The outdoors provide ample opportunities to explore, from multi-month backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail to paths perfect for weekend warrior adventures. While many of these trails are designated for hikers only, rails-to-trails pathways across the U.S. offer multi-use adventure options for hikers, bikers, and others looking for a more accessible adventure.

If you’re looking to see what the rails-to-trails buzz is all about, we’ll introduce you to these paths below, covering: 

  • Background on what they are exactly
  • How you can support their development
  • 5 rails-to-trails to put on your list to check out

What is a rails-to-trails pathway?

Rails-to-trails paths are public trails created on old railroad beds. To ensure trains can power up a slope, railways typically have no steeper of a grade than 4%. This makes rail-trails fairly flat, with only gentle climbs and descents. 

Given their composition, rails-to-trails pathways offer a more accessible option for enjoying the outdoors than some other hiking trails might. Depending on specific trail regulations, rail-trails can be used for hiking, biking, skating, skiing, wheelchair use, or horseback riding.

How can I support the rails-to-trails movement?

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy got started in Washington, D.C. in 1986 to advocate for preserving old unused railroads for public use. The group now has 1 million grassroots supporters and has championed the development of 24,000+ miles of rail-trails in the U.S., with over 8,000 additional miles in the works. Its latest project is to link rail-trails all the way from the District of Columbia to Washington State, traveling over 3,700 miles through 12 states.

You can support projects like the Great American Rail-Trail, as well as smaller rails-to-trails projects in your own community, by donating to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and using their planning and advocacy tools to jumpstart new trail projects.

5 of the Best Rails-to-Trails Paths to Explore This Year

The best way to understand the beauty of the rails-to-trails concept is to choose one to explore! Below, we’ve rounded up five unique rail-trails to get you started.

1. Tweetsie Trail: Johnson City to Elizabethton, Tennessee

The Tweetsie Trail is located in the outdoor playground of northeast Tennessee, a region rich with Appalachian hiking trails, rivers for fly fishing, and ample mountain biking circuits. It occupies a 9.6-mile stretch between Johnson City and Elizabethton that used to house the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad. Its name comes from the sound those steam engines used to whistle as they passed through town.

The trail’s location makes it easy to fit in a day of outdoor adventure while visiting the area for its other urban delights, like music and barbeque. History buffs will also enjoy this trail, as it passes a replica train station, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, and the oldest standing frame house in Tennessee. There’s also talk of expanding the trail in the coming years. You can hike or bike the trail, and if you need to rent some wheels, Local Motion Cyclery is conveniently located at the Johnson City trailhead.

2. Virginia Creeper Trail: Abingdon to Whitetop, Virginia

The Virginia Creeper Trail is a 34.4-mile rail-trail that runs from the quaint town of Abingdon to Whitetop in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, close to the North Carolina border. Around its midpoint, it also passes through the Appalachian Trail town of Damascus—a great rest stop where you should definitely grab an affogato at Main Street Coffee and Cream. If you want to add some traditional hiking trail miles to your rail-trail adventure, you’ll find an AT trailhead just outside the Damascus town center.

If you want to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail one-way, starting in Whitetop will give you the advantage of a mostly downhill ride to Abingdon. The grade is subtle, but enough to make it feel like a slow rollercoaster ride. The Whitetop to Damascus portion offers beautiful river views, mountainous forests, and rhododendron and laurel blooms at the right time of year. From Damascus to Abingdon, you’ll enjoy comforting rolling farmland and forest.

3. Great Allegheny Passage: Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Great Allegheny Passage is a 150-mile hiking and biking rail-trail that travels through valleys and mountains and alongside three rivers. Along the way, travelers cross the Mason & Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide at 2,393 feet. It passes through Laurel Highlands, Ohiopyle State Park, old coal and mining country, and Point State Park. With waterfalls, farmland, gorges, tunnels, and bridges, the trek is a scenic one.

It also crosses through several trail towns and campgrounds, making it easy to plan a multi-day adventure. Many shuttle services are available to help with one-way treks.

4. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park: Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland

If you’re wanting to stretch your trek of the Great Allegheny Passage even farther, you’re in luck! The trail connects with the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Trail in Cumberland, Maryland—meaning you can enjoy a 334.5-mile car-free journey all the way from Pittsburgh to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

The C&O Canal trail follows the Potomac River and is surprisingly wild given its proximity to the nation’s capital. Hikers and bikers can expect to see a variety of birds, turtles, and other wildlife along the way. It’s also packed with history of the canal along the way and passes through another National Park Service site, Great Falls. There are ample campsites with filtered water pumps along the way, as well as opportunities to bike or walk into nearby towns.

5. Mickelson Trail: Deadwood to Edgemont, South Dakota

The 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail is a beautiful way to explore the Black Hills of South Dakota. It includes over 100 converted railroad bridges and four rock tunnels. There are 15 trailheads where hikers, bikers, and horseback riders can access the path. Most of the trail travels through National Forest land and showcases spruce, ponderosa, and aspen forests growing alongside the unique granite mountains of the southern hills and the sandstone, shale, and limestone canyons of the northern hills.

There are a few campgrounds in towns and at Forest Service sites along the way to make it into a multi-day trek. The trail passes through the small town of Custer, which is worth a lunch stop or an overnight. Foodies will enjoy the Custer Wolf or Skogen for dinner and the Custer Beacon is a great place to enjoy some trailside live music.

Start Your Next Adventure on a Rails-to-Trails Pathway

Rails-to-Trails paths are one of the many ways to explore your own backyard or a new part of the country. Their easy grades make them more accessible to all skill levels and they often come with the benefits of historical significance, lovely scenery, and fun trail towns.

Hop on one today and see how you can help build and preserve these outdoor treasures. We’d also love to see your rail-trail adventures! Share them with us by tagging us on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.

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July 13, 2022 — Korrin Bishop