An abandoned rail line has big-time trail potential: an already existing right-of-way, a usually very well engineered route, a de-facto conservation corridor. Add the advantages of cultural and historical preservation and the contribution to physical fitness a rail converted to a trail makes, and the future seems bright for thousands of miles of disused railway to be put to good use.

Founded in 1986, The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC)aims to enrich America’s communities and countryside with the conversion of abandoned private rail lines into public recreation trails. The Washington D.C.-based group envisions a nationwide network of public trails from former rail lines.

As The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy tells it, the rail-trail movement began in the Midwest during the 1960s as railroad companies, big and small, in response to competition from the trucking industry, began pulling up tracks. Curious history buffs and the odd recreational walker began exploring these abandoned lines.

A lot of people began asking the same question at the same time: Why not convert these rail lines to recreation paths? Some of these railway corridors were paved for walkways/bicycle paths while others were graded and left with a natural surface.

Every time I walk a rail-trail I enjoy it and I wonder why someone didn’t think of the notion earlier. With some exceptions, I’ve found many of the trails are best suited for bicycling, though walkers in urban areas certainly make good use of them.

I like to integrate a rail-trail into my travel plans. The 25-mile long Cape Cod Rail Trail is an excellent connection to the beaches and resort towns of the Cape and the 18-mile long Mt. Vernon Trail that extends along the Potomac River to George Washington’s estate offers a healthful way to absorb American history.

Thanks to the leadership of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and countless local governments and park agencies that know a good thing when they see it, America’s trail system boasts more than 12,000 miles of rail-trail used by more than 100 million happy hikers, walkers and cyclists per year.

For more information, contact the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Hike On,
The Trailmaster
John McKinney