By Jennifer Learn-Andes, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
The 165-mile Delaware & Lehigh Heritage Trail is inching closer to downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Earth Conservancy recently donated 3 miles of former railroad bed needed to extend the trail from the Seven Tubs Natural Area in Plains Township to the base of what is commonly known as Giant’s Despair in Wilkes-Barre Township, the nonprofit’s Executive Director Mike Dziak said Tuesday.
That leaves only one more connector to link the trail to the River Common Park along the Susquehanna River in the city, officials said.
“It’s a big deal. This is something we’ve talked about a really long time, and it will be a reality,” said Elissa Garofalo, executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.
Popular with bikers and walkers, the federally designated heritage trail follows anthracite coal’s past route from Wyoming Valley mines to market in Bucks County near Philadelphia.
The new stretch from the Tubs to Wilkes-Barre Township will take at least two years to construct and will follow a rail path through wooded areas and past culm banks, said Rylan Coker, land protection and stewardship coordinator at the North Branch Land Trust.
The nonprofit trust assumed ownership of the recreational loop to and from the Tubs and will oversee its construction before turning the trail over to the state for future maintenance, Coker said.
His organization had previously used grant funding to buy another 3-mile trail path from Earth Conservancy that links the Tubs to the top of the Giant’s Despair in Laurel Run at a spot called Oliver Mills. While some connections are still in the works, the trail continues to Mountain Top, White Haven, historic Jim Thorpe and beyond.
The donated path to Wilkes-Barre Township from the Tubs is generally 50 feet wide and passes near the Interstate 81 Exit 168 ramp at Highland Park Boulevard, Dziak said. His organization was formed to place 16,000 acres of former Blue Coal land in new hands for conservation, recreation or economic development.
“This has been a decades-old objective to have this trail culminating in Wilkes-Barre,” Dziak said.
Garofalo said the Luzerne County Planning Commission and Wilkes-Barre officials have been working on the best path to continue the trail to the River Common, and a final route has not been established.
“The city is more urbanized, and it will require a bike lane. We want people to be safe,” she said.
When finished, the trail will make Wilkes-Barre a starting or finishing destination for outdoor and history enthusiasts, Garofalo said.
Trails also boost property values and have become an economic development tool, she said.
“These days a trail is also an amenity because companies look for them when they locate in an area. The D&L trail was part of the discussion for Adidas and Patagonia Inc. to locate in Hanover Township,” she said, referring to companies that officials say plan to occupy buildings next to online pet-supply retailer Chewy.com in the Hanover Industrial Estates.
Located off Route 115, the Seven Tubs Nature Area opened to the public in 1992 and includes a formation of seven sandstone potholes in the path of flowing Wheelbarrow Run. Many geologists believe these tubs were formed during the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago, officials have said.
A county council majority voted to transfer ownership of the park to the state in 2014, saying the state is better equipped to manage and maintain the site.