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 railroad corridors 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 along old rail lines 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 nonprofit organization Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), there are more than 2,300 rail trails in the United States, totaling 25,370 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 53 percent complete.
Meanwhile, the converted rail corridors and towpaths are beloved amenities in communities all over the country. Here are 13 of the best.
Pro Tip: Detailed information about the trails, including right-of-way, restrooms, access points, accessibility for wheelchairs, multi-use status, and trail maps, is available on RTC’s website Traillink.
Some of this information was gathered during a hosted press trip. All opinions remain my own.
1. Bayshore Bikeway
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, trail users will 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.
Pro 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
The beautiful shores of Lake Michigan are front and center along nearly a quarter of the 135-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.
Pro 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 30,000 works of art.
3. Eastern Trail
Running roughly from South Portland to Kennebunk and parallel to Maine’s Atlantic Coast, the 24-mile Eastern Trail takes in the charming towns of Saco, Biddeford, Scarborough, and Old Orchard Beach. The trail was inducted into the RTC Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2022.
Nearly 22 miles of the trail follow off-road sections, but some sections feature on-road bike lanes.
Pro 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
As a 2007 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.
Pro Tip: The Katy Trail connects with the 47-mile Rock Island Spur in Windsor, adding another dimension to the route.
5. High Line
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.
Pro Tip: Since the High Line parallels the Hudson River, great views of the river traffic can be seen to the west.
6. Monon Trail
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.
Pro Tip: Plan to stop at the Carmel City Center, where an array of festivals and markets take place, including a Saturday farmers market.
7. 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.
8. San Francisco Bay Trail
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 300 miles of trails running past San Francisco icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Mason.
Pro 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.
9. Great Allegheny Passage
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.
Pro 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
Linking Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Provo, Utah’s Golden Spoke Trail Network consists of more than 170 miles of paved trails. The trails take cyclists and hikers along shady river corridors, past rushing waterfalls, over pedestrian bridges, 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.
Pro 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.
11. Peavine And Iron King Trails
The Peavine Trail in the north-central-Arizona city of Prescott stands out for a number of reasons. Not only is it one of the only rail trails in Arizona, but it also has the distinction of being a National Recreation Trail, as well as a Rails To Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame inductee from 2010.
The trail lives up to its accolades. It features sweeping views of Prescott’s picturesque Watson Lake, and it takes trail users through the distinctive orange-tinted rock formations known as the Granite Dells. The 6-mile route dates back to 1893 when it served as a section of the Santa Fe Railroad.
The Peavine Trail connects with the 4.1-mile Iron King Trail in the neighboring town of Prescott Valley, and the two scenic rail trails combine to be a popular bike path for cyclists, as well as a gathering spot for walkers, runners, and horseback riders.
Pro Tip: The Peavine Trail is less than a 10-minute drive from historic Whiskey Row, the main street of downtown Prescott, one of Arizona’s most charming downtowns.
12. Historic Railroad Trail
The 3.7-mile trail dates back to the 1930s-era construction of the Hoover Dam, when the railroad was built to serve the construction of that mammoth project. Today, memorable trail moments along the Historic Railroad Trail include walking beneath five tunnels that burrow through the rock walls that border Lake Mead, and taking in the seemingly endless views of the blue waters of the lake.
Pro Tip: The Historic Railroad Trail is located just a 30-minute drive from the Las Vegas Strip and makes a great day trip from the city.
13. George S. Mickelson Trail
Winding through the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota is a trail gem that dates back to the Wild West days of the late 1800s. The 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail — an RTC Hall of Fame Trail inductee from 2012 — passes through territory that Old West characters such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane once frequented.
Running from Deadwood to Edgemont, the trail has a surface of mostly crushed limestone and gravel. It crosses more than 100 historic railroad trestles along its route and takes in a variety of terrain including prairie land, forests, creeks, and meadows.
Pro Tip: Although mostly a gentle grade, some sections of the George S. Mickelson Trail exceed 4 percent and are considered strenuous.