The Northeast Texas Trail is a 130-mile shot across the forests and fields of seven counties. Following repurposed railroad lines, it will officially serve as the longest pathway in the state once completed, although it’s not clear when that will be. Hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders who want to see it now have little reason to wait, as long as they don’t mind rough patches along the way. And in such verdant country, where disused routes disappear into the wild, every footstep, every push of a pedal, is a vote for the trail’s existence.
The trail—which most people call the NETT—cuts through cow pastures and accompanies quiet country roads. Some of it’s paved; other portions are much rougher. It zips in and out of remote farming towns with names like Pecan Gap and Ben Franklin, crossing swollen creeks on wooden trestles where trains once came rolling round the bend. “You’re riding along and thinking, in 1878 there was a steam locomotive going down the same path you’re going down,” says Gary Tucek, a cyclist who lives near the trail, in Avery, a community in Red River County. “You get out there in either direction from town, and there’s hundred-foot-tall pine trees on either side, and total solitude.”
The NETT starts in Farmersville, an hour or so northeast of Dallas, and ends in New Boston, eight miles from the Arkansas border on the Red River. Or maybe it starts in New Boston and ends in Farmersville; both towns claim trailhead status. Regardless, give yourself a week and a half to see the whole thing on foot, or four to five days via mountain bike. Some travelers have been known to hop on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle in Dallas, ride the passenger train to Texarkana (24 miles east of New Boston), and then pedal back to the Metroplex on a round-trip journey with rail-to-trail symmetry.
The first rail tracks across Northeast Texas were built nearly 150 years ago. By the 1990s, they had fallen into disuse. Rather than abandoning the routes and losing the right-of-way easements, the Union Pacific and Chaparral railroads agreed to a legal process called railbanking, which allows for the lines’ use as trails until they are needed for rail service again.
“It’s a really peaceful place to be, something you can’t find in too many other places,” says Jack Neal, the executive director of the Northeast Texas Trail Coalition, a nonprofit group founded in 2012 by local governments and other advocates to oversee the trail’s ongoing development as a whole. Over the past few years, the coalition has secured federal and state grants to grade, pave, and lay crushed granite along segments of the NETT, update some of the aging bridges, add signage and handrails, and much more. Over half of the trail will be fully improved by the end of 2019.
Texas is home to 34 completed rail-to-trail projects, like the nine-mile Historic Battlefield Trail, which connects Brownsville to Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park, site of the first major battle of the Mexican-American War.
Many of the small communities along the trail owe their existence to the railroads, whose former routes cut through the middle of faded downtowns where vacant storefronts hint at more prosperous times. There are feed and junk stores, barns, rows of rusted cars so old they qualify as lawn art, and stately bank buildings long shuttered. It’s not hard to find signs of life, though. The NETT Coalition maintains an interactive map on its website that offers information on dining, lodging, and camping near the trail, as well as hazards to avoid, like the occasional damaged bridge and the presence of unfriendly dogs, a scourge for pedestrians and cyclists.
“Sometimes dogs are loose, and they’ll try to bite you,” warns a twelve-year-old boy named Jaiden, who was fishing with his friend, Gage, from a gleaming metal bridge over a swift stream in New Boston on a late-winter Sunday afternoon. “I like how the trail used to be train tracks,” Jaiden says. “And I really like this bridge.”
New Boston is betting big on the trail’s potential to breathe some life into its downtown. At the trailhead, a mile and a half east of the boys’ fishing hole, the town of 4,500 has built a handsome visitors center and museum in the style of the original 1870s-era train depot, complete with a Victorian turret. The museum opened in early April across the street from a firearms dealer called Cowboy Guns and a consignment shop named Switcheroo. Here, the trail is newly paved and lined with crepe myrtles. West of town, however, the path turns to packed red dirt.
In Avery, about twenty miles west of New Boston, the route passes in front of the volunteer fire station, where the firefighters opened a bunk-room hostel about a year ago. “Our fire department survives on donations,” says Tucek, who is also Avery’s fire chief. He tells guests, “If you can afford to leave us something, we appreciate it. And if not, we understand.” Most people leave $20. “It turned out to be a wonderful deal,” Tucek says. “We’ve had quite a few bikers come through.”
The trail “closes” half an hour after sunset, so travelers can’t pitch tents or hang hammocks, but many of the towns allow primitive camping in their municipal parks. Or trail users can spring for a room in a bed-and-breakfast like the Courthouse Inn, a Queen Anne Victorian homestead built around 1881, in Clarksville, fifteen miles west of Avery, or Detroit’s Whistle Stop Inn, another fifteen miles west.
Not far from Detroit, the trail cuts through lowland forests where the only sounds on a recent afternoon were rushing water, birdsong, and frogs calling from trailside puddles. The bridges felt sturdy enough, although some were pocked with holes in the decaying wood. The pavement resumes as the path approaches Paris, which serves as something of a midpoint for the NETT and, with a population of about 25,000, is the trail’s only sizable city. Several people were jogging, riding bicycles, and pushing strollers on what felt like a sidewalk through woods half a mile north of the city’s Eiffel Tower replica, which stands sixty feet high, a red cowboy hat adorning its top.
Someday, when it’s officially completed, the NETT will be the fifth-longest trail in the United States. Complicating efforts to finish the project, however, is a three-mile gap in the trail near an industrial area on Paris’s west side; coalition president Earl Erickson hopes to eventually secure an easement for the trail from Union Pacific and adjacent landowners. In the meantime, hikers and bikers are encouraged to use nearby roads to bypass this broken link. Another obstacle to unification is the railroad bridge over the Sulphur River, which collapsed in 2014, near Ben Franklin. Some folks brave the mud and wade across the river when it is low, but a second detour along the road is the safer option.
Another thirty miles down the trail, at the Pecan Gap Seed House, a farm-supply store in a red metal building, manager Louie Williams said his neighbors aren’t fans of the NETT. “I don’t guess it’s a bad thing,” he says, “but, boy, these people here, they just don’t want it.” He claims that when the trains stopped running, the community’s landowners hoped the railroad easements would be returned to them. Instead, they’ve been forced to share the land with the few hardy travelers who pass through on one of the trail’s more overgrown areas. “I imagine over the last year, I’ve had maybe five, six people—no more than ten—stop in here that used the thing,” Williams says. “One guy that came through here, he looked like you’d drug him through a pile of bob wire. Boy, he was eat up.”
Trail neighbors are more hospitable elsewhere. A quarter mile from the NETT in Ladonia, just west of Pecan Gap, Chris Porter rents out a vacation home at his Porter-O’Fannin Farm that he hopes riders and hikers will use as the trail grows in popularity; he also offers basic camping. “We’ve had the bike crowd coming through for a while, but they never really stop,” he says. “The ones who did were just looking for someplace to crash. I was surprised they would do it, because it’s just absolutely primitive camping. It’s open fields in a working cattle operation.”
Heading from the post oak savannah to the blackland prairie, the dirt path eventually gives way to crushed granite and then concrete as it approaches Farmersville, once known as the Onion Capital of North Texas for its bountiful harvests of a variety called Collin County Sweets. Here, in the thirties, agricultural workers toiled in big, open-air onion sheds, packing and loading the vegetables onto trains for shipment throughout the nation.
At one such onion shed around the corner from downtown Farmersville, the Northeast Texas Trail comes to an end. Or else it begins, depending on how you see it.