Rails to Trails

Abandoned lines revert to nature, allowing city dwellers a chance to visit the country.

Douglas State Trail

Autumn colors shine in the evening light along the Douglas State Trail in Minnesota.

George Ostertag

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Rails to Trails Fun Facts 

Railroads once linked the nation, bringing “the city,” its information and goods, to small towns across the country. Now that the heyday of railroading has faded (though rising gas prices might mean a resurgence in rail travel), a reverse magic is visiting the railway system. Abandoned lines are being reclaimed for recreational corridors, carrying people out of the cities and towns into the fresh air of the countryside and revitalizing local communities in the process.

The rails-to-trails movement is rapidly expanding the trail systems in all 50 states. With the sagebrush swept away and the ties and rails removed, these routes become ideal pathways with level beds and modest grades suitable for seniors to toddlers. The paths wind through history, old whistlestop towns and forgotten places. Because the railroads had their choice of land, routes pass through prized scenery and hug picturesque waterways. Trekkers can sculpt short family strolls or long-distance “see-the-country” bicycle rides.

What is a rail-to-trail?

A rail-to-trail, or rail trail, is a former rail line that has been fully reclaimed and repurposed for recreational use. In many cases, these lines are banked (earmarked and preserved) for future transportation needs, making rail trails doubly useful: serving the recreation needs of today and the transportation needs of tomorrow. It is not surprising that such a practical recycling solution had its roots in the Midwest.

The rails-to-trails movement began under the radar in the mid-1960s. At its start, it was an organic movement rather than an organized one. Wherever tracks were pulled up, Midwesterners would start using the corridors. The abandoned grades were great for walking, jogging and just getting together. The idea to grow and improve these corridors formally evolved from there, and the rails-to-trails movement was born. Today, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., provides an organized voice and spirits the movement forward.

The conservancy tallies more than 1,500 such trails stretched over 15,000 miles, so nearly everyone can take advantage of the recreational offerings. According to the conservancy’s national office, tens of thousands of people a year are doing just that.

A historical link

The golden age for railroading was the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At its peak, in the 1920s, more than 300,000 miles of active track webbed the nation. Less than half that track remains in use today, so there is plenty of trail potential.

Rails-to-trails keep the past alive. The trails offer a record of railroading history, with such physical reminders as rusted spikes, old markers, switches, tunnels, trestles, depots and ghost towns. Unseen stories of Chinese labor, grange wars, town struggles and hard-won miles swirl about the routes.

But the rail lines also tell a broader story. Rails-to-trails trace the routes of America’s beginnings, following the trade and migration paths of Native Americans, the march of the Minutemen, the courses of Lewis and Clark and the Pony Express, troop movements of the Civil War and escape routes of the Underground Railroad. They mark Western expansion and the Industrial Revolution. In Oregon, travelers can even spy the legacy of a great railroad race to serve the central part of the state, with grades running along both banks of the Deschutes River.

In the past, the development or closure of a rail line could wield the hammer of boom or bust for small towns. Today’s rail-to-trails are revitalizing sagging rail towns, bringing added commerce and starting a new page in history.

In Urbana, Ohio, Nancy Lokai-Baldwin, trail manager for the Simon Kenton Trail, recalls her trail caused little stir until the rail trail extended into town. People took notice, and a wave of use resulted. She says that as Simon Kenton links with longer rail trails in the area, the resulting network attracts city users from Columbus and Toledo, fueling local economies. For many towns, the routes are a rallying project and a source of civic pride.

Family fitness and recreation

Rails-to-trails are a perfect solution for sedentary America. They bring families and friends together for fitness and fun. Because of the gentle gradients, old legs, little legs and wheelchair wheels find suitable routes. Widths of the rail beds encourage socialization. With few crossroads or intersecting drives, parents can relax while touring with children.

Various rail trails are ideal for hiking, cycling, mountain biking, in-line skating, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and even commuting. In Ohio, Amish buggies roll alongside the Holmes County Trail on a parallel bed of crushed limestone. When the warblers return each spring, birders flock to the old railroad grade through Bashakill Wildlife Area in southeast New York.

Many grades are paved; others have cinder, original ballast or earthen beds. Trestles and bridges are made trail-safe or have bypasses for travel. “The fitness benefits of the trails have caught the notice and recommendation of the town’s physicians, physical therapists and the YMCA,” says Lokai-Baldwin. “And, a local group of seniors routinely walks the route.” The changing scenery certainly beats walking laps on a track.

Picnic areas, toilets, benches and even campgrounds serve rails-to-trails users. Mileposts for tracking progress are common to many trails.

Discover America

With trails in all 50 states, users can discover America in all its bounty. Rails-to-trails link urban centers, small towns, rural outskirts and open ramparts. The converted trails travel coastlines and windswept prairies. They serpentine over mountains, part redwood forests, and slice across desert, plain and swamp.

Parks, museums and cultural sites add interest to many of the trails. In wilder areas, coyote, deer, bear and moose may share the trail. Rail trails shape critical migratory paths, linking wildlife feeding areas and shelter. Binoculars are often worth their weight.

The Conservancy’s TrailLink Web site can help you locate trails where you live or where you travel. Trail writeups include such details as trail surfaces and directions. Posted trail reviews aid in the evaluation.

Want to learn more? Contact the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy by writing to 2121 Ward Court, NW, Fifth Floor, Washington, D.C. 20037; calling 202-331-9696; or visiting the Web sites www.RailsToTrails.org and www.TrailLink.com .

Rhonda Ostertag is a full-time writer, outdoor adventurer and rail-trail enthusiast who makes her home in Keizer, Oregon. Her most recent book, Our Washington (Voyageur Press), a collaboration with her photographer husband, is a full-color celebration of the state.

Rails-to-Trails Fun Facts

First trail: Illinois Prairie Path generally wins the nod

Most trails: Michigan with 131 trails, followed by Pennsylvania with 116 trails

Most trail miles: Wisconsin takes the lead with
1,533 miles, followed by Michigan with 1,398 miles and Minnesota with 1,327 miles

Longest trail: Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park at 225 miles