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.
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.