I’ll be honest. as someone who considers herself a “hard core” mountain biker, I don’t go out of my way to ride rail trails. Don’t get me wrong; these fabulously user-friendly, relatively flat gravel paths make amazing recreational resources for people all over the country. I just tend to like my trails narrower, steeper, and more remote.
That said, there’s a time and a place for rail trails, and that time and place came together for me last weekend in Teton Valley, Idaho. The dirt was too wet to ride singletrack, the foliage was peaking too beautifully to stay indoors, and my companion was dying to spin his legs on a bicycle. Ashton to Tetonia Rail Trail to the rescue.
I’d ridden this 30-mile trail in its entirety once before, when I was commissioned to author a guidebook to Teton County, Idaho’s bike trails. I had to cover every inch of the route to be sure that I could accurately describe its highlights and pitfalls as well as its various access points. I remembered it being a lovely excursion for a fall day, and it seems that my memory served me well.
As the name suggests, the Ashton to Tetonia Rail Trail follows the grade of an abandoned section of the Teton Valley Branch of the Union Pacific Railroad, also called the Oregon Short Line. This segment of trail, built in 1910, ran from Ashton, ID up through Tetonia and on to Victor – the hamlet at the base of Teton Pass. From there, train passengers could access Jackson, WY as well as both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. On the return trip from Victor to Ashton, livestock, seed potatoes, and barley were loaded from silos into boxcars to be distributed in Idaho’s flatlands. In addition, Teton Valley residents could travel to Ashton on the rail line to make connections with trains heading for Pocatello, West Yellowstone, and Salt Lake City.
Later in the twentieth century, when the area’s surrounding highways were improved, use of the railroad diminished. The line was ultimately decommissioned in 1990.
The idea of transforming abandoned railroad grades into multiple-use trails got started in the 1960’s. It became a veritable “movement” in 1986 when a non-profit organization called the Rails to Trails Conservancy was founded. According to their website, there were 250 miles of rail trail in 1986. Today, they said, there are “more than 21,000 miles of rail trails providing a place for tens of millions of people to walk, run, hike, skate and cycle each year.”
The Ashton to Tetonia rail trail opened in 2010 and has been managed by Idaho Parks and Recreation since then to serve a number of recreational communities. Hikers and bikers are the primary summer users, with snowmobilers and snowshoers sharing the groomed trail during the winter months.
For most people, the highlight of this trail is its stunning views of the Tetons. Like many mountain ranges, the Tetons can often best be appreciated from a distance. While they are unquestionably majestic from up close, some perspective makes their immensity even more striking. Add the rolling rural landscape in the foreground and the peaking yellow and orange aspen tree foliage of late September in the background, and you’ve got some undeniably postcard-worthy scenes.
While I love the grandeur of the vistas, I am even more fond of the rail trail’s trestle bridges. There are three of them over the course of the thirty-mile trail – the Fall River Trestle, the Conant Creek Trestle, and the Bitch Creek Trestle. The last one is particularly notable. Built in 1923, this bridge spans 640 feet from end to end and seems to float at a height of 135 feet above the Bitch Creek drainage. It’s a solid structure, and begs to be enjoyed.
We felt compelled to dismount mid-span for an extended trestle bridge break. There’s something magical about sitting out there, savoring the sensation of being suspended above a mountain river and its surrounding sea of autumn-kissed aspens and fiery willow foliage. It’s funny to think of all the passengers who were simply whisked over this bridge without the opportunity to stop and soak up its context.
It’s also funny to think about how we humans re-purpose resources over time. I doubt that the men laying railroad ties in 1910 ever thought that people on fully suspended mountain bikes and $10,000 motorized snowmachines would be traveling the same path one hundred years into the future.
We are though, and we’re better for it. A pretty ingenious species, Homo Sapiens – especially when it comes to figuring out ways to take in beauty.