Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Santa Fe Rail Trail Re-Imagined

The Pistol - out rippin' miles like a boss
In light of the recent trail and forest closures due to excessive fire danger (our second closure in three years), I thought I'd write about the Rail Trail which will remain open during the closures and for that reason is likely to see a bit more foot and cycling traffic over the next couple months. Because the southern section of the trail is relatively flat and has only one road crossing (Rabbit Rd) it's ideal for long marathon training runs (20+) and for non-technical mountain bike rides if you or someone in your riding group lacks the skillset to negotiate Dale Ball or La Tierra.

The Rail Trail is a genuine classic, holding title as the oldest of our in-town trails. It predates the Arroyo Chamisos Trail (footpaths before the trail was put in), by several years if not longer. As such, it stood as the template for the many trails that have come afterward including Arroyo Chamisos (1997), Dale Ball (2001), and eventually the Santa Fe River and Acequia Trails. The Winsor, Borrego, and Atalaya trails are much older, but they traverse the foothills and high county and share a pastoral history that generally belongs in an all together different class of trail systems.

Thirty years ago the Rail Trail was primarily an ad-hoc route that followed along the Santa Fe Rail Line from Arroyo Hondo and Sunlit Hills up to the city limits. Eldorado was just being built out then and Lamy was a as sparsely populated as it is now. An adventurous friend I knew in high school would occasionally bike in along the rail line all the way from Glorieta, (he also happened to be a state champion runner). But things changed for the better in 1994 when Stewart Udall and the newly formed Santa Fe Conservation Trust stepped in and secured the land in trust, and with some federal funding that they cobbled together they were able to build out a few re-routes and development of actual sections of trail separate from the railbed cobbles and rail-ties.

New trail improvements include a planed surface and significant erosion control - Fall 2012

Rock work and an newly elevated section near the tracks - Fall 2012
Looking north at the newly elevated path. It's completed now.
Note the snow in the highcountry when the photo was taken. 
Cadillac pedestrian crossing out in BFE
The Rail Trail has been improved on a couple times since, most notably the formal development of the trail from the city/county line out on Rabbit Rd through town and into the new Railyard Plaza in 2008. Formal trailheads were also put in at Nine Mile Rd, Rabbit Rd, and Zia & St. Francis at that time. Last summer (2012) saw the completion of stage 1 of a new alignment and re-grade of the trail, bringing the trail up to code by setting it a minimum distance from the tracks, building in fence lines and signage, and adding features for better drainage and maintenance of the trail. The work involved the two miles of trail between Rabbit Rd and the Spur Trail. I don't recall the sequence in which work is scheduled on the other sections but I believe the Eldorado portion attracts the second most traffic along the trail and so they are next in line.

New signage
Old signage. True story - I probably ran out a couple hundred miles on the Rail Trail
before someone pointed these mile markers out to me.  Just never noticed them I guess. 
I love the what they've done to the trail. It's just gorgeous now with most if not all of the sand sections and widowmaker potholes removed (not fun to be surprised by one of these at night). The new rock work and berms provide texture and capture the proper aesthetic. My favorite times to be on the trail are daybreak, sunset, and at full moon. Unmatched views. The major new complaint from rec users that I hear often is that in an effort to make the trail more accessible all technical elements have been sanitized and removed. Bollocks, I say! If you get out and explore a little a bit you'll find that there's miles of untouched singletrack on the east side of the tracks. Great for running, less great for riding in my opinion because in my experience sand and blind potholes lead to unnecessary separation from the bike followed by pain and discomfort. If your aim is technical riding why mark the Rail Trail anyway when Dale Ball sits beckoning only a few miles to the east? The two offer very different trail experiences. One is a national class recreation trail, Dale Ball; the other is a stellar off-road commuter route amenable to jogging strollers, the Rail Trail. Decades in the making no less.

Now get out there and make it happen. Explore your trails.

Miles 6, 7, and 8 - on any given summer evening on the Rail Trail. 
Related Posts:
  - Rail Trail Improvements Update (Sep 2015)
  - Train Trestle Loop
  - Cycling the Rail Trail - Zia Rd to Nine Mile Rd'
  - Luminaries on the Rail Trail

View Santa Fe Rail Trail - Santa Fe, NM in a larger map


  1. The mayor down here has some plans for taking a big chunk of the bosque and putting in boardwalks, an observation tower, some foot bridges across the river (plus some Capitalist fantasies like a cafe) that evoke the "leave things in their natural state" sentiment in a lot of people, including I have to say myself.

    On the other hand, after looking at your photos, I pictured a scenario in which if people just kept going down to the bosque, the sand paths will get wider, more vegetation will disappear, it will eventually become a big vacant lot where only the kind of vegetation you see growing in overgrazed cattle rangeland can survive.

  2. Yeah I read a little something about the Bosque Boardwalk idea. I know this type of thing works in San Antonio and Boulder and Portland, but Downtown Abq is not exactly a shopping or strolling cafe destination so I don't know why the mayor or anyone else thinks it will work further out away from town. I guess if there's a demand from private investors willing to put up their own capital then it may be worth considering. If the idea is backed by public financing than it's a loser in my opinion. A classic example of providing something that the market isn't asking for.

    Now, if it's the case that the Bosque Trail is getting too much traffic and it's getting trashed out, then trail improvements need to be made to correct the problems. I don't imagine cafes being a critical part of such a solution.



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