Golden Spike trail opens, providing final link between Missoula and Hamilton

MRL president Tom Walsh cuts the ceremonial ribbon opening the Golden Spike trail segment. Onlookers include Mayor John Engen, Missoula Redevelopment Agency board chairman Karl Englund, Jean Belangie-Nye with the Bitterroot Trail Preservation Alliance, City Councilwoman Julie Merritt, and Bike/Ped program manager Ben Weiss. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

A half-mile trail appropriately named the Golden Spike officially opened Wednesday, the final piece in a bike-walk route that now connects downtown Missoula with Hamilton.

The ceremonial ribbon-cutting also celebrated the new Montana Rail Link Park and the long-awaited connection of neighborhoods around Missoula.

“We’ve kind of nicknamed this trail segment the Golden Spike, sort of in reference to the completion of the U.S. transcontinental railroad back in the 1800s when they finally pounded the golden spike connecting the east and west lengths of the railroad,” said Tod Gass, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s project coordinator. “This is our golden spike connecting the north and south segments of trail and completing that 50-mile stretch of trail.”

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency, Missoula Parks and Recreation, the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and other organizations have worked on the trail for decades.

The new segment covers the area from Livingston Avenue to North Avenue, with a new crossing of the MRL tracks at Central Avenue.

Along with the pedestrian bridge across South Reserve Street, it provides a path for bicyclists and pedestrians from downtown Missoula to Fort Missoula Regional Park and areas west of Reserve Street.

Donna Gaukler, director of Missoula Parks and Recreation and a bicyclist, said that with the completed trail there are now many ways to commute to parks in Missoula other than by car.

“Households can spend up to 20 percent of their income on transportation,” she said. “We have great trail systems, we have a free Mountain Line bus system that runs 15 minutes from this park, so that’s a huge equalizer.”

The Montana Rail Link Park and the new segment of trail are located on 12 acres of land partially donated by Montana Rail Link to the city of Missoula in 2016.

Construction of the trail cost about $425,000 and was funded by Urban Renewal District III tax increment.

The park, which is under construction, will be a railroad-themed park featuring items donated by MRL. A dog park, a sports court and plenty of open grass area for children to play are also in the works.

“What we hear over and over again is we can’t have enough parks, so we keep building them,” Mayor John Engen said. “With the cooperation we’ve had with [Montana] Rail Link and the redevelopment agency, a park like this can be made a reality in a place as lovely as this.”

Missoula Bicycle and Pedestrian Office program manager Ben Weiss said the state’s first bicycle signal will allow bicyclists to cross diagonally at South Avenue and Johnson Avenue, and provides cyclists safe passage with their own green light.

This new trail will allow an easier commute and better access to different parts of town without having to take a detour, Weiss said.

“This connection is huge,” he said. “It represents a straight shot now from Hamilton to downtown, but more locally from just the south side of town to downtown. As little as it looks, it’s a big deal in that it unifies neighborhoods and will make access to this future park even easier.”

Montana Rail Link president Tom Walsh has been working with the city to develop the park and trail segment.

“My hope for this park is that it’s going to be a fan favorite for all of Missoula, not just in this area and these neighborhoods but for all of Missoula and for the people who come through Missoula, and I think it really will be. If you think about it, why wouldn’t it be?” Walsh said.

The intersection of the north and south link of the Bitterroot Trail will hold a 2-foot-diameter bronze medallion in colored concrete that serves as the visible link connecting Missoula and Hamilton.