Almost 30 years in the making and a testament to municipal perseverance, the 7.2-mile Warwick to Ephrata Rail Trail will be open for uninterrupted use for the first time on Friday.
That’s when the public can walk across the refurbished 109-year-old railroad bridge over Cocalico Creek that connects Warwick and Ephrata townships.
The trail — which follows the old Reading and Columbia Railroad bed that dates back to 1863 — has been cobbled together in sections since 1996, about five years after planning began.
It’s already heavily used for recreation, hosting about 180,000 people a year on the Warwick Township portion alone. But the bridge across the creek has long been the missing link that opens up through-use and the long-awaited linking of the communities.
The trail, in connecting the boroughs of Lititz, Akron and Ephrata, is unique among rail trails in Lancaster County in that it is expected to be heavily used as an alternative transportation corridor.
That means residents will be biking and walking to work, school and to shop or dine, officials say, in addition to using it simply for recreation.
“It connects three boroughs with a safe, alternative mode of transportation,” says Mike Domin, principal planner for the Lancaster County Planning Commission.
“There are some substantial employment centers along this corridor that, for health or financial reasons, can now be accessed by workers who can get to their place of employment without the use of a personal automobile or mass transit.”
Here is drone video footage of the trail and its users, taken on Jan. 1, 2019, by the 717 Drone Guys, Lancaster-based drone photography hobbyists.
An easily accessible trail
No other rail trail in the county links as many existing neighborhoods, schools and business districts. Retirement centers are busing residents to use the trail, and in Warwick Township new developments built near the trail are required to provide paths that connect to it.
“It is, without a doubt, the most easily accessible regional trail in the county,” says Domin.
Paved sections of the 10-foot-wide trail chug through plenty of urban and suburban areas. But more than half of its western portion features a compacted stone dust base and winds through mostly bucolic preserved farms in Warwick and Ephrata townships.
Users go through shaded arches of trees on the raised bed and see mills, covered bridges and fertile farm fields.
Seven designated parking areas provide access to the trail and there are five restrooms or portable toilets along the way. Parking is available at Littiz Springs Park, the Warwick Township campus on Clay Road, Millway Road and three locations in Ephrata Borough.
The trail is open from dawn to dusk for nonmotorized use. Pets must be on a leash. No snowmobiles, horses or buggies are allowed.
A bicycle rental station and repair shed sits along the trail at the Warwick Township Campus Park on Clay Road near Lititz.
To view or download a trail map and brochure, click here.
‘Almost a miracle’ it was built
Like the little engine that could, the vision to build an intermunicipal public trail has encountered many obstacles before rolling into the station.
“It’s almost a miracle it ever got built, really. It was a massive effort and there were a number of issues that could have derailed this,” says Dan Zimmerman, Warwick Township manager.
Initially, some residents railed against what they saw as an invasion of privacy. Critics feared loss of property value and had concerns about drug use, underage drinking and vandalism that they feared would increase.
Then there was a protracted hassle over who really owned the rights of way along the rail line, which was abandoned after irreparable damage during Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.
Over the rail line’s decades of disuse, buildings and parking lots were built over the right of way. The vacant land became gardens and places for sheds. Farmers expanded their fields.
In Akron and Ephrata boroughs, officials had to individually contact some 150 landowners and convince them they did not own what they considered to be the rear parts of their properties.
Some businesses along the trail peeled back parking lots.
After many acrimonious meetings, Akron Borough Council reversed a decision to carry trail users under Main Street and elected to go with an at-grade crossing.
State and private groups with easements for preserved farms had to sign off on a trail through fields. As a concession, farm machinery is allowed to cross the trail.
The four municipalities that own the trail purchased the railroad’s 60-foot right of way from a coal-mining company that had bought the abandoned railroad.
Grants, in-house work and some taxpayer money have funded the trail.
Opponents become supporters
Officials say the initial concerns have melted away and the communities now embrace the trail as a quality-of-life asset.
“Everything that we went through to get there — it’s just wonderful and we’re very happy,” says Susan Davidson, Akron’s borough manager.
“People tell us how much they love the trail and it’s been used a lot. A lot.”
Adds Logan Myers, chair of Warwick Township supervisors, “We’ve had some people here who were some of our largest, most vocal detractors early on who are now some of our most ardent supporters.”
That sentiment is embodied in a letter to the editor to LNP in 2014 by an Akron resident who, after 70 years, walked for the first time from his home to Ephrata.
“Life has changed for the better because of this trail,” he wrote.
Adds an admiring Domin, “In my 30 years of work with the county, this is the best example of locally driven intermunicipal cooperation that I have had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s truly a model for every municipality in the county.”
And the communities hope they are not done yet. Plans are to extend the trail into the heart of Lititz to Lititz Springs Park, and, on the other end, push it all the way through Ephrata.