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New trail idea taking shape in the Bitterroot

Posted at 6:03 PM, Oct 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-16 20:03:33-04

HAMILTON – The idea is still in the formative stages, but it could open the door for a major trail upgrade in the Bitterroot, if the property owner agrees to a partnership.

The Bitterroot Trail is proving to be quite the asset, giving local residents and travelers alike the unique experience of biking, or walking, through the valley. The 50-mile path links Missoula and the entire Bitterroot, even extending for a few miles south of Hamilton.

The problem is there’s always been a missing link going right through the middle of the City of Hamilton. Now there’s early discussions about forming a possible partnership with Montana Rail Link.

MRL’s Bitterroot Branch Line has seen little, if any use for more than a decade. And outside of one season five years ago, where the county helped subsidize runs to businesses as far south as Corvallis, the tracks through Hamilton and south to Darby have been quiet.

The county park board is pitching the idea of asking MRL to allow construction of a trail along the railroad right-of-way, providing that straight route through Hamilton.

“In a preliminary meeting, a year and a half ago with Bitterroot Land Trust people they indicated that they don’t want to take up their rails, although they agreed with you guys to remove rails on a couple of projects,” said Ravalli County Park Board Chairman Bob Cron. “So I’m anticipating that they will still want to keep the rails. But we would be off of the rails but on their ownership.”

Cron tells county commissioners the proposed route would follow the MRL line north from Golf Course Road, connecting with the trail south of town. That would provide a direct shot, with access to the fairgrounds and downtown, leaving the rails at the north end of the Old Corvallis Road and cutting back over to Highway 93 to the northern trail.

The letter approved today asks MRL to discuss the idea of allowing the trail to be built on the east half of its right-of-way, leaving the tracks in place.

“Their ownership is a hundred feet. It would be off of the rails and along the fifty feet east of the rails,” Cron said.

Commissioners said the idea has merit, and believe it should be pitched to MRL.

“Negotiating something with MRL here that opens the door down the line for further talks with them, cooperation hopefully,” said Ravalli County Commissioner Chris Hoffman.

MRL has made no move to abandon the Bitterroot Branch Line since that aborted proposal a few years ago.

Hamilton city council will be asked to sign on to the letter on Tuesday night.