A century ago, railroads were the most innovative form of transport in the U.S. Today, thousands of miles of unused or abandoned railway tracks across the country are finding new life as recreational trails for walking, cycling, horseback riding, skiing and fishing. Dubbed the “rails to trails” movement, this land-use recycling concept appeals to outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers seeking public access to open space in their community.
Peter Harnik, co-founder of Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC), the leading advocacy group for the movement, says the concept dates to 1965 in the Midwest, where small towns began to turn abandoned tracks into public trails. “Only gradually did there emerge a realization that America desperately needs a national trails system, and that unused rail corridors are the perfect backbone for that network,” he says.
Building a Community RTC
According to Ella Belling, executive director of the Monongahela River Trails Conservancy (MRTC) in Morgantown, W.V., in 1989 a small group of citizens there rallied around the notice that CSX planned to abandon the rail line that is now the Mon River Rail-Trail network.
Purchase and construction of the Mon River and Deckers Creek corridors relied on the Division of Highways Transportation Alternatives Program. “At the federal level, this funding has community-matched grants that support pedestrian and biking facilities,” she explains. Now 51 miles long, The Mons River Trail has proven immensely popular and even become a moneymaker, serving as a tourist draw.
Top-rated Rails to Trails
Around 1,900 trails, covering more than 22,000 miles, currently exist around the country. In the east, one of the best is the longest multipurpose trail, the Great Allegheny Passage, a 335-mile corridor from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Highlights include the 3,300-foot illuminated Big Savage Tunnel.
In the country’s northeast, the most popular trail is Vermont’s Island Line Rail Trail that offers 15 miles of scenic beauty with the Green Mountains in the foreground, flanked by Lake Champlain.
RTC buffs down south rank the Silver Comet Trail in Georgia and Chief Ladiga Trail in Alabama as favorites. The 95-mile linked corridor starts outside Atlanta, winding through small towns and selfie must-stops at the Pumpkinvine Trestle and Brushy Mountain Tunnel. Once in Alabama, the trail traverses a diversity of landscapes that includes cottonfields, cliffs and ponds.
One of the most popular rail trails in the Midwest is the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin, famed for its three tunnels where the spontaneous chorus of singing and whistling of passing visitors wafts into the surrounding countryside dotted with Amish and organic farms.
Out west, RTC enthusiasts love the 73 mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho, where they can spot moose and take in spectacular lake views. The nearby 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha, also in Idaho, is known for its high-wire trestles in the Bitterroot Mountains.
Starting a Local RTC
Belling suggests communities interested in starting a rails-to-trails project begin by signing up for the Early Warning System at the RTC website that lists impending railway abandonments, and visit other trails for feedback on best practices. “The Rails to Trails Conservancy is also a tremendous resource for learning how to negotiate ownership, fund, build community support, and build and maintain rail-trail.”