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Rail-Trails

By Jeff Nachtigal - August 2nd, 2000

Long before cars, the Iron Horse ruled transportation in the United States. When horseless carriages pushed trains aside, 300,000 miles of railroad tracks - a network six times larger than today's interstate system - went mostly silent.

The wealth of scenic railroad corridors, all following a gentle grade, are a boon for pedestrians, skaters, cross-country skiers and cyclists. The most enticing feature about rail-trails is that they are entirely separated from roads, thus car-free. No bike lanes, stoplights or angry motorists - just miles of quiet path.

Since 1986, the non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has helped create over 10,000 miles of public trails along rail-trails; in 1999, these rail-trails were used an estimated 100 million times. The RTC goal is an interconnected network of trails across the country - imagine planning a ride across America on car-free paths!

The RTC maintains a database of bike routes, searchable by state: Rails to Trails

Burke-Gilman Trail, Seattle
In 1988, when the Goodwill Games visited Seattle, I remember riding past a train of red jerseys as the U.S.S.R. team trained on the Burke-Gilman trail. It was a thrill to know that a national team was putting in miles along my trail, the same one I pedaled almost daily.

Affectionately known as the "BG," Seattle's 18-mile Burke-Gilman trail is the top destination for cyclists in a city regularly ranked as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the county. Traversing dozens of neighborhoods as it skirts the blue waters of Lake Washington, the BG is the main arterial for thousands of commuters and recreational cyclists. At its northern end, the BG links with the Sammamish River Trail to provide over 25 miles of one-way riding to the wide-open horse pastures of Redmond. Start at Gas Works Park near downtown Seattle. Details: (206) 684-5108; Website.

Wabash Trace Nature Trail, Iowa
A completely flat dirt and gravel path, this is a shining star among rail conversions. Best suited for mountain bikes, this 63-mile trail runs through the Loess Hills, a curious geological formation of squat sand mountains found only found in Iowa and China. Look for owls and eagles overhead, and deer lurking in the thick woods along the route. Trail starts in Council Bluffs and ends in Blanchard. Details: Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, (515) 288-1846.

Lehigh Gorge Trail, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania was the first state with 100 rail-trails, totaling 867 miles, no doubt due to its mining history, which relied on train transportation. Running through the lush valley of the Lehigh River, this 25-mile trail has spectacular views of the 1,000-foot-high cliffs of the Lehigh Gorge on one side, and churning, Class III rapids on the other. Start at the trailhead in White Haven; end at Glen Onoko Access Point parking area on Coalport Road in the town of Jim Thorpe. Details: Blue Mountain Sports (in Jim Thorpe, PA) - (800) 599-4421.

Katy Trail, Missouri
A 185-mile route stretching across Missouri, this crushed-limestone trail passes through an area known as "Rhineland," named so for the region populated by Germans at the turn of the century. Sumac, bittersweets and sugar maple explode with orange and red in the fall, and a host of B&B's makes this a popular trail for cross-state tours. Overhead, red-tailed hawks, great blue herons and American bald eagles soar. (Missouri has more eagles in winter than any other state.) Start at Frontier Park in St. Charles; end in Sedalia. Details: Missouri Department of Natural Resources, (800) 334-6946; Website.

Capital Crescent Trail, District of Columbia
Connecting Georgetown, D.C., and Silver Spring in Montgomery County, Maryland, this 12-mile trail passes over four historic bridges, through two historic tunnels, and provides beautiful vistas over the Potomac. As both a recreational and commuting line, the trail connects residential, commercial, and employment centers in the Washington D.C. area - bicycle commuters boast of beating car traffic during rush hour. Connect with the Rock Creek Trail for a 22-mile circuit trip. Freight trains stopped running in 1985 on this line, which was quickly snapped up and converted to a rail-trail. Details: Montgomery County Department of Parks, (301) 495-2535; Website.


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