A new section of the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail that skirts the historic Union Canal is the latest accomplishment connecting a continuous network of recreational trails from Elizabethtown in Lancaster County to Swatara State Park in the northwest corner of Lebanon County.
The network of trails in Lancaster and Lebanon counties has become popular for runners, walkers, bicyclists, horseback riders and cross-country skiers.
The 1.7-mile stretch of the former Tremont branch of the Reading Railroad bed — the seventh phase of the trail construction — will be dedicated Sept. 19. The trail runs north and west of Lebanon, connecting 25th Street and Long Lane in Ebenezer. But as of now, the trail section stands alone geographically, or at least until phases six and eight can be completed.
“People can use it,” Lebanon Valley Rails to Trails Inc. President John Wengert said of trail section. “It opened as of last week. I would encourage people to get out and check it out. It turned out exceptionally well.”
The new section is the first to be opened north of Route 422 since the Lebanon Valley Rails to Trails project began in 1996. The new section includes a trailhead behind the Lebanon Valley Mall, which will be a valuable beginning or ending point upon completion of the trail.
Work on the $2.3 million phase seven in Lebanon County began in earnest in fall 2018. The cost of the project, which included engineering, design, construction and inspection, were covered mostly through grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
With phase seven complete, trail developers will now turn attention to the completion of the tricky phase six, which will connect the southern section of the trail at Chestnut Street to the northern part at 25th Street in Lebanon city. Wengert said he hopes that phase will be finished sometime in 2021.
Parts of phase nine, a 1.7-mile stretch from Bunker Hill Road to Route 22 in Jonestown, have already been completed, but an official timeline for its opening has yet to be determined. The 10th phase — a proposed 3-mile stretch from Route 22 near Jonestown to Lickdale — could be completed as early as 2022.
Phase eight, a complex 1.7-mile part from Long Lane to Bunker Hill Road in Jonestown, will be saved for last, according to Wengert.
“It’s sort of like the path of least resistance,” Wengert said. “The first five phases went in order. Through the city is a lot more complex.”
When completed, the entire Lebanon Valley Rail Trail will encompass nearly 27 miles of trails in Lebanon County and possess the ability to connect with other trails, including Stony Creek Trail to the west and the Swatara State Park Trail to the north.
“When we started, we weren’t thinking about a cross-county trail system,” Wengert said. “We were thinking about a trail in Mount Gretna and Cornwall. It just kept getting more popular. The question became: ‘When is it going to be extended?’ It just kept going, some of it on its own momentum. But our board has really stuck with it.”
South of Lebanon, the first five phases were built on the old Cornwall & Lebanon Railroad, winding its way through 15 miles of scenic areas — woodland and farmland — in South Lebanon, Cornwall and Mount Gretna.
At the Lancaster County line, the trail connects with the 5-mile Conewago Recreation Trail, leading to Elizabethtown. From there a proposed 62.7-mile greenway corridor, traversing the existing Northwest Lancaster County River Trail and the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail, would eventually connect with the Schuylkill River Trail in southeastern Pennsylvania that leads to Philadelphia.
A state trail planning map shows an on-road connector following Route 443 in Schuylkill County, completing a loop between the Swatara Park Trail in Lebanon County and the Schuylkill River Trail north of Reading. The map refers to the vision as “a regionally significant” network of existing and planned trails.