Hiking where locomotives once chugged

The Whittier Greenway Trail begins just off Interstate 605 and runs mostly parallel to Whittier Boulevard.
(Megan Kimble)

Jogging along the Whittier Greenway Trail is traversing a corridor of history, a trip through an era when citrus trees bloomed — and boomed — in the breeze of passing rail trains. I found this trail because I wanted somewhere long and flat to run, but then I realized I’d stumbled on a relic of a Southern California long past.

The Whittier Greenway Trail is a rail trail, a multipurpose public path along an abandoned rail corridor. Following the gentle grade of railroads, rail trails offer recreation — bicycling, walking, horseback riding — and open transportation routes through otherwise dense urban areas where similar trails would now be difficult to build.

As I jogged along the five-mile trail, I paused at information stations such as the one in front of the former Sunkist packing house — built in 1902, it is now, appropriately, an antique store — that outline the interwoven boom-and-bust history of citrus and rails in Whittier. In the early 1900s, the railroad was carrying thousands of train carloads of oranges to market — $2 million worth in 1931. By 1967, the Whittier depot was closed, and the track lay abandoned.

That is, until 2008, when the city of Whittier purchased the land right of way and built a trail along the former rail corridor.

“Railroads had such a pivotal role in the development of the country, especially in the opening of the West. Many communities’ identity sprang up around the railroads, so [preserving rail trails] preserves an important piece of American history,” said Laura Cohen, the Western regional director of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of railway corridors. “We look at rail trails as a way to reconnect neighborhoods and reconnect people.”

In 1920, when Congress began to track the loss of freight railroad lines, the national rail network extended more than 270,000 miles, a Rails-to-Trails report said. By 1990, that number had shrunk to 141,000 miles. Highways replaced many of these routes, but just as many were left untended. When Rails-to-Trails was founded in 1986, there were fewer than 100 miles of rail trails nationwide. Today, 20,000 miles extend on 1,600 rail trails around the country; California has more than 100 distinct trails.

Besides preserving history, rail trails help transform urban areas. “A lot of times, an abandoned rail corridor will be an eyesore, a place where people dump trash or spray graffiti,” Cohen said.

The Martin Luther King Promenade runs through downtown San Diego along an active trolley line; adorned by public art, grassy areas, water fountains, the trail offers access to revitalized areas of downtown such as the Gaslamp Quarter.

Rail trails also offer scenic day trips outside of major cities. The Ojai Valley Trail begins just south of Ojai and sweeps 10 miles down to Foster Park, north of Ventura. With panoramic views and a gradual downgrade as you head south, it’s a good trail to cycle. From Foster Park, you can hop on the Ventura River Trail, which continues to the Ventura Pier, for a complete mountain-to-sea ride.

The Mount Lowe Railway Trail, teetering through the San Gabriel Mountains with grades up to 62%, defies the long and flat rule. It was built in the 1890s by engineer Thaddeus S.C. Lowe and drew tourists to the expansive Mount Lowe Tavern. At 4,420 feet, the lodge boasted vistas from Pasadena to the Pacific but was plagued by fires and floods until it closed in 1937 and the railway was abandoned. Now it’s a narrow 21/2-mile hike up 1,500 feet just to access the railway (a climb once mounted by cable cars) and tavern ruins, and a 31/2-mile climb along the rail line to Inspiration Point.

The Whittier Greenway Trail begins just off Interstate 605 and runs mostly parallel to Whittier Boulevard. The route is well landscaped and decorated; four wind sculptures adorn the bridge over Whittier Boulevard, and a wide woodchip shoulder protects the joints of joggers and dogs.