Exploring beautiful landscapes by bike is a terrific way to explore America’s stunning diversity. While most travel plans are on hold for now and the foreseeable future, there will be a time when you’ll be able to oil your bicycle gears once more to “ride the rails.” When that time comes, take advantage of this affordable, healthy and environmentally friendly form of travel by checking out some of the best recreational paths in America. Known as rail trails, these paths were created from 31,000 miles of former rail lines around the country. These scenic, sometimes historic paths come in all lengths, and many are flat and family-friendly. You can bring your own bikes or rent them from towns and stops along the trails. Some fun paths are listed below, and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s website and its TrailLink finder have helpful resourcesy ou can use for when you’re ready to go on biking trips again.
1. Island Line Rail Trail in Burlington, Vermont
Burlington’s Island Line Rail Trail, a 13.4-mile trail extends from Oakledge Park south of downtown across the glistening, deep blue Lake Champlain. The asphalt and gravel multi-use path travels along part of the lakefront past downtown’s Waterfront Park and city beaches, providing spectacular views of the lake and New York’s Adirondack Mountains. You can also ride over the Winooski River on an elevated boardwalk. Another highlight is the section on the lake itself, where the Rutland Railroad used pieces of marble to create a railbed in 1899. Today this causeway, part of a rail line built to connect Vermont’s dairy farmers with markets, offers bikers, joggers and walkers a panoramic look at the huge lake, Vermont’s Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. You can explore more about the lake at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.
2. Katy Trail State Park in Missouri
At 240 miles long, the Katy Trail is America’s longest developed rail trail, stretching from Clinton (southeast of Kansas City) in the west to the former town of Machens near St. Charles (close to St. Louis). The crushed stone and gravel path, built between 1990 and 2011, was formerly part of the Missouri‒Kansas‒Texas Railroad, known as MKT or Katy. A section of the trail parallels the scenic Missouri River and is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Railroad history is also preserved at four train depots and in markers at the trail’s 26 trailheads. You might start near Jefferson City, the state capital and enjoy a riverside section of the trail from the capital northwest to Boonville. Or, head east along the river from Jefferson City toward Hermann, with its German heritage and vineyards. Wherever you go, natural beauty and history abound.
3. Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy of The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail
Although Washington is more famous for its monuments and museums than for natural beauty, the Capital Crescent Trail reveals lush greenery and wildlife. Extending from the chic Georgetown neighborhood to Silver Spring, Maryland, the easy 11-mile-long, paved and crushed stone trail uses the former rail line of the Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Start in Georgetown, with its stylish shops, restaurants and Washington Harbour. The trail runs along the Potomac River, by Georgetown Waterfront Park and the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and its towpath. Native trees and water views make it easy to forget the city; the trail also passes through some upscale neighborhoods. Note that Metrorail construction has altered the final 3.5 miles from Bethesda into Silver Spring until 2023; it’s best to enjoy other sections. The Capital Crescent Trail also connects to Rock Creek Park trails in Georgetown.
4. Tammany Trace in Covington to Slidell, Louisiana
Photo by Kevin Garrett / courtesy of LouisianaNorthshore.com
Less than an hour from New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the Tammany Trace embraces both nature and five appealing, family-friendly towns with plenty to see: Covington, Abita Springs, Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell. These features and its excellent maintenance won it a place in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2017. The Trace’s paved 31 miles reveal loblolly pines, live oaks and magnolias, and a wildlife conservation corridor has bayous, wetlands and streams. Lake beaches are nearby, too. You can hop on the Trace at trailheads in any of the towns; at the western end, Covington has a flavorful restaurant scene and a quaint downtown. The Trace was created after St. Tammany Parish bought part of the disused Illinois Central Railroad in 1992. Today, if you ride it all, you traverse 31 bridges on converted railroad trestles.
5. Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail in California
Photo courtesy of SeeMonterey.com
The rugged Pacific Coast entrances riders on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, a popular 18-mile paved trail passing through towns from Pacific Grove, near Monterey, north to Castroville. Along this multiuse path, you see pristine beaches appreciated by sunbathers, boaters and kayakers as well as by wildlife including seabirds, otters and even whales. The trail is on a former Southern Pacific Railroad line that was built to haul canned fish to markets around San Francisco. Start at the town’s southern trailhead at Lovers Point Park in Pacific Grove, with a view of the rocky shore. The trail passes famous sights in Monterey, from Cannery Row, where the sardine canneries John Steinbeck wrote about are now restaurants and shops, to the outstanding Monterey Bay Aquarium. After that, highlights are Fisherman’s Wharf and sandy Monterey State Beach. At the trail’s end, inland, Castroville is known for artichokes and the annual summer Artichoke Festival. (Note that this year's festival was postponed due to coronavirus.)