Some of this information was gathered during a hosted press trip. All opinions remain my own.
It might be the ultimate example of repurposing: Since the 1960s, thousands of miles of old abandoned railroad lines have been converted into recreational trails.
Owing to their scenic locales and gentle grades, the Rails-to-Trails routes are perfect for an epic bike ride or a leisurely stroll. The routes offer dizzying variety: They run along the East and West Coasts, past mountains, across rivers and forests, and through bustling urban landscapes.
After hiking and biking rail-trails all over the country, I’ve found that not only do the routes provide an opportunity for exercise in splendid outdoor settings, but they also take me back to the heyday of train travel. I often imagine passengers gawking at gorgeous seaside and mountain scenes to the rhythmic sway and lonesome whistle of the train.
Today, every state in the nation has a roster of rail-trails. According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, there are more than 2,100 rail trails in the United States, totaling 24,215 miles.
And hundreds more are in the works. Among them is the mammoth Great American Rail-Trail, which will run 3,700 miles from Washington State to Washington, D.C. Once complete, the trail will allow users to literally walk or bike across America on a seamless, scenic trail. The Great American Rail-Trail is currently more than half complete, with about 1,700 miles left to fill in.
Meanwhile, rail-trails are beloved amenities in communities all over the country. Here are 10 of the best.
1. Bayshore Bikeway, California
With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the sparkling San Diego Bay on the other, the views along the 24-mile Bayshore Bikeway are virtually nonstop. The San Diego skyline gleams in the distance, and the route takes in the shores of the lovely Coronado Island as well as San Diego neighborhoods.
Along the way, you’ll pass by the legendary Hotel del Coronado. A short detour will get you to the hotel’s stunning beach and its selection of cafes and shops. It’s a great place for a leisurely lunch break and is definitely worth the splurge.
About 13 miles of the 24-mile route are car-free bicycle lanes, while the remaining 11 miles consist of on-street sections that are well marked.
Tip: If you’re staying in San Diego, take the ferry across the bay to the Coronado Ferry Landing, where bike rentals are available. It’s a good place to browse the shops, have a snack, and start your ride or walk.
2. Oak Leaf Trail, Wisconsin
The beautiful shores of Lake Michigan are front and center along nearly a quarter of the 125-mile Oak Leaf Trail. The trail meanders through the Milwaukee metro area as well as the surrounding flat rural plains and leafy green riverbeds.
The Oak Leaf Trail also briefly overlaps with Milwaukee’s Beerline Trail, a fascinating 3.7-mile trail that follows the route of an old freight-train corridor that once supplied some of Milwaukee’s famous breweries.
Tip: Make time to stop at the Milwaukee Art Museum, located right on the Oak Leaf Trail. Marvel at the building’s white wings against the blue sky and wander amidst the museum’s 25,000 works of art.
3. Eastern Trail, Maine
Running roughly from South Portland to Kennebunk and parallel to Maine’s Atlantic Coast, the 29-mile Eastern Trail takes in the charming towns of Saco, Biddeford, Scarborough, and Old Orchard Beach.
Nearly 22 miles of the trail follow off-road sections, but some sections feature on-road bike lanes.
Tip: Start your ride or hike at the northern end at the Bug Light Park Lighthouse (Portland Breakwater Light) in South Portland, where plenty of parking is available.
4. Katy Trail, Missouri
A recent inductee into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame and a state park, Missouri’s Katy Trail is a well-known community treasure. The 240-mile trail spans nearly the full width of Missouri and is the nation’s longest continuous rail-trail.
Along the way, bikers, hikers, and runners will encounter delightful small towns, rural farmland, and towering bluffs along the Missouri River. A number of centers of commerce are also accessible along the trail, adding ease to the long-distance trek. The trail features 26 trailheads and four fully restored railroad depots.
Tip: The Katy Trail intersects with the 47-mile Rock Island Spur in Windsor, adding another dimension to the route.
5. High Line, New York
Hailed as the “miracle above Manhattan,” New York City’s elevated High Line Trail offers a combination of urban setting, nature, art, and design.
The 1.5-mile trail runs 30 feet above the bustling Manhattan streets below. Since it opened in 2009, the High Line has become a tourist attraction in its own right. The celebrated urban park and aerial greenway route joined the Rails-to-Trails Hall of Fame in 2011.
Tip: Since the High Line parallels the Hudson River, great views of the river traffic can be seen to the west.
6. Monon Trail, Indiana
Treasured as a community amenity for decades, the Monon Trail was inducted into the Rails-to-Trail Hall of Fame in 2009.
Starting in Indianapolis, the Monon Trail passes beneath interstate ramps and by community murals before transitioning to a bustling suburban scene in downtown Carmel, passing by the City Center and palatial Palladium performance hall. Soon, the route evolves again into open wooded terrain and the rural community of Westfield.
Tip: Plan to stop at the Carmel City Center, where an array of festivals and markets take place, including a Saturday farmers market.
7. San Francisco Bay Trail, California
When it comes to massive rail-trail undertakings, the San Francisco Bay Trail ranks among the top. For decades, an effort has been underway to link 47 cities and nine counties with a 500-mile trail that encircles the San Francisco Bay.
Today, the effort is nearly three-quarters of the way complete, with more than 350 miles of trails running past San Francisco icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Mason.
Tip: Because of its size, it’s best to do the Bay Trail in segments, using buses, trains, or ferries to get to the various trailheads.
8. Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, Nebraska
For an Old West experience unlike any other, head to the high plains of Nebraska for the 203-mile Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail.
The trail, which runs from Valentine to Norfolk, holds the distinction of being right in the center of the Great American Rail-Trail as it passes through the Great Plains states.
Along the way, you will take in the magnificent grass-covered dunes of the Sandhills, the wild Niobrara River Valley, and the rolling grasses of the American prairie.
9. Great Allegheny Passage, Maryland/Pennsylvania
Showcasing the best of the terrain of the eastern United States, the Great Allegheny Passage “soars over valleys, snakes around mountains, and skirts alongside three rivers (the Casselman, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela),” says the trail’s website.
At 150 miles in length, the Great Allegheny Passage runs from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania -- making it one of the longest in America.
Tip: The trail starts at the Three Rivers Heritage Trail at Point State Park, where the historic Forts Duquesne and Pitt now sit among skyscrapers and professional sports venues in downtown Pittsburgh.
10. Golden Spoke Trail Network, Utah
Linking Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Provo, Utah’s Golden Spoke Trail Network consists of more than 100 miles of paved trails. The trails take cyclists and hikers along shady river corridors, past rushing waterfalls, by pastoral horse farms, and through quiet neighborhoods with stellar views of the nearby Wasatch Mountain Range.
The network includes scenic stretches such as the Provo River Parkway, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Rail-Trail, the Jordan River Parkway, and the Legacy Parkway.
Tip: Plan to spend some time taking in the splendor of the Provo River Parkway, where the trail passes beneath the soaring Bridal Veil Falls.