LEWISBURG - Small-town charm and quiet farmlands take a backseat to hustle and bustle on the weekends along the 9.2-mile Buffalo Valley Rail Trail.
"It's like a superhighway on weekends," said Sara Beachy, who walks the trail frequently. She lives just steps off the trail in Vicksburg.
The rail trail opened in November and all but instantly became a hit. It offers a smooth route from Lewisburg to Mifflinburg in Union County for bicyclists, walkers, in-line skaters and, in winter, cross-country skiers.
A bicyclist heads toward Mifflinburg on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail on May 4.
According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., more than 1,600 former rail road beds have been converted into trails for recreational uses such as walking, hiking, cross-country skiing, running, bicycling and ATV-ing across the U.S.
Community residents and rail trail users say the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail has been widely accepted and is used by many people every day of the week.
"The rail trail project has taken an unused asset and made it a vital part of the community again," said Jim Buck, chairman of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail committee.
Roger Wolfe, of Lewisburg, left the trailhead in Lewisburg just before lunchtime on May 4. He said he uses it pretty frequently to walk and ride his bike.
"It gets people out to enjoy the outdoors more," he said. "It really gets used hard."
Two trailheads at North Fifth Street in Mifflinburg and North 15th Street in East Buffalo Township have parking and full restroom facilities.
Another trailhead is near the mid-section at Beaver Run Road in Vicksburg. It also has parking and a portable toilet.
Additional parking in trail-side lots is available to the west of 10th Street in Mifflinburg.
The trail offers a recreational experience for all ages, Buck said, from babies in strollers, toddlers, small children, teens, adults and older residents.
Chris Snyder owns the Natural Food and Garden Store, which is between the trail and Route 45. He is an avid user of the trail and finds that so are his customers.
"I have always run up the railroad bed, but now I use the trail," he said. "People love it, and it's good for people's individual workouts."
He said he can see the trail from his business and notices that it stays pretty busy. He is attempting to get some sort of access from the store property to the trail, such as steps, to make it easier for people to come to the store from the trail.
He keeps extra tubes for bicycles and a pump behind the counter for bikers who may need them.
Vargo Outdoors also is located along the trail. The store held its grand opening the weekend of May 4-6.
The business moved from a spot in downtown Lewisburg to along Old Turnpike Road, right smack-dab beside the rail trail.
The new site provided not only additional space but also close proximity to the trail, said Brian Vargo, owner.
The store doesn't sell bicycles but does rent them for use on the trail. It offers boxed lunches, frozen yogurt and coffee, all of which are products Vargo thought would work well for trail users.
"If you come out here even during the weekdays and it's nice out, it's unbelievable. I can look from the store window and see 20 or 25 people using the trail at one time," he said.
He said the community really has embraced the trail quickly.
"It has become a pretty important aspect for people who want to have some sort of activity," Vargo added.
His store sells bicycle equipment and apparel, outdoor apparel and hiking equipment. In 2003, his company began designing and manufacturing backpacking equipment, which it sells at the store and online.
Andrew Miller, executive director of the Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau, said the trail users and nearby businesses will enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. When people using the trail need something - a snack, a jacket, a bicycle repair - businesses are right at hand, able to help.
The following stores and eateries are among those that are near or along the rail trail: Big Earl's Bicycle Shop, A-Plus Mart, Vic's Pub, Primavera Ristorante, Purple Cow, Ard's Farm Market, The Daily Grind Cafe, Wenger's Grocery, Carriage Corner Restaurant, Weis Market, Sheetz and the Scarlet D Restaurant.
Healthy and fun
Rail trails usually are flat, making them versatile for most people.
"Because it's flat, it can be enjoyed by people of all abilities," Buck said of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail. "I had trail users explain to me that they are recovering from heart surgery and their doctors told them to get out and walk."
That's one reason Alliya Thahi, of Lewisburg, started walking on the trail almost three months ago.
"It's really good that people that don't walk start walking," she said. "It helps get them help better."
A few months ago, her husband underwent open-heart surgery. She started walking to become healthier so that she might avoid the same fate.
On May 5, trail users and community residents organized an "East Meets West Walk" via social networking site Facebook.
Buck said it was a way to highlight and deepen the connection between the Mifflinburg and Lewisburg communities.
"It's also been great to see people from different backgrounds greeting each other and getting to know each other out on the trail," he said.
On April 21, a trail clean-up drew 82 volunteers, including, Buck said, included Bucknell University professors, Cub Scout packs, Mennonite families and employees of CSSI Inc., a trail-side business, as well as residents of all ages.
"I think the trail is helping people stay fit and healthy, plus it's a great way for residents to see and enjoy the beautiful valley where they live," he said.
"It's also important because it connects two communities - Mifflinburg and Lewisburg - that further enhance regional connections, reminding us we are all part of a bigger 'neighborhood,' " Miller said.
"The BVRT is now part of the many options for outdoor recreation found in the Susquehanna River Valley. It enhances our outdoor amenities," he added.
Along the way
From both trailheads, the first part of the trail is paved, with the rest gravel.
A few gentle grades are on the trail but tend to go unnoticed by users.
The trail meanders amid rural communities, past quaint houses and historical homes. Farms are seen across rolling hills, pastures and green meadows. Some sections are a little industrial, but the scenery is mostly rural.
The trail is both in the sun and shaded.
"The mid-section of the trail has a rural character and affords great views of the beauty of the Buffalo Valley, with rich farmland sheltered by thickly wooded ridges to the north and south," Buck said.
Along the trail are interpretive signs that Buck said add an educational component. The signs provide users with information on natural sights, plant and animal identifications, and the history of the area.
For example, the signs share information about:
The railroad, including the former train station at Vicksburg;
The former Union County Fairgrounds and horse track;
The former Pennsylvania House Furniture Factory and the former Wi-Ki Dairy;
The Mifflinburg Farmer's Exchange, which still exists;
Various species of plants and animals that can be seen along the trail.
"The route of the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail not only offers some of the most beautiful scenic views of our countryside but also offers the trail users the chance to see Amish and Mennonite farms and families along the way. It provides a subtle look into our heritage and culture that only enhances the authentic charm of the BVRT and the Susquehanna River Valley," Miller said.
Jim Mathias, chairman of the LARA board, said recreation isn't the only thing for which the rail trail is used.
"Not only do residents from rural areas use it to get back and forth to work but it is used extensively by the Amish communities to get to markets in both Mifflinburg and Lewisburg. It is so much safer than the previously used Route 45, which is a high-speed road with very narrow berms" he said.
Mary Howell, of Lewisburg, was walking with her dog, Skippy Jones Jr., when she said she would like to see the trail developed into a natural piece of transportation structure.
"You see it with the Mennonite people, the school is right on the rail trail," she said. "It's so much safer for them to walk to school. I would like to see that start happening with the public schools."
The Susquehanna Valley Visitor Bureau has five bike route trail maps that include the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail, trails near the historic Dale/Engle/Walker House, plus mountain biking trails at R.B. Winter State Park in Mifflinburg.
"We hope to eventually add our bike route trail maps, the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail and the state park on our mobile app - which is GPS-based - that would include identifying nearby locations for food, restrooms, health care facilities or bicycle repair shops," Miller said.
Users of the rail trail are expected to clean up all their litter and dog waste. Dogs are welcomed but must be leashed.
For an online map and trail rules, visit www.bvrt.org.