by Kate Shunney
An added 4.5 miles of the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail officially opened last Saturday, June 1 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony held in Little Orleans on National Trails Day.
State, county and local officials marked the occasion by recognizing the individuals who have pushed to see the trail opened to its final point in Maryland. This is the fourth phase of the trail and extends it 26 miles from Big Pool to the west.
The trail, as planned, would continue across the Potomac River on an existing train trestle, and into West Virginia.
One feature of this section of trail is a two-mile bypass of the Indigo Tunnel. During planning for the trail, it was discovered that two species of endangered bats were using the train tunnel for winter hibernation. In order to go around the tunnel rather than through it, the trail now includes a lengthy walkway that connects the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail to the C&O Canal towpath just outside the tunnel. Metal gates close off the tunnel to visitors.
Longtime trail organizer and Hancock businesswoman Penny Pittman said Saturday that the plan to work around the tunnel was one proof of the determination of many people to see the trail done.
Pittman recalled her first discussion in 2004 with Emmie Woodward about her vision for the trail to extend through the Paw Paw bends area along the Potomac River and through to Paw Paw, with views of Maryland.
Pittman said many people, from politicians to local residents in Maryland and West Virginia, stayed committed to the idea of the trail along the old rail line.
“We still plan to see this beautiful trail extend the next 10 miles,” she said.
Pittman said the late Woodward would rejoice of the opening of the new section of trail.
“Her last question would be, ‘What about West Virginia?’”
Maryland parks superintendent Nita Settina praised the work of Pittman and many
others to pushing the trail forward.
“The Western Maryland Rail Trail is remarkable. The 4.5-mile extension is significant because it connects to Green Ridge State Forest and is anchored by the C&O Canal,” said Settina. “It has it all. It’s a real trail success story.”
Settina said trails throughout Maryland are a “gateway” to connect towns, and a benefit to the health and well being of all users.
C&O Canal Deputy Superintendent John Noel said the trail is unique because the last six miles are owned by the C&O Canal, but managed in partnership with the State of Maryland through Fort Frederick.
“After riding that bumpy towpath, some cyclists come to the Rail Trail and they think they’ve reached nirvana,” said Noel. He said there were 120,000 users of the Rail Trail in 2018.
“This section is done, and we have a new focus going forward,” he said.
The western terminus of the Western Maryland Rail Trail can be reached from exit 68 off I-68 by following Orleans Road to High Germany Road toward the C&O Canal at Fifteen Mile Creek. A new paved parking lot is just west of the canal use area.