Rails-to-trails projects have enhanced enjoyment of the outdoors by turning old railways into recreation spots located all across the United States.
By James and Dorothy Richardson
In the early 20th century, the United States had the largest railroad system in the world, with nearly 300,000 miles of track. Today that impressive system has shrunk to less than 145,000 miles, and more than 2,000 miles of railroad tracks are abandoned annually.
This trend provides that much more of an opportunity when it comes to the development of rail-trails. Converting abandoned or unused railroad corridors into recreational trails is the ultimate recycling project. It is the purpose and objective of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The organization began in 1986 and has successfully led the transformation of more than 1,300 rail-trails, which translates into more than 13,000 miles of outdoor recreation.
Pedestrians, runners, bicyclists, inline skaters, horseback riders, skiers, and people in wheelchairs use the trails. The popular routes connect towns, communities, and people.
Former railways are fairly level and are easily converted into trails. The rails and ties are removed to be recycled, and other than that, few modifications are required. Of course, they are resurfaced in some form, whether that means asphalt, concrete, ballast, crushed stone, sand, dirt, or cinders.
Most trails have navigational signs. All have access points, with parking areas that can be (but are not always) large enough to park motorhomes. Services such as fuel stations, refreshment stands, bicycle rentals, and more are sometimes found at the end-points or access points of the trails.
Currently there are approximately 1,100 projects ongoing. When those are combined with the number already completed, the total represents plenty of variety and opportunity for comfortable and convenient outdoor recreation.
Every state has at least one rail-trail. Louisiana, Wyoming, and Nevada have only one each. Alaska and Hawaii each have two. Many states have dozens. Michigan has more than 100, as does Pennsylvania. California, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington have more than 50 each. Many states are consistently adding new rail-trails, providing more opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
Rail-trails not only connect communities, as did the railroads they replaced, but they also pass through some of the country’s most scenic areas. All terrains “” from beachfronts to lakefronts and industrial areas to residential districts “” are covered by rail-trails. You’ll travel through forests and tunnels, hills and hollows, and over rivers and bays. Grab a bicycle, inline skates, or your favorite walking shoes and start exploring.
Florida’s Pinellas Trail
The Pinellas Trail is one of the most popular rail-trails in Florida “” and, at 34 miles, one of the longest in the state. It is also the third most-used trail in the United States, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Approximately 90,000 people use this paved trail every month. The trail links Tarpon Springs with St. Petersburg, and connects many of the incorporated towns along the scenic peninsula between these towns, passing through urban areas as well as less-populated coastal parts. To travel its entire length would enable the walker, bicyclist, or inline skater to sample most terrains in Florida.
Several access points ensure convenience, and the route follows bridges that allow the user to avoid bays and busy intersections. Plenty of services are available throughout the county.
Two spurs to the Pinellas Trail add even more opportunities to this beautifully situated trail. In the northern section in Tarpon Springs, a spur along East Lake Road adds approximately 4 more miles. Another 2½-mile spur at Dunedin allows access to Honeymoon Island. From there a ferry takes visitors to Caladesi Island State Park, but passengers must be on foot (no bicycles). The rail-trail to Honeymoon Island is adjacent to the Dunedin Causeway, which has free unpaved parking, most of which is along the beach.
Numerous campgrounds can be found along or near the Pinellas Trail. One of the most popular spots to park a motorhome is in Fort DeSoto State Park near St. Petersburg Beach in southern Pinellas County. Make reservations first, as it fills quickly; phone (727) 582-2267 or visit www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_DeSoto.htm or www.pinellastrail.com for more information.
Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park
The longest rail-trail in the United States to date is the Katy Trail State Park in Missouri. Its end-points are St. Charles (north of St. Louis) to the east and North Clinton to the west. The 225 miles are predominantly paved with crushed stone, and the trail parallels a good part of the Missouri River and a portion of the route used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Its name comes from the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad, better known as the Katy.
The terrain varies from farmland, dense forests, high bluffs along the river, deep valleys, prairies, and open pastureland. Many forms of wildlife and plant life can be enjoyed along the way.
St. Charles is at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition began 200 years ago. In downtown St. Charles, the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center celebrates that expedition. It is also here beside the Missouri River that the Katy Trail begins its 225-mile route across the countryside of the state. A portion of the trail between St. Charles and Boonville (in the central part of Missouri) has been named the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail because of its proximity to the explorers’ path.
You can set up camp in the east-central part of the state to enjoy St. Charles and this section of the trail, or anywhere along it for that matter. Search out a campground using your favorite directory. For more information about the Katy Trail State Park, call (800) 334-6946 or visit www.mostateparks.com/katytrail/.
Michigan’s Kent Trails
Visitors to Grand Rapids, Michigan, will enjoy a 15-mile asphalt route that starts in the northern part of town and ends in Byron Township to the south. This trail encompasses some surface streets and other easements to complete the route. On its course, the trail passes through urban areas, along and across the Grand Rapids River, beside and under Interstate 196, and through open countryside and parks. Although it is a shorter rail-trail than the others listed, it offers a variety of landscapes. That is another benefit of rail-trails; they give travelers different perspectives on each part of the country.
Four main access points to Kent Trails are available; three are parks. John Ball Park and Zoo; Johnson Park; and Douglas Walker Park. These all offer parking spaces. Limited parking is available at the south end of the trail in Byron Center at 84th Street.
The trail parallels the Grand Rapids River on the northern leg, which starts at John Ball Park, passes through Millennium Park, and ends in Johnson Park. At the Grand River Bridge in downtown Grand Rapids, another leg of the trail turns southward through the city and ends at Byron Center.
The trail passes very near the Gerald R. Ford Museum, which is on the banks of the Grand Rapids River. Another popular attraction of the city is Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a combination sculpture garden, botanical garden, and children’s learning playground. Millennium Park is a relatively new development with a water park, fishing lakes and swimming lakes, a beach, and other trails.
All of Kent Trails is handicapped-accessible. Because rail-trails are mostly level with no sharp turns, beginning inline skaters should have little difficulty. Also, Michigan trails offer another facet to the outdoor enjoyment: cross-country snow skiing.
For more information, contact the Kent County Parks Department at (616) 366-7275 or visit www.accesskent.com.
Alabama’s Monte Sano Railway Trail
High atop Monte Sano Mountain overlooking Huntsville is a rail-trail unlike the others; it follows track laid in 1888 for the Monte Sano Railway. The 2 miles of converted railway connected the Huntsville Depot to the Hotel Monte Sano. The hotel was actually a health resort built during the period of yellow fever, cholera, and diphtheria. It was believed that clean mountain air might help visitors recover more quickly.
The railway operated only a short time and went bankrupt in 1896. The tracks were salvaged, and the trestles and bridges were taken apart and used for firewood and building supplies. The trail is rocky and the terrain is hilly, making a hiker wonder how the railroad was built at all. But there is evidence of the supports for the trestles. Signs along the trail describe the old railroad features.
While you’re in Huntsville, you may want to see the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the Huntsville Botanical Garden, and the Museum of Art.
You can stay at 2,140-acre Monte Sano State Park, which offers good vistas of Huntsville and the countryside below. A campground with full hookups is available. Getting to the park should be no problem for motorhomes; a turnoff about midway up Monte Sano Mountain to the parking area for the Land Trust provides a motorhome-accessible parking lot for rail-trail users. For information about camping at the park, or simply visiting, call (256) 534-3757 or visit www.alapark.com.
The concept of rail-trails is a great way to recycle abandoned railroad routes into convenient opportunities for outdoor recreation. With a rail-trail in every state, your chances of finding one are pretty good. Look for a rail-trail at the next destination, and it will be a great way to further enjoy the outdoors.
1100 17th St.
10th Floor N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
Trail Location Finder: www.traillink.com
Comprehensive regional rail-trail guidebooks are available from the Conservancy. They may be ordered over the Rails-To-Trails Web site or by calling the conservancy.