A Railroad Ran Through It


Every time I see a train I am reminded of my bike. Does that happen for anyone else? For those in Missoula who regularly use the Kim Williams Nature Trail, Riverfront Trail or Bitterroot Branch Trail, I know you understand. These three trails are direct byproducts of past active railroads that ran through and around our little mountain town.

Today, thanks in large part to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, we have several scenic multi-use trails for cycling, jogging, walking, commuting, dog-walking and other human-powered movement.

The Kim Williams Nature Trail, specifically, retraces 4.2 miles of the historic Milwaukee Road railroad route as it had bisected Missoula in the early 20th century. The Milwaukee Road once stretched from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound and was constructed between 1906 and 1909. The last section of the West Coast extension was laid to ground at Gold Creek, Montana, in May 1909.

The trail is named after a famed Missoula naturalist who was a frequent (and the longest-running) guest commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Williams was born to Hungarian immigrants and lived in New York and Santiago, Chile for much of her life before settling in Missoula in 1971.

Before her death in 1986, Williams returned to college at UM to pursue a masters degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and published her final two books, Eating Wild Plants and Kim Williams’ Book of Uncommon Sense: A Practical Guide With 10 Rules for Nearly Everything. She also taught classes at UM and wrote a column on wildflowers and plants for the Missoulian. Today, Kim Williams Fellowships are awarded to graduate journalism students at UM who show an interest in environmental reporting.

In 2010, a large section of the Kim Williams Nature Trail and the Riverfront Trail was paved by the City of Missoula to aid with snow removal and to provide improved conditions for bicycle and pedestrian commuters. It also increased its usability, especially for those with disabilities. And contrary to popular belief, paving a trail does not necessarily promote higher speeds of travel.

In fact, it has been shown that density dictates speed – if more people use a trail then it causes users to slow down and be more cautious. Interestingly, the County’s recent non-motorized traffic counts found that the Orange Street underpass is second only to The University of Montana’s main entrance at University and Arthur in pedestrian/bicycle use.

So what trail(s) do you rely on most in Missoula for your daily commute? Let us know below!

Note: The Kim Williams Nature Trail was recently selected as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s “Trail of the Month” in April. See that write-up here.


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Ryan Newhouse has pedaled through thousands of miles of Missoula’s streets and trails as a commuter, long-distance cyclist, recreationist and former city bicycling ambassador. Although he now works from home, he still uses two feet or two wheels to push or pull himself and his daughter around town.  Back to “Bike It” home page or check out Ryan’s own blog.