In their early 20th-century heyday, railroads were the spine of the U.S. transportation system: hundreds of thousands of miles of steel ribbon crisscrossing the country from coast to coast, transporting people and goods. By the mid-20th century, however, the rise of the Interstate Highway System would mean the fall of many railroads, eventually turning neglected rail lines into rusted relics of a bygone era.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Today, conservancy groups, government entities and individual volunteers are infusing miles upon miles of America’s old railroads with new life as rail trails for recreational use. In fact, there are nearly 2,000 rail trails spanning more than 22,000 miles—and growing—in the U.S., according to the Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. And with trails that range from scenic to historic, from rural to urban and from advanced to beginner, bicyclists (as well as pedestrians and even equestrians in some places) have their pick of paths to explore in every region of the country, many of which are the kind of pancake-flat or gentle-grade paths perfect for pedaling. So, if you’re looking to gear up for spring with a bucket-list bike ride, here are a few of our favorite places to blaze a trail.
Minding the GAP
Marking its 40th anniversary this year, the Great Allegheny Passage, or the GAP, is widely considered a rite of passage for many bicyclists. After all, this 150-mile rail trail connecting Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the Western Maryland Railway Station in Cumberland, Maryland, is the longest rail trail east of the Mississippi. Along the trail, primarily composed of retired corridors of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad and Western Maryland Railway, you’ll pedal mostly on level, converted rail beds of crushed limestone and asphalt over valleys, through mountains and alongside rivers, including navigating tunnels and viaducts.
The Great Allegheny Passage stretches from Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Paul G. Wiegman/Courtesy of The Allegheny Travel Alliance.
You’ll cross the Cumberland Narrows, the Mason–Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide. Spaced about every 15 miles or so along the route, trail towns—among them: Frostburg, home of the famous Thrasher Carriage Collection, and Ohiopyle, home to the state park of the same name that’s renowned for its whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny River Gorge—welcome bicyclists with dining and lodging options as well as a number of bike shops and easy access to dozens of hiking trailheads for further explorations.
The Eastern Continental Divide
Photo by Cleo Fogal/Courtesy of The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Along with amazing scenery, the GAP trail also serves up interesting history, as it follows the very rail lines that helped catapult the country into the ranks of an industrial giant; you’ll find plenty of interpretive signage along the trail highlighting this history, particularly around the Steel Valley near Pittsburgh. Another bonus for bikers: The historic Western Maryland Scenic Railroad—which operates diesel locomotives—parallels the trail and offers passenger service (from Cumberland to Frostburg) that welcomes bicyclists with their bikes in tow. Amtrak also offers walk-on bicycle service for stops along its Capitol Limited line that runs the entire span of the trail. (Reserve early, as accommodations are limited.)
Converted bridges dot the Great Allegheny Passage
Photo by Blase UR/Courtesy of The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
If you’d like to keep rolling on with your biking adventure, you can pick up the nearly 185-mile C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland to cycle end to end from Pittsburgh to D.C.—without ever having to battle the notorious D.C. traffic. Plan your journey at GAPtrail.org.
On Island Line Time
Biking on water. That’s the feeling you get when you’re traversing nearly a quarter of Vermont’s Island Line Rail Trail, a 14-mile path hugging the Lake Champlain shoreline from the vibrant college town of Burlington to Colchester and onto South Hero. While the trail may not be long, what it lacks in mileage it more than makes up for in superlative scenery.
Island Line Rail Trail
Photo by Kimberly Tate-Brown/Courtesy of The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
In 1899, the Rutland–Canadian Railroad laid tracks here to connect the New England coast with the Great Lakes region and carried passengers and freight for the following 60 or so years. Nowadays, this repurposed path, whose slice of trail in Burlington is widely known as the Burlington Bike Path, takes bicyclists (as well as pedestrians) along one of the country’s most picturesque rail trails, taking in a series of shoreline parks, which are top spots for warm-weather festivals, and the Winooski River Bridge, punctuated by a 2,500-foot elevated boardwalk that carries bicyclists across the thriving ecosystem of the Colchester Delta Park floodplain. The ride also provides a front-row seat to sweeping views of the Green Mountains to the east and New York’s Adirondack Mountains to the west.
Vermont's Island Line Rail Trail provides the feeling of biking on water over Lake Champlain.
Photo by David Alexander/Courtesy of The Rails-To-Trails-Conservancy
The showstopper of the trail, of course, is the nearly four-mile marble causeway cutting smack-dab through Lake Champlain, a 435-square-mile freshwater lake that stretches through Vermont and New York and into Canada. The postcard-perfect causeway is fringed with American elm trees, arcing the path in dramatic poses courtesy of the persistent winds, and this section of the trail is known to be favored grounds for a diversity of birds, including kingfishers and warblers. It’s also here that you’ll reach “The Cut,” a gap in the causeway where you can continue your journey to South Hero via a seasonal ferry (reopening May 25 and running through October 8; check the schedule for operating days), run by Local Motion, a nonprofit bicycle advocacy group that also offers bike rentals. Chart your course at localmotion.org/maps_and_routes.
Lewis and Clark Were Here
You can’t talk about bucket-list bike rides without talking about Katy Trail State Park, built on an old corridor of the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad. At 237 miles, reaching across nearly the entire state of Missouri, from Clinton to Machens, the Katy Trail lays claim as the longest recreational rail trail in the nation. Many segments of the trail provide a window into small-town America; others weave through a patchwork of farmland, forests and tallgrass prairies; and about half of the trail wends its way along the Missouri River, flanked by towering limestone bluffs and tracing the historic route of Lewis and Clark.
Trail's End Monument in Katy Trail State Park
Photo by Danielle Taylor/Courtesy of The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
In fact, the leg of trail between Cooper County and St. Charles County enjoys status on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The trail is also part of the American Discovery Trail, a coast-to-coast biking and hiking trail.
History and railroad buffs will want to stop along the trail at the four fully restored railroad depots, which recall the golden age of passenger train travel. The trail also features 26 trailheads that provide access to trail towns touting everything from bed-and-breakfasts to bike shops to breweries. (To experience just a segment of the trail, make reservations for a ride aboard Amtrak with your bike near a select trailhead.) But one of the most distinctive aspects of this rail trail is that, for nearly 100 miles, it tracks through the heart of wine country, making a vineyard visit a popular detour for cyclists. Start your explorations at bikekatytrail.com.
We could keep rolling on with a roundup of remarkable rail trails throughout the country, of course, but at some point, you have to stop writing and reading, put the pedal to the metal, and do as the seasoned cyclists do: just ride. To find a rail trail waiting for you, visit the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy at TrailLink.com. We’ll see you around the bend. Happy trails!
More Rails to Ride
Consider adding these bucket-list bike rides to your next rail-trail itinerary.
Traversing a 62-mile trail from Wellsboro to Jersey Shore (Pennsylvania) that courses through the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” the Pine Creek Trail meanders along the Pine Creek with its rushing waters and surrounding rock outcrops and waterfalls as well as offers opportunities aplenty for spotting wildlife, including hawks, herons, deer, otters, beavers, wild turkeys, and even the occasional eagle, coyote and black bear. visitpottertioga.com/explore/attractions/pine-creek-rail-trail
The Little Miami Scenic Trail, touting nearly 80 scenic miles from Springfield to Newton, Ohio, skirts the banks of the Little Miami River and passes through farmland, woodlands and a handful of charming small towns. miamivalleytrails.org/trails/little-miami-scenic-trail
Established in 1965, the 33-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail, which is widely considered to be the nation’s first rail trail (perhaps arguably along with the 61-mile Illinois Prairie Path from Aurora to Chicago), passes through five historic small towns from Elroy to Sparta, Wisconsin, and is most famous for its three hand-dug railroad tunnels—with their huge wooden doors still intact—dating to the mid-1800s. elroyspartatrail.com
Connecting to the 117-mile Flint Hills Nature Trail in the north, Kansas’ 50-plus-mile Prairie Spirit Trail, from Ottawa to Iola, is the preferred path for many bicyclists for its moderately easy riding on asphalt and crushed-stone trails that take in wooded ravines, bubbling streams, rolling farmland and fields of wildflowers carpeting prairie preserves. bikeprairiespirit.com
The Greenbrier River Trail, wending about 78 gloriously green miles from Cass to Caldwell, West Virginia, traces the Greenbrier River, passes through friendly small towns, crosses dozens of bridges and showcases the lush landscape of the great outdoors. wvstateparks.com/park/greenbrier-river-trail
A 34-mile multi-use corridor popular among cyclists, the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail, bookended by Abingdon and Whitetop Station, is punctuated by diverse landscapes ranging from farms to fields to forests and starring such splendid natural landmarks as Whitetop Laurel River and Whitetop Mountain. vacreepertrail.org
Stretching nearly 20 paved miles from Greenville to Travelers Rest, South Carolina, the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail highlights everything from waterfalls to wetlands to wildlife as it crosses the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, follows the Reedy River, passes through a college campus (Furman University) and provides easy access to welcoming businesses (including a brewery in Travelers Rest). greenvillerec.com/ghs-swamp-rabbit-trail
Named after the late governor who was its biggest advocate, the George S. Mickelson Trail runs 109 miles from Edgemont to Deadwood, South Dakota, through national forest, over 100 converted bridges and through 4 rock tunnels as well as offers stunning views of the Black Hills. gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/mickelson-trail
Beginning near the Washington state line and ending by the Montana state line, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes cuts through Idaho from Mullan to Plummer on 72 miles of silky asphalt and, along the way, presents ogle-worthy vistas of the Coeur d’Alene River, Lake Coeur d’Alene and undulating farmland. parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/trail-coeur-d-alenes
The Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, extending from Susanville to Mason Station (Westwood), California, serves up some 25 miles of spectacular scenery that includes the Swan River Canyon, Sierra Nevada Mountains and even a 25-foot-tall carved redwood statue of Paul Bunyan. blm.gov/visit/bizz-johnson
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of AAA World.