The Ohio River Recreation Trail promotes geotourism and economies in river cities in three states

In this part of the world, there’s one thing that connects the people of three states and dozens of towns – the Ohio River.

Now, a coalition of outdoor enthusiasts and advocates for the environment are working with local, state, and federal agencies, as well as businesses and economic development groups to promote the river and the communities that border it as sources of healthy recreation, destinations for tourism, and economic opportunities.

They’ve created the Ohio River Recreation Trail, a 274-mile self-guided route that takes in 45 river towns, including a dozen in Kentucky, and six in Northern Kentucky.

The trail can be explored in stages, all at once, or one day trip at a time by canoe, kayak, power boat, bicycle, on foot, or in the car. Any way the traveler prefers, really. Organizers emphasize the individual benefits of healthy outdoor recreation, as well as the potential economic aid to the many small towns that border the historic waterway.

“Every river town shares a focus on the Ohio River,” says David Wicks, a Louisville-based educator and environmental activist, and one of the founders of the ORRT organization. “The river connects us all.”

In October, the group held a virtual summit meeting that was attended by representatives from more than 30 river towns, six federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, local tourism and economic development organizations, more than a dozen businesses, representatives of Washington legislators, and council members and mayors from towns in all three states.

Organizers say they plan to apply to the National Park Service for official designation as a National Recreation Trail by the end of next year.

They've created a website and a mobile-friendly digital guide to help people who want to safely explore the many points along the trail.

The guide, built with the assistance of the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments, details the locations of barge traffic in real time, as well as the locations of marinas, bike trails, and other useful information for outdoor explorers.

The Park Service has been engaged in the project, and the agency agreed to provide free planning assistance and review the outdoor recreation assets of towns along the route through its River Town Review program. The aim was to see what local governments could build on to attract more ecotourists to their communities.

“We help people rediscover what they already have,” says Russ Clark of the park service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Program.

Nine river cities, including Augusta, Maysville, and West Point in Kentucky, Cincinnati and New Richmond in Ohio, and Lawrenceburg and Vevay in Indiana, requested National Park Service reviews.

“The key to this project is the assets of the river towns along the trail,” says Brewster Rhoads, a longtime Cincinnati consultant and environmental activist who was instrumental in starting the river festival Paddlefest 20 years ago.

As part of the review of Augusta, volunteers spent about one hour each online to see what they could find out about the town as if they were thinking of visiting for a day or overnight. They looked for outdoor recreation opportunities, lodging, restaurants, breweries, wineries, historical sites, attractions, and events.

Then, several members of the park service’s team visited Augusta on different days in the spring to experience the town firsthand.

The reviewers gave relatively low scores to Augusta’s bikeability and walkability, but liked its access to Bracken Creek for paddling and fishing, the Augusta River Park and boat ramp, and the charm of the Jenny Ann Ferry, which brings people back and forth from Ohio.

The Jenny Ann Ferry, Augusta, Ky.The review team made several recommendations, including hosting events centered around paddling and fishing, and installing bike racks in the business district.

The review was an eye opener for Janet Hunt, the tourism director for Augusta and Bracken County. The potential economic benefits of bicyclists, paddlers, and campers hadn’t been on her radar.

“I just didn’t think that would be part of tourism,” she says. “But I found it plays a big part.”

She’s now working with Augusta’s mayor and council to secure a grant to improve sidewalks, to fund bigger and better picnic tables in park spaces, and to produce a video highlighting Augusta as a river town with outdoor recreation possibilities.

In Hardin County, tiny West Point, Ky., population 800, has no restaurants and very few places to stay overnight. The park service reviewers suggested making better use of a park next to the Ohio by permitting and supporting pop-up food trucks there, holding music concerts and opening a kayak rental business. They also recommended capitalizing on its history (a Civil War fort is located there), and on the Salt River, which flows into the Ohio at West Point.

The park service has extended its grant for five more months, which will allow Maysville to particpate in the review program, as well as Portsmouth, Ohio, and Madison, Ind.

The trail could have not only an economic benefit for the river towns, but an environmental and health benefit as well, the organization says. Organizers pegged the return on investment of expanded active transportation such as bikes and canoes at $34.1 billion annually, which also accounts for fuel savings and carbon dioxide reduction.

“The idea of sustainability is so critical to this work,” says Derek Schimmel. He’s a project manager with the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which retraces the paths of the historic explorers of America through 5,000 miles and 16 states.

The Ohio River Trail connects with the Lewis and Clark Trail, and like that trail, is focused on geotourism.

The next step for organizers of the Ohio River Trail is to create a sustainable organizational structure, similar to the Lewis and Clark Trail, to continue and expand their work.

They would like to engage professional assistance to brand the trail, design signs and kiosks and develop a digital presence to market the Ohio River communities and their recreational assets, visitor amenities, historic sites, festivals and annual events.

They’re seeking memberships from river towns, and also plan to apply for federal, state, and foundation grants and to solicit letters of support from Ohio River communities, and partner organizations to demonstrate the scope and diversity of its network.

“We look forward to building a sustainable organization that supports each individual river town,” Wicks says.  

The trail recently became an official project of Ohio River Way, a not-for-profit founded 20 years ago to promote outdoor recreation and connect communities in the river corridor. Ohio River Way will become the fiscal agent for the ORRT, enabling it to receive foundation grants and tax-deductible donations, Rhoads says.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.