The Athens-Belpre Rail Trail (ABRT) is an ambitious project that would connect the cities of Athens and Belpre, Ohio. Athens is home of Ohio University and the county seat of Athens County. Belpre is a city located on the Ohio River across from Parkersburg, West Virginia. If the Athens-Belpre Rail Trail is completed into Belpre, then a bridge connection over the Ohio River into Parkersburg could connect with the 72 mile long North Bend Trail which is planned to eventually connect with the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) somewhere near Pittsburgh. The ABRT would end up being somewhere around 40 miles in length when completed and would connect to the Hockhocking-Adena Bikeway in Athens.
Currently, there are three unconnected segments of trail located somewhat in the middle of what would be the completed trail. Together they total around 9.3 miles of trail. Since the trail is currently in the land acquisition phase, little has been done in terms of improving the current conditions of the acquired railroad right-of-way. This former B & O rail corridor also is the same right-of-way that the Moonville Rail Trail is based on.
When I checked out these 3 trail segments I started with the easternmost segment that the Athens-Belpre Rail Trail Steering Committee lists on their website. This is called the Ellis Road segment. It runs 1.7 miles from Ellis Road in the village of Torch, Ohio to the Athens-Washington County line on Township Road 297 near the Little Hocking Church of Christ. I started at Ellis Road but unfortunately was only able to complete .35 miles on an out-and-back ride on this grass-covered segment. When I reached the culvert “tunnel” that the trail uses to pass under the US-50/OH-32/OH-7 freeway, it was so full of soft mud it was literally impassable. So much for reaching the county line.
The second trail segment is named Torch West on the Athens-Belpre Rail Trail website. It starts on North Torch Road and heads west from there. There is a gap of about .4 miles between the Ellis Road trailhead and the start of the Torch West segment which is currently held in private hands. Of the three ABRT trail segments I rode, this one was the most scenic. The trail surface here was also grass-covered and soft in a number of spots but passable. As you ride this 1.6 mile segment you are quickly surrounded by trees and feel as though you are the only one around for miles and miles. You pass through a couple of hillside cuts until you reach a missing bridge over Skunk Run and must stop.
The westernmost of the three current ABRT segments is named the Frost Road segment as it parallels Frost Road (Athens County Rd 58) for most of its length. The trail surface of this segment was the best of the three as it consisted of 2 wheel tracks from cars using this segment as a Flood Emergency Route when the nearby Hocking River floods and closes Frost Road. This does not mean that this segment was a smooth ride. There were quite a few puddles in potholes and the trees and brush narrowed the trail significantly in spots. I traveled about 2.1 miles on this 6 mile segment before turning around. The trail surface was beginning to get pretty soft and I didn’t want to work harder to complete the last 2.5 miles (and back to my turn around point) after having spent all day in mid-90 degree heat.
The Athens-Belpre Rail Trail will be an achievement when it is completed. There is regional interest in creating this trail with several groups such as the Athens Conservancy 501(c)(3) land trust, The Belpre Multi-Use Trail Committee, and private and corporate donors working to acquire more of this 40 mile rail corridor. From what I can see, little will be done to improve the condition of the acquired trail segments until most of the route has been acquired. Therefore, I would suggest that this trail should be viewed as a hiking trail for the foreseeable future. If you are interested in biking what presently exists of this trail, wide-tired bikes are a must. Even when the entire right-of-way is purchased much work will need to be done to make this trail bikeable. The trail surface will need to be regraded and improved, drainage problem spots addressed, and numerous bridges repaired, replaced, or created. In fact, there are at least 6 crossings of the Hocking River where currently no bridge exists and each would be a major construction project. Perhaps if the Biden Administration can pass an infrastructure bill then funds might be available to speed up the development of this trail. At its current pace of development, however, it will be quite some time before anyone is riding a bike on a trail between Athens and Belpre, Ohio.