10 Best Rail Trails
Published: June 2009
By Jane Margolies
Across the country, old railbeds have been transformed into the ultimate bike paths. Here, 10 rides to get the whole gang in gear.
Only on the Web: Recommended food stops along the 10 highlighted trails
THE ESSENTIALS Since 1965, more than 1,200 trails have opened on former railways nationwide, drawing bikers—along with hikers, bladers, and wheelchair users—in droves. No wonder: the paths are often flat (so even fledgling riders can get rolling) and almost always scenic (mountains! rivers! bridges!). Here, our guide to the 10 routes featured on our map. For other options, go to www.traillink.com, a service of the Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
1 Bizz Johnson Trail
Susanville to Westwood, California (30 miles)
Start at the 1927 train station in Susanville, 208 miles northeast of San Francisco, and don't stop until you see the 25-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan watching over the Westwood trail-head. You'll slice through forests of fir and pine, and crisscross the Susan River Canyon—bridges and trestles take you over the water 12 times.
STAY AT In Susanville, the Roseberry House (609 North St.; 530/257-5675; www.roseberryhouse.com; suites from $99, double, additional guests $25 each), a 1902 Victorian B&B, is near the trail, as is the Best Western Trailside Inn (2785 Main St.; 800/780-7234; www.bestwestern.com; doubles $69).
RENT WHEELS FROM The Susanville Railroad Depot Trailhead Visitor Center (601 Richmond Rd.; 530/257-3252; open May-October) has bikes, maps, and shuttle schedules—and an old caboose to climb around in. Also in Susanville: the Bike Station (702 Main St.; 530/257-2525) and Bicycles Etc. (801 Cottage St.; 530/257-0711).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Latter-day lumberjacks (and jills) can see photos and artifacts from the heyday of logging at the tiny Westwood Museum (311 Ash St.; 530/256-2233).
TRIP TIP For a less strenuous ride, take a shuttle to Westwood and head east (downhill). Or try the easy 14 miles from Susanville to Devil's Corral and back; you'll still hit eight bridges and two tunnels.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Contact the visitors' center in Susanville (see above) or the Bureau of Land Management (530/257-0456; www.ca.blm.gov/eaglelake), which is responsible for the trail.
2 Lake Mineral Wells State Trailway
Mineral Wells to Weatherford, Texas (20 miles)
You may want to strap on chaps and don a Stetson before saddling up. This gentle canter, 40 miles west of Fort Worth, passes horse ranches, wildflower meadows, and pastures where longhorns graze. Be on the lookout for bison, bobcats, and white-tailed deer.
STAY AT The Dancing Oaks Ranch (940/374-3804; www.dancingoaksranch.com; cabin with full kitchen from $150), outside Weatherford, offers horseback-riding lessons and trail rides. Lake Mineral Wells State Park (940/328-1171; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lakemine; tent sites from $11, plus $3 per person 13 and older) has fishing, swimming, and cowboy-themed concerts.
RENT FROM Bluebonnet Bicycle Adventures (Mineral Wells; 940/327-8000).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE The local waters have been touted for their curative properties since the 1800's. Test them yourself on a tour of the Famous Well Water Co. (940/325-8870).
TRIP TIP To use the trail you need a pass ($2 per adult), on sale at entry points.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Contact the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (940/328-1171; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lakemine).
3 Katy Trail
St. Charles to Clinton, Missouri (225 miles)
America's longest rail trail runs east-west for almost the entire width of Missouri, following a section of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. Favorite spots: the towering bluffs along the Missouri River and the V-shaped petroglyph on a cave east of Rocheport.
STAY AT You can sleep in a converted boxcar at the Katy O'Neil Bed & Bikefest (101 Lewis St., Rocheport; 573/698-2453; www.katyoneil.com; doubles from $110, including bike rental; small extra charges for kids). The Ramada Inn in Jefferson City (1510 Jefferson St.; 800/272-6232; www.ramadajeffcity.com; doubles from $74) offers a free shuttle to the trail. The Katy Roundhouse (Mile 189, Katy Trail, New Franklin; 800/477-6605; www.katyroundhouse.com; tent sites from $24 for a family of four) has a depot turned restaurant that serves chicken and ribs on weekends.
RENT FROM Chuck's Bikes (200 E. Morgan St., Boonville; 660/537-2048).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Watch Madagascar hissing cockroaches race at the University of Missouri's Enns Entomology Museum (Columbia; 573/882-2410; www.museum.insecta.missouri.edu).
TRIP TIP The terrain is as flat as a pancake, so even a novice will be able to handle this trail. Be sure to carry bug spray.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Go to www.katytrail.showmestate.com. The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook is available from Pebble Publishing (573/698-3903; $16.95).
4 Little Miami Scenic Trail, Ohio
Milford to Springfield (68 miles)
Take a spin under lush maple, sycamore, and walnut trees beside Ohio's Little Miami River. Listen to the rushing water and smell the honeysuckle as you meander past farms, woodlands, and small towns.
STAY AT The Hatfield Inn Bed & Breakfast (2563 Hatfield Rd., Lebanon; 888/247-9793; www.bbonline.com/oh/hatfield; doubles from $88, plus $25 per child seven and older) is a 19th-century farmhouse overlooking a pond. Other choices: the Little Miami Scenic Trail Resort Village B&B (Loveland; 513/683-0090; cottages $145, including bike rental) or Morgan's Riverside Campground (Morrow; 513/899-9166; sites from $16).
RENT FROM Loveland Bike Rental (206 Railroad Ave., Loveland; 513/683-0468); Siemer Station (New Burlington Rd., Corwin; 513/897- 6465); or Corwin Peddler (69 Maple St., Waynesville; 513/897-3536).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Attention, aspiring archaeologists: you can learn about Hopewell Indians at Fort Ancient (6123 State Rte. 350, Fort Ancient; 800/283-8904), a 2,000-year-old ceremonial site surrounded by earthen walls.
TRIP TIP For an easy ride, start at the trail's southern end, in Milford (10 miles northeast of Cincinnati), and bike downstream.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Pay a visit to www.ohio4fun.org.
5 Pinellas Trail, Florida
St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs (35 miles)
An easy ride along the Gulf of Mexico. Hop off your bikes at the old seaport of Dunedin, which was revitalized with the opening of the trail. Be sure to be in Clearwater at sunset, when artists, magicians, and jugglers entertain the crowds on Pier 60.
STAY AT The Best Western Yacht Harbor Inn & Suites (150 Marina Plaza, Dunedin; 800/447-4728; www.bestwestern.com; doubles from $79, plus $10 per child 13 and older) is three blocks from the trail. Also consider the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort (400 Mandalay Ave.; 800/445-8667; www.hilton.com; doubles from $229).
RENT FROM In Dunedin: Pinellas Trail Bike Rentals (357 Scotland St.; 727/734-5976). In Tarpon Springs: Neptune Cyclery (13 S. Safford Ave.; 727/943-5805).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE It's Our Nature (727/441-2599; www.itsournature.com) offers family-oriented guided walks of two Gulf islands: Honeymoon Island, where ospreys nest, and Caladesi Island, where there are three ecosystems within 3 1/2 miles.
TRIP TIP The 15-foot-wide paved trail is flat, so bikers—and rollerbladers and wheelchair users—breeze along. Don't worry if you can't make it back to your starting point; all buses in Pinellas County are equipped with bike racks.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Call Pinellas Trail Inc. (727/464-2312).
6 Virginia Creeper Trail, Virginia
Abingdon to Whitetop (34 miles)
More than 100,000 people a year visit this southwestern Virginia trail. It's a glorious stretch from Abingdon, where a retired steam engine marks the trailhead, to Whitetop Mountain, the state's second-highest peak. In between: woods, waterfalls, and 36 trestles—including one that's (hang on!) 526 feet long.
STAY AT The Martha Washington Inn (150 W. Main St., Abingdon; 276/628-3161; www.marthawashingtoninn.com; doubles $325 for two nights, including breakfast), an 1832 estate, welcomes kids. At the no-frills Creeper Trail Cottages (on the trail at mile 16, Damascus; 276/492-6207; www.creepercottage.com; doubles $115), you can fish for trout in the river bordering the property.
RENT FROM In Damascus: Blue Blaze Bike & Shuttle Service (227 W. Laurel Ave.; 800/475-5095); Adventure Damascus Bicycles (128 W. Laurel Ave.; 276/475-6262).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Catch a kids' show at Abingdon's Barter Theatre (276/628-3991; www.bartertheatre.com), or take a hike to see the wild ponies at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park (Rte. 58, near Volney; 276/579-7092).
TRIP TIP If you have a shuttle drop you at the high point of the trail in Whitetop, the 15 miles to Damascus sail by.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Go to www.vacreepertrail.org. Call the Abingdon Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/435-3440) for the Guide to the Virginia Creeper Trail.
7 Capital Crescent Trail, Washington, D.C.
Georgetown to Silver Spring, MD. (12 miles)
You're in Washington, D.C., en famille. Need a break between museums and memorials?Hop onto this flat asphalt-and-crushed-stone trail overlooking the Potomac River and the C&O Canal. Joining you: biking and rollerblading capital commuters.
STAY AT In Georgetown, the Washington Plaza (10 Thomas Circle NW; 800/424-1140; www.washingtonplazahotel.com; doubles from $149) and the Latham Hotel (3000 M St. NW; 800/528-4261; www.thelatham.com; doubles from $189) both have outdoor pools. Adam's Inn (1744 Lanier Place NW; 800/578-6807; www.adamsinn.com; doubles from $115, including breakfast; additional guests $10 each) is five blocks from the Rock Creek rail trail, in northern D.C.
RENT FROM Better Bikes (202/293-2080; www.betterbikesinc.com) delivers bikes, locks, backpacks, helmets, and trail maps right to your hotel, or to the trail.
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Let the kids climb all over The Awakening, sculptures depicting an enormous man rising out of the earth, at Potomac Park (Hains Point; 202/485-9880).
TRIP TIP To avoid parking nightmares, bike to the trail from your hotel. Want to add a few more miles to your ride?This route connects with two other rail trails.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Contact the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail (www.cctrail.org) or the Washington Area Bicycling Association (www.waba.org).
8 Island Line Rail Trail, Vermont
Colchester to Burlington (13 miles)
The next best thing to walking on water?Riding on it. At its northern end, this bracing trail extends three miles into Lake Champlain on a narrow causeway. The southern section skirts the waterfront in bike-friendly Burlington.
STAY AT In downtown Burlington, try the 14-room Willard Street Inn (349 S. Willard St.; 800/577-8712; www.willardstreetinn.com; doubles from $135, plus $20 per child 13 and older). The Shore Acres Inn & Restaurant (237 Shore Acres Dr., N. Hero Island; 802/372-8722; doubles from $90) overlooks Lake Champlain. Pitch your tent or park your RV at North Beach Campground (60 Institute Rd., Burlington; 802/862-0942; sites from $21) for direct access to the trail.
RENT FROM In Burlington: North Star Cyclery (100 Main St.; 802/863-3832); Ski Rack (85 Main St.; 802/658-3313).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Cruise the lake with Winds of Ireland (800/458-9301; www.windsofireland.com). For coneheads, the Ben & Jerry's factory (866/258-6877; www.benjerry.com), 26 miles from Burlington, offers tours and tastings.
TRIP TIP There are no services along the three-mile causeway, so bring snacks and make a pit stop before hitting that section.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Local Motion, a nonprofit cycling organization, operates the Trailside Center (1 Steele St.; 802/ 652-2453; www.localmotionvt.org/center) on the Burlington waterfront.
9 Switchback Railroad Trail, Pennsylvania
Jim Thorpe to Summit Hill (18 miles)
Head for the former mining town of Jim Thorpe, in the western Poconos, and pedal the route once used to carry coal down to barges on the Lehigh Canal. For an extra thrill, take the steep, rocky trail down Mount Pisgah.
STAY AT The Inn at Jim Thorpe (24 Broadway, Jim Thorpe; 800/329-2599; www.innjt.com; doubles from $105, plus $15 for kids seven and older) is a Victorian hotel in the town's historic district. Camp at Mauch Chunk Lake Park (625 Lentz Trail; 570/325-3669; sites $22) or Hickory Run State Park (570/443-0400; sites $19).
RENT FROM In Jim Thorpe: Blue Mountain Sports (800/599-4421; www.bikejimthorpe.com) and Pocono Whitewater Rafting (800/944-8392; www.whitewaterrafting.com).
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Learn about the highs and lows of Jim Thorpe's history, from the hilltop Asa Packer Mansion (30 Elk St.; 570/325-3229) to the gallows of the Old Jail Museum (128 W. Broadway; 570/325-5259). Or conquer the Lehigh River with Whitewater Challengers (800/443-8554; www.wc-rafting.com).
TRIP TIP The upper section of the mostly gravel trail is challenging. Also in Jim Thorpe, Lehigh Gorge State Park and the six-mile Lehigh Canal trail offer easier rides.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Call Carbon County Parks & Recreation (570/325-3669).
10 Elroy-Sparta State Trail, Wisconsin
Elroy to Sparta (32 miles)
The first rails-to-trails conversion in the nation—thank you, Wisconsin!—features three tunnels, one of which is really long (three-quarters of a mile), dark (bring a flashlight), and drippy (the water comes from underground springs).
STAY AT If you stay in one of the two cabins at Justin Trails B&B Resort (7452 Kathryn Ave., Sparta; 800/488-4521; www.justintrails.com; cabins $250), breakfast is delivered to your door. The Tunnel Trail Campground (26983 Hwy. 71, near Kendall; 608/435-6829; www.tunneltrail.com; sites from $40) has a pool, mini-golf, and bike rentals.
RENT FROM Speeds (1126 John St., Sparta; 608/269-2315). Out Spokin' Adventures (409 N. Court St., Sparta; 800/493-2453) delivers bikes and customizes tours.
WHEN YOU CAN'T BIKE ANOTHER MILE Switch saddles and go horseback riding at the Circle S stable (on the trail between Wilton and Kendall; 608/435-6975; $12 an hour). Or explore the Amish community in Cashton, 10 miles south of Sparta, on your own or with a guide from Down a Country Road (608/654-5318; www.downacountryroadamish.com; $40 for 1 1/2 hours, in your car).
TRIP TIP This moderately difficult trail is open May through October. Passes are sold at Kendall Depot Trail Headquarters (608/463-7109; $3 per adult).
FOR MORE INFORMATION Call trail headquarters in season (see above), or go to www.elroy-sparta-trail.org.
Additional reporting by Emily Holt.