Trail Town: Programs We Can Learn From

November 25, 2015

In September 2014, we bicycled the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), beginning in Cumberland, MD and ending in Pittsburgh, PA.

The experience was eye-opening. There are several qualities of the GAP that bring to mind European touring routes: it's far away from motorized traffic, climbing is minimal, it has a great surface to ride on, and it provides natural, scenic features and historic attractions including railroad tunnels and trestle bridges. And now you can ride Amtrak's Capitol Limited and board your bike at any stop along the trail. 

The Great Allegheny Passage took  $80 million to complete, but brings an annual return on investment of $75 - $100 million. 

But, with any bicycle tourism route, there must be services in place — towns appropriately distanced with accommodations and food services that cater to the active tourist. So, in 2007, the Trail Town Program was started by The Progress Fund to use trail tourism as a strategy for economic development and revitalization. According to the Trail Town manual:

A “Trail Town” is a destination along a long-distance trail. Whether on a rail trail, towpath, water trail, or hiking trail — trail users can venture off the trail to enjoy the scenery, services, and heritage of the nearby community with its own character and charm. It is a safe place where both town residents and trail users can walk, find the goods and services they need, and easily access both trail and town by foot or vehicle. In such a town, the trail is an integral and important part of the community.

Trail Towns like Frostburg help trail users know what services are available and how to get to the town from the trail. 

The Trail Town Program is administered by The Progress Fund in Pennsylvania, a community development financial institution. The Progress Fund provides certification, low-interest loans and some grants for businesses and communities. The funding add amenities that the towns need to attract visitors from the trail into the community. These improvements also serve the local residents.

Since its inception, several other Trail Town programs have popped up across the country: in northern Michigan, Kentucky, along the Chesapeake & Ohio National Historical Park, and the Appalachian Trail.

Michigan now has a Trail Towns program to attract tourism and spur new business creation.

So how do Trail Town programs work? Here's a few examples of various programs that we can learn from. 

Designation Components

Each program varies, however they all have the following attributes:

  • Branding: development of a symbolic designation such as a logo, sign, or a name.

  • Infrastructure: wayfinding signs; informational kiosks, bike racks; bike lanes or trails to & within town.

  • Art and Culture: highlighting existing assets such as unique historic features or amenities along the trail; incentivizing the communities to develop art features along the trail; developing unique events that honor the history or culture of the trail or community.

  • Business Attraction and Retention: ensuring business products/services meet users’ needs while entrepreneurs and business owners are positioned to benefit.



Each program is administered by an entity - some are run by boards or coalitions within foundations. Other models include tourism and a university extension office. All provide manuals or “how-to” guides that list key trail-to-town connection components and steps for communities to implement. 

Funding Source(s)

Recognizing that there is a return on this investment is key to finding the right entity to take on administrative and funding duties. On the GAP, the initial investment of $80 million to build the trail is met with a $75 - $100 million return every year.

Funding sources for various Trail Town programs vary considerably: 

For other trails, communities, regions or states looking to implement similar programs, finding the “right group” to take on the administrative and funding duties is key. Once a group is identified, the Trail Town program is a solid model that can be repeated for any long-distance trail or bicycle tourism route.

Top photos of the GAP by Saara Snow; Michigan kiosk photo by Chuck Haney.

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BAple February 4, 2016, 3:30 AM

Cycle tourism

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