Healthy Outdoor Living

Great Rail Trails for Biking and Hiking

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter September Outdoor Living Newsletter

During the turn of the century locomotives were used as the primary means of transporting people and goods from one part of the United States to another. By the 20th century, however, other means of transportation began to replace the locomotive. As a result, many of these railroads were abandoned and their tracks dismantled.

Today, these abandoned trails have been converted into beautiful hiking and biking trails. While many of these rail-to-trails provide a flat and gentle terrain ideal for hikers and bikers of all ages, there are a few that offer a bit more of a challenge for more advanced bikers and hikers.

If you and your family love biking and hiking outdoors, here are just some great rail-to-trail routes to try out on your next camping road trip.

ARIZONA (Springerville)

Bridge on Apache Railroad Multi-Use TrailApache Railroad Multi-Use Trail

Length:  19 miles
Level of difficulty:  Intermediate
Ideal for:  Biking, Hiking, Horseback Riding

Once a railroad used for hauling logs from the Apache National Forest, this is one of the many rail-to-trails that is currently maintained by the Rail-to-Trails Conservancy Organization. The trail starts at the Apache Reservation National Forest boundary, where you can find RV parks and campgrounds to spend the night. One of the unique features of the trail is the 80-foot trestle bridge. Although the bridge was reconstructed back in 1998, builders kept the same architectural design of the bridge, which dates back to the turn of the century. There are trailheads in four different locations that have ample parking space and toilets.

The northern half of the trail is covered with bunch grass, while the remaining part of the trail is comprised of loose cinder clods. There are also a number of different water crossings, which can be rather challenging to traverse. It is recommended to use footwear and bike tires with a firm thread when going down the trail

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FLORIDA (Gainesville)

Gainesville - Hawthorne State Trail
Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks

Gainesville - Hawthorne State Trail

Length:  16.5 miles
Level of difficulty:  Beginner to Intermediate
Ideal for:  Biking, Hiking, Inline Skating

This well maintained, asphalt-covered biking and hiking trail stretches between the university town of Gainesville and the rural town of Hawthorne. The trail also takes you through the Paynes Prairie State Reserve - one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the state, and where you can find a great campground to spend the night.

The 10-foot wide pathway runs through a number of different trailheads that are equipped with benches and a convenient store where you can take a break, replenish your drinking water, or grab a quick bite to boost your energy

While most of the trail is pretty much flat, there are a couple of hilly portions that provide a slight challenge when traversing down this trail. However, there are some spectacular views which include the occasional spotting of bison and wild horses. In addition, the trail also leads to another trail -f the La Chua Trail - whose unpaved, rough terrain makes it only ideal for hikers.

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KANSAS (Ottawa)

A family cycles past the Garnett Train Station on Prairie Spirit Trail
Photo courtesy of Garnett Tourism

Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail

Length:  51 miles
Level of difficulty:  Beginner
Ideal for:  Biking, Hiking, Inline Skating

The Prairie Spirit Rail-Trail is one of the relatively new trails opened to avid hikers and bikers in the state of Kansas. This 50-mile trail is located on what was once the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe rail corridor that was sold to the KCT Railway. Today, this trail serves people that love to bike and hike outdoors, as the trail cuts through the peaceful Kansas countryside, including numerous small towns where you can find RV parks and campgrounds to stay for the night.

Much of the trail is paved with a hard-packed limestone surface, making it easy to bike or hike. Certain sections of the trail, particularly those within the towns of Ottawa, Lola, and Garnett, have been paved with asphalt, making them excellent sections for beginners

All throughout the trail, you are treated to a number of old bridges and breathtaking countryside sceneries where it is common to chance upon cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, quail and grey horned owls as they go through the trail. There are also a number of different shops you can visit to rest and sample local country fare. Bear in mind, however, that a hiking or biking permit is required to access certain portions of the trail.

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MARYLAND (Elkridge)

Swinging Bridge Grist Mill Trail
Photo courtesy of Maryland Department of Resources

Grist Mill Trail at Patapsco Valley State Park

Length:  2.5 miles
Level of difficulty:  Beginner to Intermediate
Ideal for:  Biking, Hiking, Inline Skating, Horseback Riding

This short rail-to-trail is located within the Patapsco Valley State Park, one of the oldest state parks in the state of Maryland.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, the location of the trail was considered to be extremely ideal due to the ability of the locals to harness the Patapsco River's water power, which served as a gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. It is also the site of the historic Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad.

Going through the trail you can still see remnants of the old industries that were established during these periods. Among these remnants are the legendary swinging bridge of the Orange Grove Flour Mill (established in 1856), and the Bloede Dam - the first hydroelectric dam ever built in the country. Portions of the Patterson Viaduct and granite stringers of the B & O Railroad can also be seen along the trail, opening up a world of history to bikers and hikers.

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Bruce Freeman Rail TrailBruce Freeman Rail Trail

Length:  6.8 miles
Level of difficulty:  Intermediate to Advanced
Ideal for:  Hiking, Biking

Although this rail-to-trail is still a work in progress, you can hike or bike through the first part of the proposed trail, which starts in the town of Chelmsford and goes up to the town of Westford.

Going along this trail you are brought through a number of wetlands, open fields and historic buildings along the path that has once been used by the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroad, which operated from 1872 to 1968. It also cuts through the back of a number of local cafes and stores where you can grab a bite to eat and relax.

The pathway is covered with asphalt, which provides a relatively easy ride. However, there are still some areas that are difficult to navigate, making it ideal for bikers and hikers with some experience.

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MINNESOTA (Minneapolis)

Lady riding a bike on Midtown Greenway Trail29th Street Midtown Greenway Trail

Length:  5.7 miles
Level of difficulty:  Beginner
Ideal for:  Hiking, Biking, Inline Skating

Located just one block north of Lake Street, the 29th Street Midtown Greenway trail was once part of the Milwaukee Road Railroad, which was used until 1910. Today, it is owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and maintained by the city of Minneapolis.

Apart from providing commuters a traffic-free solution to getting around the city, the asphalt-covered trail also runs through the Lake of Isles and Lake Calhoun where you can find campgrounds and RV parks to stay at and enjoy other outdoor activities as such as boating, fishing and swimming. At the same time, the trail also stretches to downtown Minneapolis where you can stop and grab some lunch at the popular Midtown Global Market located inside the Old Sears Building, or do some shopping in one of the many retail shops that can be found along the commercial strip.

This rail-to-trail can get quite congested with bikers, hikers and inline skaters since the historic nature of the pathway makes it impossible to widen it further. As such, you should always be alert and patient while traversing it.

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RHODE ISLAND (Providence)

Blackstone River Bikeway Rhode Island
Photo courtesy of Rhode Island State Parks

Blackstone River Bikeway

Length:  12.5 miles
Level of difficulty:  Beginner to Intermediate
Ideal for:  Hiking, Biking, Inline Skating

The Blackstone River Bikeway is an open segment trail that was once used by the Providence and Worcester Railroad - which used to connect the states of Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts - between the years 1847 and 1892. Prior to that, the pathway was part of the Blackwater Canal, a waterway that comprised a series of canals and water locks stretching from Worcester, MA to Providence, RI during the 19th century.

This rail-to-trail is part of the Blackstone River State Park. It is currently a work in progress, with the Department of Environmental Management and the Department of Transportation planning on extending this pathway to nearly 50 miles, making it the largest open segment bikeway and hiking trail in this tiny state. Despite this, you are treated to a number of different scenic routes and interesting sites to see, starting with the restored drive-in movie theater sign that greets you at its trailhead along John Street in Lonsdale. Further up the trail, you will find the Kelly House Transportation Museum. Formerly the home of ship captain and mill owner Wilbur Kelly, visitors can come in to learn more about the bikeway and other means of transportation through the centuries.

Much of the trail has been covered in asphalt, making this quite easy for beginners. If you are looking for a bit more of a challenge, there are a number of different spur trails that are connected on the main bikeway to try out.

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New River Trail State Park
Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

New River Trail State Park

Length:  57 miles
Level of difficulty:  Intermediate to Advance
Ideal for:  Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding

The trail at the New River Trail State Park is one of the premiere rail-to-trails in the United States. It has been designated by the US Department of the Interior as a National Recreation Trail. Unlike most rails-to-trails which get their name from the railroad companies of old, the trail gets its name from the New River which, ironically, is the oldest river in the United States. It is also the river where the disused Norfolk Southern Railroad used to pass alongside when the iron industry was expanding in the state.

In addition, to biking and hiking, you can also enjoy other outdoor activities like fishing, boating, and horseback riding.

The trail here is covered in crushed stone, which can be quite a challenge for beginners. There are also a number of different spur trails and uphill climbs throughout the trail, which is great for those that love biking and hiking with a bit of a challenge. Before heading out, make sure that you carry with you all your supplies as well as some emergency tools for bike repairs since many sections of the trail are quite far from bike repair stores and shops with food.

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WEST VIRGINIA (Greenbrier)

Greenbrier River Trail, West Virginia
Photo courtesy of South West Virginia Convention & Visitors Bureau

Greenbrier River Trail

Length:  77 miles
Level of difficulty:  Beginner to Advance
Ideal for:  Hiking, Biking, Horseback Riding

Surrounded by the Greenbrier River and the Allegheny Mountains, this premier rail-to-trail used to be one of the many railways used in the state during the peak of the local timber industry. Today, it is owned and maintained by the West Virginia State Parks, where campers and RVers can access a host of outdoor activities like horseback riding, fishing, boating and canoeing.

The length of the trail provides a number of different areas for hikers and bikers of different levels of experience, ranging from easy sections where you can take in the breathtaking sceneries to steep uphill and downhill climbs for those looking for a bit of a challenge.

Aside from the natural surroundings, the trail brings hikers and bikers through two spectacular tunnels and over old railroad bridges, both of which date back to the era when the trail was a functional railroad.

Traversing the trail you will also find remnants of the old railroad, which include old whistle posts and mile markers. Shops, restaurants and restrooms can be found at the different trailheads, which are located at North Caldwell, Seebert, Marlinton, and Cass.

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