Rails-to-Trails America: 7 Urban Escapes

Sometimes it seems like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are all we’ve got tying Americans together. But decades ago, it was the railroads crisscrossing the great expanses of the United States that linked our communities and enabled connections.

The economics and technology of transportation have changed dramatically since the golden age of train travel, leaving myriad railroad corridors derelict and overgrown with weeds. Fortunately, many of these vestiges of America’s past have been repurposed as bicycle and walking paths, a movement spearheaded by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

In addition to providing safe and scenic areas to enjoy the great outdoors, these trails help conserve the natural areas surrounding these once-vital rail corridors and make it easier for locals and visitors alike to reduce their reliance on cars.

These seven scenic trails, all located in or near popular U.S. cities, offer quick, bucolic escapes and a glimpse at simpler times.

> Minuteman Bikeway (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

Walk, or ride, in the path of history on the short but oh-so-sweet Minuteman Bikeway. This 10-mile-long trail wanders through landscapes touched by the Revolutionary War, which closely parallels the route taken by Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride.

Following the course of the Lexington & West Cambridge Railroad from Cambridge to Bedford, this rail-to-trail is heralded year-round, even in the dead of winter. (A popular commuter corridor, the trail is easily accessed from the Alewife “T” station in Cambridge, connecting with Boston via the Red Line.)

And though it passes through the historic towns of Arlington and Lexington—where, just off the trail, dozens of local militiamen confronted British troops on Lexington Common in what became the first battles of the American Revolution—the path abounds with natural beauty.

Attention, birders! At the start of the trail, near the Cambridge/Arlington line, the wooded Alewife Brook Reservation presents good prospects, as do Spy Pond (in Arlington) and Arlington’s Great Meadows (which is, contrary to its name, in Lexington).

> Burke-Gilman Trail (Seattle, Washington)

This 20-mile path may be Washington state’s signature rail-to-trail destination, enthusiastically embraced by Seattle commuters and visitors alike for its outstanding mountain views (peaks of the mighty Olympic range, even snow-capped Mount Rainier to the east on a clear day) as well as access to the city’s iconic parks and waterways.

Threading a section of the Burlington Northern Railroad, this beloved jogging and biking path stretches along one waterfront after another from Golden Gardens Park in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood north to the town of Bothell.

Set along freshwater Lake Union, Gas Works Park is a favorite spot for kite flying and city vistas, while nearby Ballard Locks offers visitors the opportunity to see Seattle’s complex water management practices at work as well as the fish ladder that was built to help salmon complete their natural migration.

> Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park (Arlington, Virginia)

Every day, cyclists, joggers, and bladers either commute or unwind on this trail that offers lessons in history befitting its location in our nation’s capital, blended with a sense of peace rarely found within the chaotic Beltway.

Stretching 45 miles from Arlington (just across the Potomac River from the District of Columbia) to Purcellville, Virginia, the Washington & Old Dominion Trail follows the route of the same-named railroad that went into service in the mid-19th century and was retired after more than 100 years.

Connected with D.C. via the Metro’s Orange and Silver lines, the trail is scattered with signs pointing out historic events and personalities, including points where Civil War troops once traveled. Early morning or evening brings out opossums, foxes, and deer along a path that’s at its most wooded in the section between Leesburg and the terminus in Purcellville, where the jagged outline of the Blue Ridge Mountains is visible.

> Illinois Prairie Path (Chicagoland, Illinois)

The “Roarin’ Elgin” once carried commuters and freight between Chicago and suburbs north and west of the city. What remains of the railroad’s legacy, the 61-mile Illinois Prairie Path, represents one of the oldest rails-to-trails conversions in the nation (it was first proposed in a letter to the editor by a local naturalist back in 1963). The best part? The path is easily accessible by mass transit (via the CTA Blue Line or Metra’s Union Pacific/West Line) from downtown.

The path’s principal artery courses between Wheaton and Maywood, while a series of offshoot trails roll through more than two dozen communities, providing access to forest preserves, wetlands, and parks. Most remarkable are the parcels of native prairie lands—the Elmhurst Great Western and the West Chicago prairies are the most impressive—that have been protected and restored.

Several other spacious natural tracts can be found along the Elgin Branch, including 150-acre Lincoln Marsh, with options for birding and hiking.

> Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail (St. Petersburg, Florida)

On a section of the abandoned CSX Railroad line, a bathing suit and picnic fixings are both in order much of the year. Connecting St. Petersburg, home to the appropriately surreal Salvador Dalí Museum, with the city of Tarpon Springs, whose history is intimately connected with the sponge industry, this 44-some-mile rail conversion is a true gem.

The path—which is dotted with aluminum sculptures, a nod to the corridor’s prior identity—allows walkers and cyclists (and rollerbladers!) to traverse scenic stretches of the Gulf coast, tidal waterways, myriad leafy parks, and quaint neighborhoods in a state that’s hardly noted for being pedestrian-friendly.

Close to Dunedin, one of the most charming, relaxed towns on the route, is a spur trail to sunset-gawkers paradise Honeymoon Island. Great horned owls, osprey nests, and gopher tortoises may all be spotted on this pristine, undeveloped barrier isle.

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> Ojai Valley Trail (Ventura, California)

Snowy egrets, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and other majestic birds make regular appearances at Surfers Point in Ventura, California, where big waves consistently pound a narrow strip of rocky beach. Nearby, cyclists and walkers can follow the route once taken by the Southern Pacific Railroad to Ojai—or do the reverse: Start in the artsy inland town and trace the Ventura River’s path to the sea.

Two rail-to-trail paths—the wooded Ojai Valley Trail and its extension, the more urban Ventura River Trail—converge at Foster Park to create an uninterrupted route that roughly shadows the (often dry) riverbed for 16 miles. Industrial grittiness is evident along the slightly shorter Ventura River stretch, where decommissioned oil derricks are in plain sight. But art installations provide welcome contrast, including “Orange Trace,” a bronze sculpture that pays homage to the fruit that helped drive development in the region.

Shaded by groves of sycamores and oaks, the Ojai Valley Trail wanders 9.5 miles north from Foster Park, providing stunning views across the valley to the coastal sage scrub of Los Padres National Forest. The very lucky might even spy a coyote on this wilder section. When you’re on the trail, it’s hard to believe you’re anywhere near a city, let alone Los Angeles, which is a mere 80 miles away.

> Silver Comet Trail (Atlanta Area, Georgia)

From 1947 to 1969, travelers could once board a luxury train that cruised over towering trestles and through tunnels bored into mountains as it made the trip from New York to Birmingham, Alabama. More than 60 miles of that storied pathway have been transformed into the Silver Comet Trail, which runs from the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna west to Cedartown, a Main Street city near the Alabama line.

Among the highlights of this rural North Georgia trail that slices through hardwood forests and rolling fields, perhaps the most noteworthy are the 126-foot-tall Pumpkinvine Trestle bridge, the damp but well-lit turn-of-the-20th-century Brushy Mountain Tunnel, and Ma White’s Bottoms, a pastoral swath where Union soldiers camped before attacking Atlanta in the summer of 1864.

Punctuating this collage of history interlinked with nature is an ever changing array of branch-dangling birdhouses that locals create from PVC pipe, car parts, and other unconventional materials.

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog

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