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Vision 2019 | Outdoor recreation growing, improving in Cambria County

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Mike Cook bike trail

Trail project coordinator Mike Cook rides his mountain bike Thursday, August 2, 2018, on a newly carved, 1.5-mile trail in Westmont that ends near the base of the Inclined Plane.

When it comes to Cambria County pathways, it’s not just about extending and connecting existing trails. 

Last year, efforts were made to beautify the environment surrounding trails, add variety to the types of trails in the region and ensure safety for trail users. 

In October, flashing LED lights and 30-foot-wide panels of crushed green granite were added to a newly paved stretch of Central Avenue in Hornerstown to remind motorists to share the roadway with users of the 3.1-mile Jim Mayer Riverswalk trail, which was recently designated as a National Recreation Trail. 

The trail follows the Stonycreek River from wooded Riverside to the Sandyvale Memorial Gardens near the heart of urban Johnstown, and was extended in 2016 past several industrial sites and across neighborhood roads including Central Avenue. 

Plans show that two other pedestrian crossings are planned elsewhere on the trail, including one at another busy intersection near the Central Avenue Bridge and DuPont Street.

Improved access points, fencing to buffer the trail from busy traffic areas and concrete park benches are also planned for the newest 3.1-mile section of the trail through Johnstown along the Stonycreek River. 

A similar crosswalk was completed this year as part of a bridge replacement project in Nanty Glo, where the Ghost Town Trail intersects Chestnut Street.

PennDOT is considering an increase of trail users – runners, walkers, bicyclists – in more of its projects, said Cliff Kitner, executive director of the Cambria County Conservation & Recreation Authority, which oversees the Ghost Town Trail, Jim Mayer Riverswalk trail and Path of the Flood trail. 

Aside from earning increased safety, Kitner said the region’s trails are inspiring a better quality of life for users. 

“We don’t just offer recreation, we offer free recreation,” he said of the authority’s three trails, where people of all ages can walk, bike, run for whatever distance they choose while getting some fresh air. 

“It’s important to people. People are figuring it out.” 

History and recreation

Caytlin Lusk, program coordinator for the Cambria County Conservation & Recreation Authority, said each of the authority’s trails offers something different. For example, the Ghost Town Trail offers scenery that changes by the mile. 

“They’re all full of history,” she said. 

At the conclusion of 2018, the authority completed a two-mile extension of the Ghost Town Trail in Cambria Township near the Route 219 overpass, which was part of an ongoing effort to complete the trail’s 32-mile and 16-mile loops. 

One of the authority’s goals now is to finish the 5.5 miles necessary to make the Ghost Town Trail the first continuous rail trail loop nationwide. 

“We just need to build it,” Kitner said. 

The authority also has hopes of connecting all three of its trails and rehabilitating rail beds in other parts of the county. 

During the holiday season, a Johnstown resident or visitor can stop by the Bottle Works in Cambria City to look at some locally made art, take a stroll along the Iron Street trail past where the former Bethlehem Steel Co. property is being converted for new uses, enjoy a dancing light display on the Stone Bridge, eat dinner at PRESS bistro, watch and listen as a 36-foot-tall animated tree fills Central Park with Christmas cheer, and then grab a nightcap at Balance Restaurant.

Kitner said there’s an ongoing effort to explore the transformation of an old rail line to Loretto into a trail that would begin at the bottom of East High Street in Ebensburg, near the borough pool, and pass the borough water reservoirs on its way to Loretto.

One goal would be to connect that trail to St. Francis University for student use, Kitner said. 

The authority is also considering connecting the Ghost Town Trail with Cambria County’s Duman Lake Park near Belsano.

Purchasing, rehabbing

 In 2018, the authority took on the necessary work to acquire several properties along the Jim Mayer Riverswalk trail. 

“We look at properties along the trail – how do we make the area better?” Kitner said. 

The authority recently issued a request for proposals from companies who could use a donated Ferndale Avenue property to promote other types of recreation, given its location on the banks of the Stonycreek River across Ferndale Bridge from the Jim Mayer Riverswalk trailhead. 

The authority also paid about $2,500 for two Hornerstown parcels totaling 1.5 acres at a county judicial sale in October. 

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That property, which housed Dynacom Industries before it burned down in 2016, has about 200 feet of trail frontage and was leveled by city officials following the fire. For now, the authority is focused on making sure the plot stays open and clean for a variety of potential future uses.

For the Path of the Flood trail, the authority was given a $2 million grant to eliminate two South Fork-area coal mine waste piles, including the remaining bony piles from the Stineman Mine along the South Fork of the Conemaugh River in South Fork Borough. 

Eliminating those refuse piles will allow for a two-mile extension of the Path of the Flood trail to the breast of the dam at Johnstown Flood National Memorial. 

That project must be completed ahead of the grant’s deadline of Oct. 31, 2020. 

“That’ll really beautify that area,” Kitner said.

Looking up for downhill

A nearly 1.5-mile switchback mountain bike trail along the Inclined Plane hillside opened last summer with a downhill race. 

That trail, which was constructed to International Mountain Bicycling Association standards, began as a Vision 2025 project for coordinator Mike Cook. 

With entry points at the corner of Tioga Street and Edgehill Drive, the path winds right into downtown Johnstown. 

Since its opening, the mountain biking trail consistently saw 15 to 20 riders each weekend as weather allowed, Cook said. 

“People were driving from out of town to use this trail,” Cook said, from places such as Greensburg, Pittsburgh and State College. 

This trail is unusual because it’s a downhill system that is serviced by public transportation and was built entirely by volunteers, Cook added. 

He and a handful of other volunteers put in more than 1,000 man-hours to create the course, and are hoping to clear some other neglected trails along the hillside. 

Volunteers also revived the Incline’s 1.3-mile scenic hiking trail and hope to develop additional trails on a 10-acre tract of woodland near Millcreek Road.

Focusing on resources

As president of the Benscreek Canoe Club, Cook said he’s hopeful visitors will seek out the community’s other historical and geological features while using area trails – including fishing, canoeing or kayaking on local waters. 

“In the last 10 years, there have been some pretty drastic improvements, and it’s made recreating on them so much more palatable,” Cook said. 

“People are realizing that we don’t have to bring all this big industry back to Johnstown – we have all these great natural resources we can be focusing on.” 

Lusk and Kitner agreed. 

“We have a lot of outdoor assets that you’d have to be foolish not to take advantage of them,” Lusk said. 

“We survive because of people like Mike Cook,” Kitner said. 

“The more variety you have, the more you have to draw people into the area. The possibilities become endless.”

​Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.

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