SHERIDAN — Twenty-seven years ago, a group of Sheridan citizens had a vision. They organized, calling themselves TRAC, or the Transportation Alternatives Coalition.
“They wanted to promote the idea of non-motorized transportation being critical to the quality of life in the area,” said Steve Gage, Parks Department superintendent for the city of Sheridan. “It is the universal recreation, walking. You can take your family out, walk and have a conversation. If you can’t do organized sports or if you have physical limitations, for the most part, you can walk. It is this one constant that people can continue to do.”
The Sheridan Pathways Project started in 1992, and today, the city boasts 16 miles of pathways that connect town from the north end to the south end.
Similarly, the Sheridan Community Land Trust was established in 2006 in response to a need identified by Sheridan County residents.
“That need was more new opportunities for people to get outdoors close to home,” said Chris Vrba, director of marketing and development with the SCLT. “While SCLT has worked hard to fulfill that need, Sheridan County residents’ appetite for more of those opportunities has yet to be satiated.”
The city recently completed a Sheridan Park and Recreation District survey in which 65% of households said their top outdoor recreation priority was walking and bike trails.
Vrba noted that that figure is not only 20% greater than the national average, but more than 20% greater than what people said was their second highest priority — parks. The third highest priority, he said, is open space trails.
“Sheridan County residents made it clear that they want more new opportunities to get outdoors and hike, bike, walk, run and ride close to home, without feeling like they’re close to home,” Vrba said.
Sheridan resident Patrick Akers said he frequently uses the trails around Sheridan County with his family.
“We use the trails … to get outside and expose our kids to mountain biking and hiking,” Akers said.
Currently, the SCLT maintains about 13 miles of natural surface, single track, non-motorized recreational trails in the county. Depending on the trail, users can hike, bike, run, walk, ride horses, bird watch or even watch blooming wildflowers. The SCLT has developed the 4-mile Soldier Ridge Trail to the west of town, the Red Grade Trails at the base of the Bighorns, the Tongue River Water Trail and the newest Hidden Hoot Trail leading to Black Tooth Park within city limits over the last several years.
“Having the new Hidden Hoot trail so close to town has been a big hit with our kids,” Akers said. “It’s nice to be able to ride our bikes to great single-track mountain bike trails. Before Hidden Hoot, we frequented Red Grade trails. While Red Grade trails are great, they aren’t as close and as easy to get to. We appreciate the Land Trust’s vision and its donors’ time, effort and funds to better the outdoor recreational activities around Sheridan County.”
Gage said that the city will continue to prioritize the pathway system in town, maintaining what the community has already built. The next big thing for the city pathway system is planned for 2023, when the paved trail will be expanded south, from Sheridan College to Woodland Park Elementary, the last school in city limits not connected to the pathway system. Gage said the city may also look at corridors going east of town toward the Fifth Street area.
“That is probably an area we haven’t covered,” he said.
The SCLT, Vrba said, is actively pursuing new trail systems, including one called the Kicking Horse Trail which would connect Hidden Hoot to Soldier Ridge, which is planned for development in 2020. A Red Grade extension and one-mile North Gateway Trail are also in the works. The SCLT is also working with stakeholders to one day complete a 5-mile Dayton to Ranchester Pathway as a partnership with the towns of Ranchester and Dayton and the Tongue River Valley Community Center.
“Currently, we are awaiting word on a planning grant after a series of successful community meetings this spring. The project completion is a ways out, and would most likely be built with federal and state grants administered by the Wyoming Department of Transportation,” Vrba said.
The common thread across all the trails, either built or yet-to-be-built, he said, is the ability to provide more opportunity for people to enjoy the outdoors.
“While these trails are built for the community, they also help build community,” Vrba said.
The SCLT has only begun to collect user data, Vrba said, but over 10,500 users have been counted by Bureau of Land Management trail counters at Soldier Ridge and Red Grade trails since October 2018, and Hidden Hoot since the beginning of August.
Gage agreed that, just as in 1992, people want these pathway systems.
“Recreation fads have come and gone — skateboarding, basketball, pickle ball — but there has always been one constant, and that is cycling, running, walking,” Gage said. “We have an aging community, we know that, and this is something that they want too, walking pathways.”
Giving people an opportunity to get back to nature, even for just a moment on their lunch break, is invaluable.
“North Park and South Park are natural areas, and also we have the Hume Draw and Holly Ponds area, that are natural pathway areas within the city,” Gage said. “You can feel like you are escaping without having to go far.”