One Nonprofit’s Quest to Turn Abandoned Railways Into Bike Trails

Your weekend ride, now with a side of American history

March 5, 2018 9:00 am

Linear parks — aka urban greenways built on top of decommissioned railroads — are no longer just for snail-paced foot traffic shooting dime-a-dozen Instagrams on a Saturday afternoon.

This thanks to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a DC-based nonprofit that converts America’s creaky, abandoned railway corridors into sparkling, functional biking and hiking trails.

Since 1983, RTC has mapped out some 25,000 miles, with 8,000 additional miles secured for future development. The restored byways  funded with hard-earned grants and investment at the local and federal level  are generally flat-grade, multi-purpose paths, injecting thoughtful livability and a unique dose of recreation into both urban and rural areas.

For any project to get off the ground, the rail corridor must be considered “abandoned” (i.e., total discontinuation of rail services). Then, facilitated by RTC, a local/state/federal agency will buy the corridor and bring in designers and construction companies to execute the revamp. Once completed, the trails are catalogued on an easy-to-use nationwide map that makes selecting your next weekend loop as simple as finding the nearest Chipotle on a smartphone.

Also, bonus: descended from an old railroad or not, RTC’s site notes every single recreational path in your neighborhood, complete with handy fact-sheets detailing surface type, length, trail end points, parking options and more.

Looking for some routes where the weather isn’t … miserable? Here are five trails for your consideration.

Great Shasta Rail Trail
Shasta, Siskiyou Counties, California

Comprising 43 miles across two NorCal counties, Great Shasta’s (half-finished) red-brown cinder path follows the old McCloud Railway, once instrumental to the surrounding towns’ logging and agricultural network.


Spanish Moss Trail
Beaufort County, South Carolina

An hour north of Savannah and a buck-forty south of Charleston, Spanish Moss is an accessible six-mile spin through marshlands and historic sites along a railroad built in 1870.

New Santa Fe Regional Trail
El Paso County, Colorado

A diverse surface of crushed stone, gravel and sand along three abandoned railways that drops 1,200 feet in elevation on its route to Colorado Springs. All in the shadow of some stunning, craggy Rocky Mountain peaks.

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Tammany Trace
St. Tammany County, Louisiana

The last freight train rolled through in the 1980s. Now, Tammany’s bayous-and-bridges circuit plays host to trail-goers who enjoy its farmers markets, breweries and (occasional) alligators. And conveniently, it’s only 45 minutes from New Orleans.  

Bayshore Bikeway
San Diego County, California

Yes, even this palm tree-lined seaside bikeway, complete with state beach and wildlife refuge bike-by’s, follows a forgotten railway route: the Silver Strand.

And for your backpocket: Aroostook Valley Trail
Aroostook County, Maine

No doubt thoroughly snowman territory at the moment, but come late spring thaw, this 28-mile corridor in Maine’s thumbnail is a must-visit.

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