Highway to Health
by Ralph B. Davis
SWAMP BRANCH — Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear joined numerous state and local officials Saturday morning to officially open the first 18-mile section of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail before a crowd of hundreds of onlookers, many with hiking boots, bicycles and horses in tow.
But while many were in attendance to get a first workout on the state’s largest rail trail, Beshear and other officials were quick to point out the Dawkins Line would not only be a footpath to physical fitness and road to recreation, but also a pathway to prosperity.
“This Dawkins Line Rail Trail is also going to be an economic tool for Kentucky, attracting visitors who will inject money into our local economy,” Gov. Beshear said. “I was just talking before we started the program with some folks from Paintsville, that they’re already getting calls from Canada, Pennsylvania, lots of other states, wanting to know about this trail, getting information, wanting to come. And, folks, that’s what’s going to happen.”
The Dawkins Line Rail Trail is built on an abandoned railroad bed, running from just outside Paintsville at Hager Hill, and running to Royalton, in Magoffin County. And that is only half of the full project, with another 18-mile section to be picked up at Royalton and continuing another 18 miles to Evanston, in Breathitt County.
The trail runs through one of the least healthy areas of the state, with Magoffin County ranking 104th, Johnson County ranking 108th, and Breathitt County ranking 118th, out of the state’s 120 counties in the most recent County Health Rankings compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
The trail offers hikers, cyclists and horseback riders — but no motorized traffic — a trek into remote and lush rural areas across the three counties. The first section utilizes 24 railroad trestles, as well as the 662-foot Gun Creek Tunnel, along its course. There are currently trailheads at Swamp Branch and Royalton.
“The natural beauty and rolling hillsides are perfect for hiking, cycling and horseback riding,” Jane Beshear said. “There’s a great demand for new trails, and I believe the Dawkins Line will become very popular, very soon.”
Following a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Beshears led a group of cyclists on a 30-minute ride down the trail, before leaving to attend a grandchild’s birthday party. However, Jane Beshear promised to be back, with horses.
The trail was completed by the state Transportation Cabinet, Finance and Administration Cabinet, and Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. It will be managed by the Kentucky Department of Parks.
According to a prepared statement released at the event, the trail was modeled after the Virginia Creeper Trail, which attracts over 200,000 visitors a year.
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