Editor's note: Hilliard is home to two Metro Parks - Heritage Trail and Prairie Oaks. This article examines Heritage Trail.

Editor's note: Hilliard is home to two Metro Parks Heritage Trail and Prairie Oaks. This article examines Heritage Trail.

Heritage Trail was carved out of an abandoned railroad corridor and converted into a 6.1-mile multipurpose pedestrian pathway.

In an unusual collaboration, Hilliard maintains the trail from its starting point near Main Street to Hayden Run Road, while the Metro Parks organization maintains the trail from Hayden Run Road to Cemetery Pike Road.

"It's becoming a little bit less unique as we're building more and more trails around Franklin County," said John O'Meara, executive director of Metro Parks. "We're very much into the regional trail business. We think it is great recreation, a great way to get people outside and having fun in the out of doors."

From the Hilliard Trailhead, the trail crosses Leppert and Cosgray roads. Immediately following Cosgray and 1.3 miles from the start, the trail is bordered by an ideal rest stop Homestead Park in Washington Township.

"It's been great for people," said Janell Thomas, Washington Township Parks and Recreation director. "They can get off of the trail, use the restroom and play in the park."

A walk from the Hilliard Trailhead to the Hayden Run Metro Parks Trailhead (2.4 miles) takes about an hour. Runners, bicyclists and in-line skaters are common along the way.

Once past Hayden Run Road, there is one more crossing at Amity Pike. At the Hayden Run Metro Parks Trailhead, there is a horse trail that runs parallel to the pedestrian trail to Cemetery Pike. A mile or two mile past Cemetery Pike is Plain City.

"It's huge in the Hilliard-West Jefferson area," Tom Cochran of Metro Parks said about Heritage Trail. "People love to ride through Plain City and go to Der Dutchman on a weekend, and people use the roadways."

In 1991, the Heritage Rail Trail Coalition began advocating construction of a trail along the abandoned railroad right-of-way, which had previously been a big part of the city's history until 1984. Among those active in the coalition was Don Schonhardt.

"I'm a runner. Because of that, I was interested in the concept of a rail trail," Schonhardt said. "It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, I thought this was a great opportunity to keep this right-of-way open for public use and to connect some of the (neighborhoods) of Hilliard. It really presented an opportunity for us take what basically was the very roots of Hilliard the railroad and use it to pull the community back together in the 21st century. That's pretty cool."

Over the next decade, the coalition, along with the city and Norwich and Washington townships, purchased portions of the trail. The city of Hilliard is continuing to negotiate with Norfolk Southern to redevelop more of the right-of-way.

Schonhardt said his work in the coalition piqued his interest in politics. Now mayor of Hilliard, Schonhardt said he'd like to expand the Heritage Trail south from Old Hilliard to Leap and Scioto Darby roads and down to Griggs Reservoir Park, connecting it to a proposed bike path from downtown Columbus.

"That would allow for pedestrians and cyclists and others to get from Old Hilliard to downtown Columbus on a pedestrian pathway that didn't have any vehicle traffic on it," Schonhardt said.

In addition, future improvements to Cosgray and Leppert would take the trail under those roadways.

There's also talk of expanding the Heritage Rail Trail into downtown Plain City, and linking it to the Ohio to Erie trail system that would run from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

Schonhardt, who uses the trail six days a week, said it gets substantial use, which helps local businesses.

"Any weekend where the weather is half-way decent or any evening after work, the municipal parking lot that runs from Wayne Street all the way back there to the trailhead is pretty much full. It's used by an awful lot of people, and those are probably people who are coming from outside of Hilliard proper. Then you've got all the people who live adjacent to close enough to the rail trail to actually walk, bike or run to it."

Schonhardt said his work on the Heritage Rail Trail is one of his proudest accomplishments.

"I think it's truly one of the gems we have in our community. It's been great for Hilliard, and I think it will continue to attract people to Hilliard well into the future.

"When you look at the logo that was chosen by the Destination Hilliard folks for representation of the city, it has the rail that does disappear into the trail then disappears off into the farm fields. I think that was a neat representation of an element of our community that is both unique and extremely important."