VERNON TOWNSHIP — The parking lot at the Bean’s Auto Service trailhead of Ernst Trail was empty on a rainy Friday afternoon last week — a rarity in recent weeks, according to Brian Bean, owner of the garage.
Bean himself hasn’t used the trail this year, but he might be an exception: Plenty of Crawford County residents have taken advantage of nice weather to stroll, jog or bike the 7.2-mile pathway over the past two months. Bean need look no farther than the parking lot for evidence of the trail’s recent popularity.
“It’s full,” he said as he stood in the bay of his garage, a car atop a hydraulic lift behind him. “It’s full.”
The trail, he added, is “definitely” getting more traffic than usual — so much so, in fact, that Bean erected a rope across the parking lot to separate the area dedicated to his auto service shop from the half designated for use by trail visitors.
The steady rain on Friday wasn’t the only reason the Ernst Trail portion of the lot was empty last week. The lot is temporarily closed while improvements are made — one of two trail enhancement projects expected to be completed in the next few weeks, according to Dick Eglinton, president of French Creek Recreational Trails, the nonprofit that maintains the trail.
At the Bean’s trailhead, the parking area will be graveled and two accessible parking spaces will be paved, Eglinton said. Already, an asphalt apron has been added where the lot meets Smock Highway to improve safety and reduce wear and tear on the lot surface. The nearly $15,000 project was funded largely by nearly $2,700 raised during last year’s first annual Crawford Gives day and a large donation byMeadville residents Dr. Dennis and Marci Finton, according to Eglinton.
In addition, excavation work will be performed on the final remaining section of trail connecting the Bean’s trailhead to Mary Gable Park, located alongside French Creek near the intersection of Park Row and Shippen Street in Kerrtown. About 600 feet of trail will be excavated just east of the J.M. Smucker Company facility and rock put down, Eglinton said. A $76,000 state grant will also support the installation later this summer of swales — shallow ditches to manage runoff — alongside the path from just south of Smock Bridge to Mary Gable Park.
All the work, Eglinton said, is exciting — “and all the more so because the trail has just been crammed with people this year.”
Both Eglinton and Bean agreed you didn’t have to look far for an explanation of the trail’s recent popularity: Like nearly everything else recently, the surge in usage is likely coronavirus related.
“I suppose it’s because everybody’s at home,” Bean said.
Eglinton offered much the same explanation: “It has been full a lot recently,” he said. “With people not working, there are more cars there than ever before.”
Even 24 years after Calvin Ernst donated the former Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad Co. right-of-way for use as a bike trail, Bean is still a little surprised by how many people actually use the thing.
“Honestly, when they were talking about doing it, I didn’t really think it would be that popular,” he said, “but it’s really popular.”
Bean said he likes having the trail as a neighbor. In fact, the trail parking area is actually part of Bean’s property.
“The only issues I have with it is I have problems with — and that’s why we put the string up — people parking on our side of the lot when I’m trying to run a business,” Bean said.
Eglinton applauded Bean’s generosity over the years and acknowledged that he was one of the people adding to the trail’s popularity recently.
“I rode my bike down it the other day,” he said last week. The trail’s popularity stands to increase even further as the portions extending it north to Kerrtown, begun over the past few years, are completed, he added.
“It’s great because you’re going through a swamp — places most people don’t normally go,” Eglinton said. Common sights along the way include “beavers, swamp birds — kingfishers and all kinds of things.”
Eglinton estimated about 20 percent of the people he has seen on the trail recently have been wearing masks. The trail’s Facebook page encourages visitors to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, he said, “but whether anybody wears a mask is up to them.”
“We couldn’t enforce it anyway,” he added.
The hope is that rather than worrying about masks and social distancing, efforts can be directed toward trail improvements in the coming months. If all goes well, a top coating of limestone dust can be added to the section of trail connecting Bean’s to Kerrtown before the summer is over, according to Eglinton. While not as smooth as the asphalt that stretches south from Bean’s along French Creek for about 2 miles before turning west for another 3 miles to the Krider Road trailhead, the limestone dust makes for a very usable hard surface, Eglinton said, and has the advantage of being much more affordable.
As work progresses on both the extension of the trail and the parking lot at the Bean’s trailhead, visitors can still use the trail. Parking is available at trailheads on Mercer Pike, Krider Road and Bailey Road. Visitors can also park at Plaza Lanes and walk through the grass to the Bean’s trailhead, according to a post on the trail’s Facebook page.
Even as Crawford County phases from yellow to green, nice weather is likely to ensure that use of the trail remains high.
“It’s a great time to be there,” Eglinton said.
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.