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The 8 Best Rail Trails in the U.S.

Rail trails, repurposed from old railway lines, offer some of the most scenic and accessible pathways for hiking, biking, and outdoor exploration. These trails blend history with natural beauty, often winding through diverse landscapes, quaint towns, and historical landmarks. In this blog, we’ll explore eight of the best rail trails in the U.S., each offering a unique experience for nature enthusiasts and adventurers alike.

1. Great Allegheny Passage (Maryland to Pennsylvania)

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) is a 150-mile rail trail stretching from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This iconic trail traverses the scenic Appalachian Mountains, offering breathtaking views and a rich historical backdrop. The GAP connects with the C&O Canal Towpath in Cumberland, creating a continuous 335-mile trail from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh.

Along the GAP, you’ll encounter charming small towns like Frostburg and Ohiopyle, each with unique attractions and amenities. The trail passes through tunnels, over viaducts, and alongside rivers, providing a diverse and engaging experience for cyclists and hikers. Historical sites, such as the Big Savage Tunnel and the Mason-Dixon Line, add to the trail’s allure, making it a journey through both nature and history.

2. Katy Trail State Park (Missouri)

Stretching across nearly 240 miles, the Katy Trail is the longest rail trail in the United States. This Missouri gem follows the route of the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, running from Machens to Clinton. The trail offers a relatively flat, crushed limestone surface, making it accessible for cyclists, runners, and walkers of all skill levels.

The Katy Trail winds through some of Missouri’s most picturesque landscapes, including the scenic Missouri River Valley, dense forests, and expansive farmlands. Along the way, you’ll find numerous small towns like Rocheport and Hermann, which offer cozy bed-and-breakfasts, wineries, and charming eateries. The trail’s proximity to the river provides ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and birdwatching, enhancing the overall outdoor experience.

3. Mickelson Trail (South Dakota)

The George S. Mickelson Trail is a 109-mile pathway that cuts through the heart of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Named after a former governor who championed its creation, the Mickelson Trail offers an unforgettable journey through some of the region’s most dramatic landscapes. The trail stretches from Edgemont to Deadwood, passing through dense pine forests, rugged mountains, and open prairies.

The trail’s surface is a mix of crushed limestone and gravel, suitable for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Along the route, you’ll encounter historic mining towns, tunnels, and over 100 converted railroad bridges. Points of interest include the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mount Rushmore, and Wind Cave National Park, all within a short detour from the trail. The Mickelson Trail is a perfect blend of natural beauty and historical intrigue, providing a unique adventure in the Black Hills.

4. Elroy-Sparta State Trail (Wisconsin)

One of the oldest rail trails in the United States, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin is a 32-mile pathway renowned for its three historic tunnels. These tunnels, the longest of which stretches nearly three-quarters of a mile, are a highlight of the trail and provide a cool respite on warm days.

The trail runs between the towns of Elroy and Sparta, passing through lush farmlands, rolling hills, and charming small towns. The crushed limestone surface is ideal for biking and hiking, making it accessible to a wide range of users. Along the way, you’ll find picnic areas, campgrounds, and local eateries offering a taste of Wisconsin’s hospitality. The trail’s rich history and scenic beauty make it a must-visit destination for rail trail enthusiasts.

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5. High Line (New York City)

The High Line in New York City is a unique urban rail trail that transforms an old elevated railway into a vibrant public park. Stretching 1.45 miles along Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line offers a green oasis in the heart of the bustling city. The trail runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, passing through the Chelsea and Hudson Yards neighborhoods.

The High Line is renowned for its innovative design, blending natural landscaping with modern art installations and historic elements. The trail features gardens, seating areas, and scenic viewpoints that offer stunning vistas of the city skyline and the Hudson River. Throughout the year, the High Line hosts various cultural events, performances, and community activities, making it a dynamic and ever-changing destination. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, the High Line provides a unique way to experience New York City from above.

6. Virginia Creeper Trail (Virginia)

The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34-mile rail trail that winds through the picturesque landscapes of southwestern Virginia. The trail runs from Abingdon to Whitetop Station, passing through the charming town of Damascus, often referred to as “Trail Town USA.” The Virginia Creeper Trail follows the route of the former Virginia-Carolina Railroad, offering a scenic journey through forests, farmland, and alongside the rushing waters of Whitetop Laurel Creek.

The trail’s surface is a mix of crushed gravel and dirt, making it suitable for biking, hiking, and horseback riding. One of the most popular sections of the trail is the 17-mile downhill stretch from Whitetop to Damascus, which provides a gentle and exhilarating ride through some of the trail’s most beautiful scenery. The trail is rich in history, with numerous interpretive signs and historical markers along the route. The Virginia Creeper Trail is a beloved destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a perfect blend of natural beauty and small-town charm.

7. Minuteman Bikeway (Massachusetts)

The Minuteman Bikeway is an 11-mile rail trail that runs through the historic landscapes of Massachusetts. The trail stretches from Cambridge to Bedford, passing through the towns of Arlington and Lexington. The Minuteman Bikeway follows the route of the former Boston and Maine Railroad, offering a scenic and historical journey through some of New England’s most iconic landscapes.

The trail is paved and well-maintained, making it accessible for cyclists, runners, and walkers of all ages and abilities. Along the route, you’ll find numerous historical sites related to the American Revolution, including the Lexington Battle Green and the site of Paul Revere’s famous ride. The trail also passes through scenic parks, woodlands, and wetlands, providing ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and nature appreciation. The Minuteman Bikeway is a perfect blend of history and nature, offering a unique way to explore the rich heritage of Massachusetts.

8. Tammany Trace (Louisiana)

The Tammany Trace is a 31-mile rail trail that winds through the lush landscapes of Louisiana’s Northshore region. The trail runs from Covington to Slidell, passing through the towns of Abita Springs, Mandeville, and Lacombe. The Tammany Trace follows the route of the former Illinois Central Railroad, offering a scenic journey through pine forests, wetlands, and alongside the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

The trail is paved and suitable for biking, walking, and horseback riding. Along the route, you’ll find numerous parks, playgrounds, and trailheads with amenities like restrooms and water fountains. The Tammany Trace is also home to the popular Abita Mystery House and the historic Mandeville Trailhead, which hosts concerts and community events throughout the year. The trail’s natural beauty and vibrant community make it a beloved destination for outdoor enthusiasts in Louisiana.

Conclusion

These eight rail trails represent some of the best pathways for exploring the diverse landscapes and rich histories of the United States. From the mountainous regions of South Dakota to the urban oasis of New York City, each trail offers a unique experience for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you’re looking for a leisurely bike ride, a scenic hike, or a historical journey, these rail trails provide a perfect opportunity to connect with nature and discover the beauty of the American landscape. So, grab your bike or lace up your hiking boots and embark on an adventure along one of these remarkable rail trails.

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