Foothill Trail History

The Foothills Trail is a rail to trail project. The rail history began in 1864 when the United States Congress gave the Northern Pacific Railroad Company sufficient land to construct a railroad between Ellensburg and Tacoma. In 1883, Northern Pacific was forced to complete its line from the Midwest to Tacoma or forfeit millions of acres of land grants. This rail section east of South Prairie through Enumclaw and the Stampede Pass tunnel was completed in July 1887, finally connecting Tacoma and Ellensburg.

In about 1874 the Northern Pacific began construction of the railroad line from Tacoma to Wilkeson to take advantage of the newly discovered coal resources in the Cascade foothills. The Burlington Northern Railroad Company succeeded the Northern Pacific Railroad Company in managing the railroad line. By late 1986, the balance of the railroad line had been removed for salvage.

Pierce County saw the opportunity to create the trail on the former rail line and worked with the salvage company to preserve the remaining trestles along the line. In October of 1990, the Pierce County Council passed Ordinance #90-6, establishing the Foothills Trail as a public linear park. Thus began the journey of constructing what is now the Foothills National Recreation Trail.

Construction of the trail began in 1998 and has continued as finances, environmental permits and county ownership have allowed.  Over 50% of the trail has been completed through grants and partnerships.  

Rail-Trail History

A rail-trail is an abandoned rail bed used as a non-motorized public trail with transportation and recreation in mind. There are over 10,000 miles of rail-trail in the U.S. Some abandoned rail lines have been rail-banked, which keeps the corridor in one ownership. However, to assemble the Foothills Trail, each segment of the trail was painstakingly purchased or, in some cases, donated to Pierce County. Federal and state grant funds are used to construct the trial segments into existing and ongoing Foothills Trail.

Burlington Northern Railway abandoned the rail bed in 1982. The effort started in 1984 when a Buckley physician and a community visionary organized the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition to assist Pierce County Parks in building the trail. Despite roadblocks, construction of the trail is ongoing and thousands of users are already enjoying its benefits.

Image of 2018 Outstanding Trail Award Poster