Apr 5, 2011
For a new way to experience your favorite destinations, grab a bike and check out a nearby rail-trail. Many railroad tracks that once connected America’s cities were discontinued in the 1960s. But today more than 1900 miles of tracks around the country have been converted into multi-use trails known as rail-trails.
Rail-trails attract runners, walkers, and inline skaters, but they are especially popular among bicyclists. Zipping through the countryside on a bicycle is a great way to explore a location, enjoy the scenery, and appreciate a little history.
Rail-trails can be found in every state. Most are located near major urban centers and historical sites, making them easy stops for travelers and fun weekend getaways for locals. Restaurants and small shops line many of these trails, offering unique experiences.
Here are some of our favorite trails. Each offers bike rentals, public restrooms, and a great ride. Maps, directions, and other information are available at the websites provided. Happy trails!
Cape Cod Rail Trail
This 22-mile paved trail winds along the coast and through New England forests, offering the best of Cape Cod scenery: pine trees, sandy beaches, cranberry bogs, and salt marshes. Bikers can take a break on the beach or check out the trailside’s seafood restaurants and ice cream shops. Rentals for bikes, rollerblades, and even hand-cycles are available at the trailheads. Out-of-state visitors can save money on lodging by camping at Nickerson State Park, located at the trail’s halfway mark, which also offers hiking, boating, and fishing.
The Illinois Prairie Path, located 25 miles west of Chicago, was the first rail line to be converted into a rail-trail. This trail is paved and has five trail segments with three main branches—61 miles total. In 2008, the Prairie Path was inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, an honor given to trails based on high use, scenic and historical value, and excellent maintenance and trailside amenities. The trail crosses the Des Plaines River, passes trailside museums, and winds through forests, wetlands, and—of course—patches of prairie. Parts of the trail are so rural and wooded that riders may forget they are in a Chicago suburb.
Virginia Creeper Trail
The Virginia Creeper is one of the nation’s most popular rail-trails, and for good reason. Located in southwestern Virginia near the North Ca-rolina border, this 35-mile trail crosses high trestles and bridges originally built for the Virginia-Carolina Railway, offering scenic views and a challenging ride. This trail is known for extreme elevations (it rises over 2000 feet) and can be grueling for beginners. But shuttles are available to take bikers up the steepest hills or back to the trailhead. Because of its rough terrain, mountain bikes and hybrid tires are recommended for the Creeper’s dusty path. For a taste of the Creeper’s history, visitors can check out the steam engine, cabooses, and restored ra-ilroad stations along the trail.
If you’re visiting Seattle, escape the bustle of the city for a day by exploring the 17-mile Burke-Gilman Trail. Bikers start in northern Seattle and zip past the University of Washington, whiz by lush farmland, and eventually meet up with the Sammamish River. The trail ends within a few blocks of Puget Sound. Another Ra–il-Trail Hall of Fame inductee, the Burke-Gilman offers city skyline, ocean, and river vistas. Stop at one of the parks, beaches, or historical landmarks for a taste of Seattle’s local flavor. Speaking of local flavor—feel free to pick the wild blackberries and apples that grow along the trail near the University of Washington campus.
Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park
For a new look at a popular ski-resort mountain destination, check out the Union Pacific Rail Trail, which begins (or ends) in Park City, Utah. Like other rail-trails, the 28-mile Union Pacific is open to runners, horseback riders, and hikers, but the trail is most popular among mountain bikers. The trail follows the Weber River to Echo Reservoir and offers big-sky views and mountain scenery. Riders are in the sun most of the time, so make sure to take plenty of water and sunscreen, and take a dip in the reservoir to cool off.
—Sara D. Smith