A New Way of Riding the Rails

Over 30 years ago, a group of like-minded individuals came together, railroad history buffs, conservationists, walking and biking enthusiasts, those dedicated to the concept of connecting communities, all with one common vision, to transform discarded railroad beds into something appealing, something useful, a place to build healthy spaces for healthy people. The initial seeds planted were spreading, so much so that these individuals felt a dedicated organization was necessary to foster their growth. This is where the non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was founded, in February, 1986, based today in Washington, DC. Their mission is to work with communities across America to convert unused railroad beds into a nationwide trail system, shared by walkers, runners, bicyclists, and wheelchairs alike.

Since the RTC’s start, more than 1,800 rail-trails have been developed across the country, spread across all 50 states, totaling more than 21,000 miles, with many other projects on the drawing table. These miles of now paved or crushed stone trails, once old rail beds, have been transformed into beautiful paths, almost always flat and almost always scenic – think mountains, rivers, and bridges.

This concept has become so popular, used by so many, that in 2007 the RTC decided to recognize model rail-trails across the nation, through its Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. Those trails selected are based on a number of qualities, such as usage, trail and trailside amenities, historical significance, scenic attributes, community connections, among others. Their first inductee, in July of 2007,  was the Great Allegheny Passage, 150 miles of trail running from Cumberland MD to Pittsburgh, PA, affectionately dubbed the GAP.

We have only had the opportunity to bike on a few of these wonderful trails, and have toyed with the idea of checking more of these off our list. Terry did some research and discovered that one of the more well-known, the Katy Trail, was nearby our midwestern travel route, so we made a detour and found ourselves in a state we have rarely visited, Missouri.

The Katy Trail, the longest rail-trip system in the  country, at about 240 miles, runs almost the entire width of Missouri, east-to-west, following a portion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It follows an old rail line for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas railroad, the MKT for short, or even shorter, the KT, hence the name Katy (phonetic version).

We positioned ourselves in the little town of Rocheport, close by two of the favorite spots along the trail, towering bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and the V-shaped petroglyph on a cave east of the town.  We were only able to bike 50 miles of the Katy before the weather changed, bringing in rain, but the section we were on ran along the Missouri River and those towering bluffs, alongside deep woods and open fields and meadows, and through tiny towns. We met an enthusiastic group biking the entire length, who invited us to tag along. Had we not had previous commitments, we would have gladly joined them.

Many rural communities along the length of the Katy Trail have been resuscitated since its completion. This trail passes by more than 40 of these small towns. Rocheport, which once offered only a few antique stores, is now a recreational destination, sporting restaurants, B&B’s and even a winery, which we visited. In fact, I have read that you can find several vineyards just off the trail. In September of 2007 the Katy Trail became the second member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

Riding the Katy Trail and reading more about how the rail-trails system began has inspired us to experience more of them. Before the Katy, we had only ridden three others – the Bizz Johnson Trail,  in Susanville, CA, the B&O Trail, in Brownsburg, IN (in its infancy), and 7 Capital Crescent Trail, in Washington DC.

“Great rail-trails very seldom sit still. They branch out; they bridge; they knit together communities.”

Have you ridden/walked any of these incredible trails crisscrossing the US? How about sharing your experience? Photos are always welcome. 🙂

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43 thoughts on “A New Way of Riding the Rails

  • I love Rails to Trails, and I have supported it for a long time, thinking that some time I will walk many of the trails. I have walked a few, but not as many as I would like. I am hoping that when I get my knee fixed, my daughter Becky and I will do some trails in Colorado. I LOVE the pictures you posted. I am so glad that someone came up with the idea of using the trails; many of them, as rails, were used for mining purposes. When I first found out about this, I didn’t have a bike, which is why I thought of walking.

      • I was just looking through my book, and there are a LOT of trails in California. Now that you have tried some, I hope you will take the chance on riding on some of them. I had just looked through my book, for trails in Arizona. I am going to explore those trails, when I am able.

      • I believe I have a book sitting at home, compliments of you, reflecting the rail-trails system in CA. I will be dusting it off now that I am back to using my bike and hope to bike some of those trails. I’m going to look at trails in AZ as well.

      • I meant to comment on your photo of those Clydesdales. I love those horses, but I couldn’t remember the name; had to look it up. There used to be a Budweiser brewery, in the San Fernando Valley, California, and I loved going there, just to see those horses.

  • These trails sound so wonderful. What a lovely way to see the country. The only thing I can think of like this is the Kettle Valley Railway trail in BC – about 400 miles of connected pathways that used to be rail beds. Years ago Don and I rode a small portion of it.
    Alison

  • Richard and I have ridden the Great Allegheny Trail twice – once in spring and once in fall. We carry a tent on the back the back and camp most nights but sneak in a night or two at a B&B if it rains. There are campground roughly every 10 miles and B&B’s in most of the little towns. We take our time and explore the little towns and local restaurants along the way.

    We have also biked bits and pieces of a number of other trails. One of my favorite memories is biking the Rochport part of the Katy Trail with my son years.

    • Thanks for your comment Ann. The Great Allegheny Trail sounds wonderful. Terry and I were just talking last night about the possibility of biking it and camping along the way. We loved the Katy Trail and wished we had the time to join the group we met who were traveling the length of it.

  • Looks like wonderful weather for riding the rail-trail. You capture the beauty of the area. Love the photo of Terry. We have a great rail-trail in PA that has created a wonderful place to bike, run, and walk. We have biked many miles and was always a place we rode when we returned home. It is always fun to see new business popping up along the trial.

  • This trial looks great. I love the idea in general. We have walked on rails converted to trails in England – they are equally gorgeous, and walked the high line in Paris. They are always such peaceful spots – even in cities.

  • What a great idea; to convert unused rail lines into hiking/biking trails. I took the liberty of forwarding your post to friends who love railroading. I’m sure they come across lots of unused roadbeds.

  • I had no idea there were so many of these projects. I grew up and we still have a mountain house very near the beginning of the Great Allegheny Passage, and a number of friends have done the ride. I’d love to give it a try someday!

  • Thanks for an informative post about the rails to trails. I enjoyed your photos of the Katy Trail. There is a rails to trails near where I live. It’s only a few miles long but is very popular with walkers, runners and bikers. It’s been a while since I walked on it. I see a walk along the trail in my future.

  • Lu, I think you know how much we love the Rails-to-Trails. It’s such a wonderful way to bike without having to contend with traffic. The Katy Trail looks absolutely gorgeous—we definitely need to put that one on our list! It’s fun to ride trails that have interesting little towns along the way.
    We’ve ridden trails in Idaho, Oregon, Florida, California, and I can’t remember at the moment where else…but we’ve enjoyed them all! The Withlacoochee Trail in Florida and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene in Idaho are two that come to mind as favorites. Lots more to ride!

  • So grateful to those early rails to trails visionaries! Hubby and I use rails to trails all the time to train for long runs. He is retiring next month (I am already retired) and we plan to bike the GSP next summer!

  • This is a great idea, not only to enjoy nature but to avoid all the noisy traffic and take a steady wander. Such gorgeous places to stretch one’s legs…

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