Rails to Trails

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

| September/October 2008

Vacation Close to Home
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.

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