Rail trails are the ultimate in reusing and recycling. Converted from former railroad corridors, these multi-use paths carve gentle grades through cities and the countryside, making them family-friendly routes for hiking and biking. To date, there are more than 1,800 rail trails open nationwide, covering more than 21,000 miles. “They connect everyone to America’s most spectacular places,” says Jake Lynch, media relations specialist for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group whose fingerprints are on many of those trails.
Here are four top U.S. rail trails to explore.
Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail
This 25.4-mile rail trail is California’s longest. It follows the Susan River Canyon, which is bookended by the towns of Susanville and Westwood, nearly 300 miles north of San Francisco. With views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the trail is always picturesque, but it’s by far the most beautiful in the autumn. Susanville hosts a Rails-to-Trails Festival in late September or early October; the BLM and Forest Service host a fall-colors ride each October.
Great Allegheny Passage
An impressive 150 miles long, this Mid-Atlantic stretch covers the distance between Cumberland, Maryland, and McKeesport, Pennsylvania—basically, from suburban D.C. to Pittsburgh. The crushed-limestone path never climbs higher than a 1 percent grade through the Allegheny Mountains, traveling across the Eastern Continental Divide, along the Salisbury Viaduct that crosses the Casselman River Valley, and along the Yough River—where you can stop over for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Towns such as Rockwood, Confluence, Connesllsville, and West Newton—set along the trail about every ten miles—dish up cafés, bike shops, and B&Bs.
Although not long—spanning 14 miles—this is one of the most unusual rail trails around. It begins in downtown Burlington, Vermont, connecting the Burlington Bike Path, the Colchester Causeway, and the Allen Point Access Area. The entire route boasts handsome point-to-point scenery, but the real showstopper is a 3.5-mile causeway onto the waters of Lake Champlain. From the causeway, you can spot Mount Mansfield to the east and lighthouses to the west: it’s so popular that, when the embankment supporting the trail flooded a few years ago, local communities rallied to restore it quickly.
Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and Route of the Hiawatha
This lauded duo of trails loops through northern Idaho and into Montana. The 73-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes begins at the Washington state line, then heads along the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene, over the Chatcolet Bridge, and through Heyburn State Park, revered as a paddling destination—until reaching Montana’s state line. At the end of the trail, you can opt to follow an offshoot, or return via the 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha, known for its high-wire trestles through the Bitterroot Mountains.