The significance of the transcontinental railroad in the development of the West is a staple of any American history class. But what if instead of learning about westward expansion and the building of the railroads while confined to a cramped desk, you got outside and interacted with history while riding your bike?
The Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail provides just that opportunity. Dedicated in 1992, this unique 28-mile-long and 10-feet-wide hiking and biking trail is technically also a State Park and is a celebration of both the rich and storied history of Park City, Utah, and the active outdoor lifestyle that is a staple of this community.
In a town made famous by silver mining, the ability to transport coal to the mines, and send silver ore back in return was key. And with the Union Pacific transcontinental line passing through the Wasatch Mountains just 28 miles away in Echo, Utah this required building a short, but critical spur of track known as the Echo – Park City Railway. It is this industrious route that the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail follows.
This non-motorized recreational trail is managed by Park City’s own Mountain Trails Foundation and is a way to preserve a piece of history while keeping it open for the enjoyment of the public. With 16 plaques along the trail providing facts, events and stories of historical significance, the Rail Trail is also an amazing education resource. But rather than bore you with another seated history lesson, the goal here is provide the information you need to bike the Historic Rail Trail yourself.
Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail Details
Leaving from the bottom of Main Street, in Park City, the Historic Rail Trail begins at an elevation of 6,800 feet, and descends at a mellow 2% grade for the first 14 miles. At first following beautiful Silver Creek and passing through the undeveloped wetlands in Silver Creek Canyon, the trail eventually reaches Interstate 80 as it starts its winding journey through the pass.
Upon reaching the small town of Wanship, the Rail Trail meets up with the Weber River flowing between Echo Reservoir to the north, and Rockport Reservoir to the south. At times running right alongside the river, the trail offers a glimpse of just how popular the Weber is for fly fishing.
Not long after diverging from the Weber River, the Rail Trail passes through the historic town of Coalville. With just a few miles left, the path saves some of the best scenery for last as it runs along the side of Echo Reservoir before ending at the western mouth of Echo Canyon.
Primarily a gravel trail, with the exception of the first three miles leaving Park City, the Rail Trail offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains, canyons, and rivers, while guaranteeing plenty of sightings of a wide range of wildlife.
What Types of Bikes Work Best on the Rail Trail?
The first three miles of pavement on the Rail Trail can be deceiving. Despite the smooth beginning, however, the next 25 miles are comprised of packed dirt and gravel with tough desert foliage scattered throughout. This combination of rugged terrain and sunbaked shrubbery are what make the Rail Trail distinctly unfriendly to the skinny tires of road bikes.
Basically, mountain bikes with lockout suspensions or cruiser bikes with wider tires are ideal. By riding a bike with some off-road capability, you’ll ensure that you don’t find yourself walking the Rail Trail with an incapacitated bike in tow.
Tips For Riding the Historic Rail Trail:
- Bring plenty of water and food.
Given that you’ll be riding in the dry heat and remote terrain of a high altitude desert, making sure you stay well hydrated and have plenty of food is essential. Generally, a single water bottle is not enough for a 28-mile bike ride, so you’ll want to make sure you have a hydration pack with at least two liters of water. This is also a convenient way to carry snacks, extra layers, and emergency supplies.
- Bring a spare bike tube and educate yourself on how to change a flat tire.
Rugged desert vegetation is notoriously thorny and sharp. And when these “puncture vines” have died, baked in the sun, and blown into the trail, they can be lethal to your bike’s tires. Bringing extra tire tubes and knowing how to change them will ensure that you don’t find yourself stranded out on the trail.
- Account for the elevation change.
Since the Historic Rail Trail descends for the first 14 miles at a 2% grade, it is easy to lose track of just how far you’ve cruised. And if you’re planning an out-and-back ride, the downhill grade that made for such an enjoyable journey to Echo becomes a very tiring ride on the way back to Park City. It’s all uphill and more often than not you’ll find yourself pedaling into an easterly headwind. Save enough energy for the ride back, or plan for a friend to pick you up in Echo.
- Hire a Guide.
One of the best ways to ensure an enjoyable experience on the Rail Trail is to hire an experienced guide. With years of experience leading Rail Trail trips, the guides at White Pine Touring are one of the best resources in town. From filling you in on local geography and wildlife, to helping you change a flat tire, these guides have the knowledge and experience to make for a great day. Check out the Park City Bike Path Tour and book online if you’re looking for a little guidance.
White Pine Touring is also positioned directly alongside the Historic Rail Trail on Bonanza Drive, allowing for both easy access to the trail and much-coveted parking. Offering both cruiser bike rentals and mountain bike rentals, White Pine Touring is a great resource for visitors who haven’t brought their bikes along with them.
A History Lesson in the Great Outdoors
The history of the old Echo – Park City Railway spur, and the role of the Union Pacific railroad in Park City’s mining era, lives on in the form of the Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park. If you’re coming to Park City this summer, ride the Rail Trail and then head over to the Park City Museum – it’s the best way to combine a history lesson with some healthy fun outdoors.
Nate Tomlinson, Senior Content Writer