Former rail lines across America have been transformed into paved pathways for residents and travelers to explore. These trails retain their history, usually following the same route the trains would have, and provide people with a safe place to cycle or jog. Many have restaurants, breweries, and shops along the way, as well as bike rentals. Here are the top 10 Rails-to-Trails routes in the U.S.
Atlanta was named for the Western-Atlantic Railroad that had its terminus in the city. In 1999, a graduate student proposed turning the many disused rail corridors into a path around the city, The Beltline, which finally came to fruition in 2013 through federal grants.
Today, The Beltline is made up of 22 miles of paved, wheelchair-accessible trails that run through the city’s neighborhoods and parks. With public artwork along the way, it has apartments, dining, and shopping like the popular Ponce City Market complex. Future plans will incorporate additional parks and a streetcar. By 2022, The Beltline will connect to the Silver Comet Trail.
Silver Comet Trail/Chief Ladiga Trail, Alabama and Georgia
This path spans 94 miles across two states, forming the second-longest paved rail trail in the nation. Running from Smyrna, Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) to Anniston, Alabama, the two trails were connected in 2008.
In Georgia, it’s the Silver Comet Trail, which gets its name from a passenger train on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad that operated between 1947 and 1969. Popular with cyclists, this section was built in 1998 and passes by mill ruins, rail trestles, creeks, and forests.
In Alabama, the route becomes the Chief Ladiga Trail, the state’s first rail trail project. Named for a Creek Indian leader, the track is paved and relatively flat, which is perfect for biking beginners. It winds along the outskirts of the Talladega National Forest and through communities like Piedmont and Jacksonville.
Located outside of San Francisco, the Iron Horse Regional Trail links 12 cities in an urban rail-to-trail. The 32-mile route follows the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way, which operated from 1891 to 1978.
The Iron Horse was completed in 2014, joining Concord and Pleasanton. Along the way are countless restaurants, businesses, and residences as well as access to BART, the Bay Area public transportation system.
To the north, it follows Walnut Creek past public parks like Iron Horse Park, a drive-in movie theater, and theme park. To the south, the path is surrounded by golf courses and connects to the Alamo Canal and Centennial Trails.
Built along the former Illinois Central Railroad rail line, the Tammany Trace is a 31-mile trail between Covington and Slidell, on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. First conceptualized in 1992, the trace passes through charming towns like Abita Springs, Mandeville, and Lacombe.
Along the way, you can visit the Abita Brewpub, browse the selections at The Book & The Bean, admire the quirky works at the Abita Mystery House, and kayak the waterways. The path itself is wheelchair accessible, with restroom facilities throughout. If you're into horseback riding, there's an additional equestrian trail that runs alongside different sections of the trace. Brooks’ Bike Shop is one place where visitors can rent a set of wheels.
The 240-mile Katy Trail runs on the former track of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Running between Clinton and Machens, there are 26 trailheads to break up the journey. The gravel path runs along the Missouri River and passes former signals and tunnels, while the old railroad depots have now been transformed into public restrooms.
Close to wineries, the eastern terminus sits not far from the Mississippi River border with Illinois. Meanwhile, the western end cuts through historic Jefferson City and the heart of the Ozarks. (There are even sections where you can ride horses!)
This 90-mile stretch in upstate New York was originally the right-of-way for the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1991 it became the Genesee Valley Greenway, passing over railway bridges and through canal locks on the way from Rochester to Hinsdale. Connecting with the Erie Canal Heritage Trail, the route has interpretive signage that informs visitors of the area’s history.
The terrain of the greenway—which is mostly made of dirt and gravel—varies by section; the northern part is flat, while the southern is hilly. Make a detour at any one of the towns along the way to dine in restaurants or spend the night in a historic inn.
During the winter months, the greenway is open for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling. Check the conditions before you go as some sections have been damaged by washouts.
Running between downtown Greenville and neighboring Travelers Rest, the nearly 20-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail was created through a defunct Greenville & Northern Railway shortline. After being abandoned in 2005, the community came together to form the path, which officially opened in 2009.
The accessible and pet-friendly trail passes through Falls Park on the Reedy, a public park over the river, and the Furman University campus, with public artwork, water fountains, and restrooms.
Visitors can borrow a bike from the B-Cycle bike share program, chow down on wood-fired pizzas at Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery, or sip on craft brews at the Swamp Rabbit Brewery. And if you’re wondering how it got its name, the area was previously home to a species of rabbit that lived in the swamp.
Washington has its fair share of paths, but the 31-mile Klickitat Trail winds through the iconic Columbia River Gorge. The former Burlington Northern Railroad Company corridor connected the communities of Lyle and Goldendale until it was turned over to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 1993.
The track is made of packed gravel for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Surrounded by National Scenic Areas, it ends across the river from the Oregon state line. Because the Klickitat passes over historic rail trestles and alongside a mix of public and private land, dogs must be kept on leashes.
The Chicago and North Western railroad ran from 1870 between Madison, Wisconsin and Winona, Minnesota. In 1911, a new stretch was created to avoid the steep grades, leading the land from Elroy to Sparta to later be abandoned. In 1967, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail became the country’s first Rails-to-Trails track.
The 32-mile crushed limestone path passes through three preserved railroad tunnels, including one with a colony of bats. Between Elroy and Sparta, visitors will see six towns, rolling farmland, and charming bed and breakfasts. Local outfitters offer rentals and shuttle services for those looking to navigate the route on two wheels.
The Virginia Creeper Trail started as a Native American footpath used by the likes of Daniel Boone. Between 1900 and 1977, the route turned into a railroad line between Abingdon and Damascus, carrying passengers and iron ore. It got its name from the locomotive that cut (i.e. "crept") through the mountains.
Today, this 34.3 mile-paved track between Abingdon and the North Carolina border has 10 access points. It passes near wineries, rail trestles, and sections of the Appalachian Trail. The path is popular with hikers, equestrians, cyclists, and even leashed dogs. Local outfitters offer shuttle services for those looking to bike the route in its entirety.