Expanding National Recreation Trail system appeals to outdoors enthusiasts
It's a pretty refreshing these days, especially considering the sweat that went into building it.
Boring the Staple Bend Tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains was brutal stuff. Workers used picks, shovels and explosive powder, 12 hours a day, six days a week, all for $13 a month.
They made 18 inches of progress on a good day.
The Alleghenies didn't yield easily.
Crews built the 900-foot tunnel, only the third in United States history, and the first for a railroad. But it took 13 months. The resulting Allegheny Portage Railroad connected Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It was a marvel in its era, cutting the travel time between cities from 23 days to five.
Yet, the railroad was also short-lived.
It lasted just 20 years or so, until more powerful locomotives could climb up and over the mountains came along.
The tunnel remains, though, and is one of the highlights of hiking the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail in western Pennsylvania, near Johnstown in Cambria County.
There are no lights in the tunnel. The sun shines in from the ends, but to be in the middle is to be in perpetually chilly, wet, dripping darkness.
It's a pretty cool experience in and of itself.
To walk the Staple Bend Tunnel Trail, though, is also to walk one small part of a larger network.
The trail is officially designated a "National Recreation Trail." There are more than 1,000 spread across the country, in all 50 states.
They include all sorts of paths.
"National Recreation Trails provide for numerous outdoor recreation activities in a variety of urban, rural, and remote areas. Over 1,000 trails in all 50 states, available for public use and ranging from less than a mile to 485 miles in length, have been designated as NRTs on federal, state, municipal, and privately owned lands," reads information from the National Park Service.
And this year they've reached a collective landmark.
The National Trails System is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018.
Created in 1968, the system called for establishing three kinds of trails: national scenic trails, like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest; national historic trails, like the Trail of tears and Iditarod; and recreation trails.
Congress has sole authority for designating the first two types. Recreation trails are announced by the Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Agriculture "to recognize exemplary trails of local and regional significance."
There is at least one National Recreation Trail in all 50 states.
Walkers take a break on the Oliver Hazard Perry memorial in Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa., just off the park's National Recreation Trail.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced 19 new trails totaling 370 miles across 17 states last week.
That news came amidst all kinds of hoopla, falling just before National Trails Day on June 2.
Such focus on trails is always good. The more people who enjoy wild places – even in the center of cities – the better for everyone.
That brings funding, attention and care.
But it brings crowds, too.
From here on out, hikers can visit National Recreation Trails – you can explore an index of them all — often with less competition.
There are some great paths to follow, too.
From the Beartooth Loop in Wyoming and Zumwalt Meadow in California to the Angel of Goliad Trail in Texas and the Black Cherry Trail in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest, there's variety, fun and adventure available.
So the question, then, is not whether to hike one, or even which one to hike. It's which one to start with first.