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Rails to Trails

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

We’ve heard it often enough, from our kids, our doctors, on TV, in newspapers and magazines. As Americans we need to (1) exercise more; (2) reduce our girth; and (3) reduce our CO2 emissions from driving. Unfortunately, I can’t offer you a magic pill that will remedy all three, but Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) may come close. This national network of scenic and urban trails is where hiking and biking can have you whittling away those excess pounds as well as reducing your carbon emissions — and having fun while doing it!

The Flamboyant History of Railroads

As the expanding United States roared into its future in the 1800s and early 1900s, the miraculous speed of the railroads brought the yields of far-flung farms and fields to the urban marketplace. At their height the railroads had laid almost 300,000 miles of steel track connecting small towns with big cities in a massive rail transportation network. It also stoked the dreams of restless Americans that lusted for the opportunities in the untamed west, beyond the shores of the Mississippi River.

But as the 20th century matured, competition from speedy air cargo planes and the crawling ants of 18-wheelers across a spider web of interstate highways eventually commandeered the Railroads’ easy money monopoly of shipping goods. Where once box cars and tank cars clickety-clacked along endless miles of steel tracks and the haunting blasts of pufferbelly steam-whistles echoed through the stillness of the night, the rail-beds now lay quiet, the glory days of rail having faded along with the bison-covered Great Plains. Soon its network shrunk to less than 141,000 miles, with more miles disappearing each year.

But in ways so typically American, their place has been absorbed by myriad recreational opportunities. With each loss, a new recreation system’s gain, as track is removed and new bicycle and pedestrian-friendly surfaces are laid down on these level and accessible former rail corridors.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is striving to invigorate America by bringing new recreational and transportation paths within reach of every American, encouraging us to take more walks, bike to the store or coffee house, go birdwatching in the chill of early morning, enjoy the flashy oranges and reds of sunset as the day fades into night, and enjoy the healthy benefits of both exercise and an enhanced quality of life.

“By making active transportation a viable option for everyday travel, we will cost-effectively reduce oil dependence, climate pollution, and obesity rates while providing more and better choices for getting around town,” RTC vice president Kevin Mills stated in a report to Congress in October 2008. “Too often, transportation policies have fed these problems; it’s time to make transportation part of the solution instead.”

By the Numbers

The RTC has opened more than 1,631 rail-trails for a total of 19,578 miles in all 50 states and has projects in the works for 724 new trails for an additional 8,676 miles. The Great Lakes States of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota lead the pack in most miles of trails with 1,782; 2,392; and 2,327 respectively, with Pennsylvania and New York not far behind with 1,434 and 1,289 miles. Of the 11 trails that are more than 100 miles long, Missouri’s Katy Trail is the longest at 225 miles followed by the Great Allegheny Passage through Pennsylvania and Maryland, Soo Line Trail (Northern Route) in Minnesota, and Milwaukee Road Corridor (John Wayne Pioneer Trail) in Washington state, all about 150 miles in length. Following is a small sample of rail-trails available all over the country.

Random Selection of Rail-Trails

Gaylord to Mackinaw City (North Central State Trail), Northern Michigan
This scenic 62-mile trail, which was newly resurfaced with crushed limestone in 2007, has become one of the premier cycling trails in the Midwest. Its flat terrain provides easy bicycling through an area of diverse natural beauty. Highlights include the valley of the Sturgeon River and its tributaries and the section north of Topinabee along the west side of Mullet Lake. Besides the terminal towns of Gaylord and Mackinaw City, Vanderbilt, Wolverine, Indian River, Topinabee, and Cheboygan also offer plenty of amenities. Gaylord’s Aspen Park has several additional miles of paved and unpaved multipurpose trails. For more information, go to www.trailscouncil.org.

Sturgeon River Campground & RV Resort is a toy hauler’s paradise and offers year-round access to Northern Michigan. On one side of the resort is the Sturgeon River, famed trout stream and a great river for canoeing, kayaking or float tubing. On the other side is the bike trail (snowmobile trail in winter months). You can ride your bike from your site directly to the trail.

Holmes County Trail, Ohio
In the heart of the largest Amish community in the country, this 12-mile trail has a bike lane and an adjacent Amish buggy lane. It also runs right next to (and has a connection with) a Wal-Mart parking lot in the town of Millersburg, where you can park and spend the night to get an early start on the trail when the birds are waking and the animals stirring. You could also enjoy an after-dinner stroll on the trail as the day fades to evening.

A trailhead at the southern Hipp Station in Millersburg is adjacent to the restored historic Millersburg train depot that serves as the trail’s headquarters. A visitors center features wildlife displays, trail information, restrooms, vending machines, a covered picnic area and a playground. The trail meanders north out of Millersburg at an easy, even grade, passing bird and wildlife-friendly wetlands. At mile 6.5, the trail passes through Holmesville and continues by farm fields and tree-lined streams to the Fredericksburg trailhead and the trail’s north end. For more information, visit www.holmestrail.com.

The Cowboy Trail, Nebraska

In the 1870s, this 321-mile rail corridor supplied settlements across northern Nebraska and to the gold fields of the Black Hills. Soon after the trains stopped in 1992 the Conservancy bought the right-of-way to what is the nation’s longest recreational rail-to-trails project, and now in progress. Of the 250 miles currently in development, only about 50 are open for use. This historic corridor passes from east to west through the farmland of the Elkhorn River valley, into plains ranchland, across the scenic Niobrara River valley and over the Niobrara River on a 148-foot high bridge, along the northern Sandhills, and to the edge of the Pine Ridge.

Regardless of where you enter and exit the Cowboy Trail, you will soon be immersed in nature, where squirrels, rabbits, turkeys, pheasants, songbirds and bald eagles live along the Elkhorn River. Along the Cowboy Trail, travelers discover many ghosts from the corridor’s railroad past: weathered mileposts, buildings and structures that once served the railroad or businesses tied to it, and an 1880’s grist mill with its original equipment still inside. For more information, visit www.ngpc.state.ne.us/parks/guides/trails/cowboy/cowboy.asp.

Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail, New Jersey
Built in the early 1830s, the D&R Canal served as a transportation route between Philadelphia and New York, and is filled with 19th-century bridges and bridge-tender houses, remnants of locks, cobblestone spillways, and hand-built stone-arched culverts. The upper portion of the feeder canal follows the Delaware River through several historic towns. The main canal passes the Port Mercer bridge-tender’s house, then through the quaint villages of Kingston and Griggstown to Blackwell’s Mills, ending in New Brunswick. Canoes can be rented at Griggstown and Princeton and RV sites are available at the Bull’s Island Recreational Area of the D&R Canal State Park. For more information, visit www.traillink.com/trail/delaware-and-raritan-canal-state-park-trail.aspx.

Allegheny Highlands Trail, West Virginia
Allegheny Highlands Trail follows the original route of the West Virginia Central and Pittsburgh Railway built in 1884. For 24.5 miles, this pristine and scenic trail provides panoramic views of the West Virginia countryside, passing through mountains with small towns and by rural farmland, across the Shavers Fork and following the Black Fork River to the small town of Hendricks. Plans include extending the trail north to Mount Storm Lake. For more information, visit www.traillink.com/trail/allegheny-highlands-trail-of-wv.aspx.

Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, Massachusetts

Nestled in the Hoosic River Valley between Mount Greylock and the Hoosac Mountains, the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail takes its name from a Native American word meaning “the pleasant river between the hills.” Views of the mountains, lakes, river, and ample rest areas contribute to the trail’s popularity. Beginning at the Berkshire Mall (plenty of parking) in Lanesborough, the 11.2-mile route parallels State Route 8 through Cheshire to Adams as the trail parallels the town’s restored main street, with quaint stores and eateries, ending at the Discover the Berkshires Visitor Center.

At mile 2.7, the trail enters wetlands and the 418-acre Cheshire Reservoir for bird-watching as well as fishing. If you’re not up for the return trip by trail, you can catch a Berkshire Regional Transit Authority bus back to the Berkshire Mall. For more information, visit www.traillink.com/trail/ashuwillticook-rail-trail.aspx.

Chief Ladiga Trail, Alabama
In northeast Alabama, the nearly 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail follows a former CSX railroad corridor and is named for the Creek Indian leader who signed the 1832 Cusseta Treaty surrendering the tribe’s remaining land in the area. The trail winds from Anniston northeast through small towns and quiet countryside to the state line, passing open fields, beneath canopies of pine, dogwood and other native trees, and along wetlands. Just off the trail in Jacksonville is the historic town square (lunch and shop) then on to Piedmont’s trail welcome center, benches and a sandwich shop just steps away. From Piedmont the Duggar Mountain and southern Appalachians provide a backdrop to fields that transition to forests then through protected wilderness within the Talladega National Forest. The Chief Ladiga Trail recently connected Alabama with a Georgia rail-trail, making the two projects — totaling 95 miles — the longest paved bike path in America. The new Stateline Gateway’s opening ceremony featured 95-year-old Granny Porter — whose adjoining house straddles both states — representing the 95 miles of trail. She tied together a bundle of ribbons brought to her by kids from both states. For more information, visit www.traillink.com/trail/chief-ladiga-trail.aspx.

Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, Northern Idaho

This scenic bike path follows the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way from Mullan, a mountain mining town near the Montana border, to Plummer near the Washington border. More than 72 miles of paved path takes visitors from high mountain splendor, through the historic Silver Valley, into the chain lakes region along the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, over the Chatcolet Bridge to Heyburn State Park, and finally to the Palouse prairie. To learn more, visit www.friendsofcdatrails.org.

George S. Mickelson Trail, South Dakota
The George S. Mickelson Trail, (featured as a Trail-of-the-Month by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy), winds for 109 miles through the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota, a path where the ghosts of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane still roam. Its gentle slopes and easy access allow people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills. There are more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four hard-rock tunnels along the trail, much of which passes through the solitude of national-forest land, miles from any roads or highways. To learn more, visit www.mickelsontrail.com.

Find a Trail Near You

To find the rail-trail closest to you, log on to www.traillink.com, a free service provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. When you search TrailLink for trails, the resultant page shows a map with parking areas for trail access, restrooms and trail features such as drinking fountains and tunnels. Trail facts outline the trail statistics, such as the counties the trail passes through; the trail length, surface (asphalt, crushed limestone, dirt, etc.); and several suitable trail activities such as hiking and mountain biking. The site also features a “Trail of the Month,” which explores a different rail-trail each month from around the country.

Clicking on the “Find a Trail” tab will enable visitors to locate trails in any part of the country in which they are traveling — showing all the trails in that area with maps to each.

To learn more or to become a member and support the work of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, call (202) 331-9696 or check out www.railstotrails.org.

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