When I became interested in bicycling again a few years back, I started reading up on old railroad beds that had been converted to bike trails.
No car traffic. Small towns, rural scenery, city waterfronts. Rest stops and water fountains along the away. Sounded great.
And it is.
My first rails-to-trails ride was on the Tammany Trace on an old Illinois Central corridor in South Louisiana. I rode the entire 27.6-mile trail and back during my 55th birthday weekend. It’s a beauty. Since that ride about four years ago, I’ve been to others, including the Katy Trail in Missouri, a 238-mile trail that stretches across most of the state. (For the record, my husband and I rode sections not the entire Katy Trail).
There are new trails to ride almost every day thanks to The Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more bikeable and walkable America. Their website TrailLink.com contains a wealth of information on these trails–not only on rails-to-trails conversions but all traffic-free bicycle and pedestrian paths. You can find out about surface types, towns and things to do along the routes, user reviews and more. Most trails also have their own websites independent of TrailLink.com.
I have the TrailLink app on my phone that points me to nearby trails while I am traveling. A few like the Katy are crushed limestone, and we were glad we had hybrid bikes with wider tires when we rode. The trail was smooth but we couldn’t manage much more than 8 mph in places. I prefer the paved trails (either asphalt or concrete) with small towns to explore along the way.
There are plenty of rail-trails with all types of surfaces. According to TrailLink.com, there are now 1,997 miles of rail-trails comprising 22, 470 of miles in the United States. Another 777 trails are under construction.
Most rail-trails have speed limits of 15 mph or so, You aren’t competing with racing cyclists, but you are sharing the trail with pedestrians and, in some cases, equestrians and skateboarders.
There are some exciting rail-trails/greenways under development. The East Coast Greenway is a 3,000-mile project that will connect Maine to Key West, Florida and many Atlantic Coast cities between them. Closer to home, a 132-mile Northeast Texas Trail is being developed between surburban Dallas and the outskirts of Texarkana. Some sections are already open, but it’s a mix of gravel, crushed stone and asphalt. Study the map and read the comments on road conditions carefully before you head out.
One of my favorites to ride was the High Trestle Trail in Iowa, so named because it includes a 13-story converted railroad bridge over the Des Moines River. The bridge lights up at night giving the experience of riding through a tunnel. My current favorite is the one I rode most recently: Tanglefoot Trail in Mississippi down the path of a railroad built by William Faulkner’s great grandfather. The fun is experiencing small towns along the route. You can read about my experience here.
Next month I’m going on vacation to Washington and Oregon, and I’ll be trying a couple more rail-trails.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy also has a Rail-Trail Hall of Fame–currently at 30 trails. They are recognized for such things as scenery, maintenance and community support. Here’s a few from that list:
Elroy-Sparta State Bike Trail in Wisconsin. This is the original rail-trail, opening in the 1960s. Wisconsin has a vast network of rail-trails, and we are just going to have to go back to Wisconsin to explore them all. We did enjoy the Hank Aaron State Trail along Milwaukee’s lakefront and the rural Ahnapee State Trail in Door County, Wisconsin. The Elroy-Sparta is crushed limetone and features three tunnels. The 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta connects with three other trails to form 101 miles.
But I’m partial to the paved trails, so I’ll be exploring these Hall of Fame trails soon:
Georgia’s Silver Comet Trail and Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail: These trails join together for 95 continuous miles. The Silver Comet, named for a popular passenger train that traversed the route during the 1940s and 1950s, is the longest at 62 miles beginning on the east at Smyrna just outside Atlanta. At the Alabama line, it joins the 33-mile Chief Ladiga and proceeds to its western end at Anniston.
Longleaf Trace. This is one in my home state that I keep intending to try, but I have just not made it there yet. The route is mostly a rural 41 miles through fields and the trail’s namesake longleaf pine forests.
Seeing Longleaf Trace on the list makes me want to plan a trip tomorrow. Anybody want to ride with me?