Editor's note: Each Sunday throughout the summer, Lancaster Newspapers interns will report on a hiking trail they experienced firsthand.
Visitors to Conewago Recreational Trail can look forward to lungs full of fresh air and olfactory nerves tickled by trailside bunches of honeysuckle while they exercise.
The county's first of four rail-trails - trails built over abandoned railways - begins at its largest parking area off Route 230 in Elizabethtown and continues along Conewago Creek for 51-w miles, until it crosses the Lancaster/Lebanon County line and becomes the Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail.
The trails sit where the 19th-century Cornwall & Lebanon Railroad once sent iron ore traffic and passenger trains whizzing through the countryside to the Cornwall Iron Furnace and beyond.
Damage from Hurricane Agnes put a stop to more than 80 years of train traffic in 1972, which allowed Lancaster County to preserve the trail from Route 230 to the county line in 1979.
Lancaster's trail became run down over time because of overgrown flora and rutting from bicycle and equestrian usage.
"The trail wasn't redone until 2007, when it underwent a major renovation to make it uniform with the Lebanon Valley trail," said Paul Weiss, administrator for the Lancaster Department of Parks and Recreation. Today's visitors are treated to a surface of crushed stone and gravel that doesn't wear or wash away easily.
Now, the two connected trails are used by more than 125,000 bicyclists, hikers, runners, cross-country skiers and horse riders annually, according to a 2011 study conducted by Rails-To-Trails Conservancy. The variety of habitats along the hike, which goes through wetlands, farms, forests and a rock field, draws in bird-watchers and nature enthusiasts as well.
"The trail is very popular," Weiss agreed. "During the day on weekdays there is lighter usage, but people start to come out in the early evenings after work. The biggest crowds are there on weekends."
And the trail will continue to improve.
A project to stop already-prohibited ATV and snowmobile use on the trail is slated to begin this fall, Weiss said. The bollards, or short metallic columns, only stop large vehicles, and because the bases are screwed in, it is more difficult for emergency and maintenance services to access the trail.
Instead, Conewago will update to gates similar to Lebanon's at all six road crossings along its length.
Another upcoming improvement will be a 6-by-8 storm shelter outside the Rails to Trail bike shop that sits on the trail at the Route 743 intersection.
Looking further ahead, Mount Joy Township officials endeavor to construct the Old Trolley Line Park adjacent to Conewago Trail between Route 743 and Koser Road within the next few years.
The park will add much-needed extra parking and restrooms for the trail, as well as various amenities such as a pool, two softball fields, a multiuse field and rentable pavilions.
Phase 1 of construction on the park will not begin for at least a year because of funding complications, according to a township official.
Locals frequent the trail. Visitors surveyed in 2011 showed 64.5 percent came from Lancaster, Dauphin, and Lebanon counties.
Friends Hope Diegel, 19, and Brittany Ritzman, 15, of Elizabethtown were recently spotted on the trail after a run. Diegel says she visits the trail year-round.
"I come here two-to-three times a week to run," Diegel said. "I go about halfway and then come back. It's beautiful, although it's a little buggier this time of year."
Visitors are also fans.
Sandy Stines and Fred Hiler of North Richland Hills, Texas, enjoyed an afternoon walk after "pigging out on chocolate" at Hershey Park.
"It's so green here!" Stines said. "It's not hot, it's not wet, and it's very fragrant."
Bicycles, horses, and feet are acceptable modes of transportation, but motor vehices are prohibited. All pets must be on leashes, and pet and horse waste must be carried out of the park. The trail is open from dawn until dusk.
For more information on Conewago Trail, call 299-8215 or visit www.lancastercountyparks.org.
Next week: Ferncliff Wildflower & Wildlife Preserve.