vibrant place to linger.
In Wyoming, tourism is second only to the energy industry as an economic driver, and Casper is increasingly becoming a go-to destination. In addition to the trail’s deep connection to the river, plans are in the works to develop a pathway heading south from downtown to Casper Mountain, famed for its skiing opportunities. Along the way, the route would traverse Rotary Park, described as “Casper’s most picturesque park” on the county’s website with a cascading waterfall and rustic trails through ponderosa and aspen for horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.
Another project underway will continue the trail system west of Casper to the recently acquired Rim Rock property, a 600-acre open space along the North Platte that includes a historic battle site where Lieutenant Caspar Collins, the city’s namesake (although the Army misspelled it), was killed in 1865.
“Trails are a way for people to have a connection to nature and to be outside, and that’s what people want,” said Emery. “Trails are everywhere, and people want more of them.”
Within the next five years, trail advocates also hope to have a connection between the Platte River Trail and the Casper Rail Trail, which would tie the downtown core into all of the recreational amenities along the river. Both are part of the Great American Rail-Trail, a developing national route spanning more than 3,700 miles between Washington, D.C., to Washington State.
In tandem with these efforts, the city is embarking on a wayfinding signage program to help the potential influx of visitors navigate this increasingly interconnected web of trails and recreational opportunities.
“For a small city, there’s an awful lot going on,” enthused Hough, who recently purchased a new kayak. “Whatever your interest is, not only can you find people here that share that interest, but you’ll find people for which it is their passion.”
05/08/19 | Laura Stark