A Beginner’s Guide to the Great American Rail Trail
Across the country, old U.S. railway lines have been reclaimed by communities and transformed into places to play. Wide, flat, scenic, and removed from traffic, these multi-use trails are worth seeking out.
In the 1960s, a group of railroad history lovers and outdoor enthusiasts in Washington, D.C., organized an effort to preserve unused railroad corridors as public multi-use trails. Their efforts began with a letter to the editor at the Chicago Tribune, and by 1986, the movement had grown into a nonprofit organization known as the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Now, some 30 years later, there are more than 2,000 rail trails scattered across the United States that range in length from a few miles to 240 miles (Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park). Some are well-known, like New York's beloved High Line,
while others are small-town secrets. Most trails are open for a variety of public activities, including walking, biking, horseback riding, and even snowmobiling. So dust off those running shoes and make the most of the spring weather by visiting one of these eight great rail-trails across the country.
1. Elroy-Sparta State Trail
In 1965, the 32.5-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail became the first rails-to-trails project in the country. It follows the path of the former Chicago and North Western Railroad line through five small towns. The project began a year after the trains stopped running. Highlights of the trail include three rock tunnels, including the .75-mile long Norwalk tunnel. The trail draws over 60,000 hikers, walkers, and bikers annually, and snowmobiles are permitted on the trail in the winter. (Note: Bikers over the age of 16 must purchase a trail pass for $5.)
2. Atlanta BeltLine
The Atlanta BeltLine, one the largest redevelopment projects in the country, is transforming a 22-mile stretch of railway corridors into a trail that connects 45 neighborhoods. The ongoing project covers four inactive freight train lines and will include 33 miles of multi-use trails when it is completed in 2030. Currently, four sections of the trail are open, including the popular 2.3-mile West End Trail, which, in 2008, was the first portion to open.
3. Island Line Rail Trail
This stunning 12.4-mile trail begins in the southern part of Burlington and traces the shores of Lake Champlain before ending on a 2.5-mile raised rail bed that juts across the lake. The trail ends abruptly, but at the terminus, the views of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains are unmatched. A seasonal bike ferry connects the causeway to South Hero Island, where visitors can try out one of the Champlain Islands bikeways. These include the 15-mile South Hero loop, which passes four miniature stone castles built on the island by a local gardener as a reminder of his native Switzerland.
4. Island Line Rail Trail
The epic 49.3-mile Pinellas Trail is part of the Coast-to-Coast Connector project, which will span 250 miles across the state of Florida. The trail begins in St. Petersburg and heads north to Tarpon Springs before jutting into Paseo County, a five-mile addition that opened last summer. The first 15 miles offer scenic views of St. Petersburg, and mile marker 29 is a great spot for views of the Gulf.
5. Capital Crescent Trail
The 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail starts in Silver Spring, Maryland, and ends in the historic Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where it traces the Potomac River. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife—deer, foxes, and birds—and the occasional Congressperson jogging along. (Note: The trail is currently closed east of Bethesda until 2022 for construction of a light-rail line.)
6. Spruce Railroad Trail
Postcard-perfect views of Olympic National Park’s snowcapped mountains, glacier lakes, and old-growth forests are the rewards of the 19.6-mile Olympic Discovery Trail–Spruce Railroad Trail in Washington State. The trail follows the path of the Spruce Railroad, which was built by the U.S. military during World War I to transport lumber for warplanes from coastal forests to Port Angeles. Ironically, the line was completed 19 days before the war ended. The track was taken over by commercial logging companies until 1954 and eventually converted into a trail. (Note: A one-mile section of the trail is closed until the end of July for improvements starting at the Camp David Jr. Road Trailhead.)