A quarter-million miles of track once crisscrossed the United States. But rail travel and transport peaked a century ago. The industry contracted and 100,000 miles of rail bed were abandoned. These rights-of-way now host almost 20,000 miles of trail, providing a safer alternative to roads and access to corners of the landscape previously seen only from aboard speeding trains. The Northeast boasts nearly 5,000 miles of rail trail. Here are some of the finest.
Down East Sunrise Trail
Ayers Junction to Washington Junction, Maine
The spread of highways doomed rail travel in many corners of the United States, including Down East Maine. This railbed passes deep into the state’s woods, through swamps, and over streams. This route is only occasionally interrupted by road crossings, and the moose watching opportunities from the secluded trail are excellent. The gravel surface can be bumpy, so mountain or hybrid bikes are a must. The trail will eventually extend to Calais, near the U.S.-Canada border.
Distance: 85 miles one-way
Carrabassett River Rail Trail
Carrabassett to Bigelow Station, Maine
This scenic route follows an old narrow gauge railway (it’s also known as the Narrow Gauge Pathway) between the Bigelow Range and Sugarloaf Mountain. The crushed-stone trail passes along the Carrabassett River and through the woods. This route isn’t pancake flat, like many rail trails, instead rising gradually from east to west. Wildflowers, beaver dams, and a series of picnic benches highlight the riverside ride. It’s a particularly nice destination during peak foliage season.
Cape Cod Rail Trail
Dennis to Wellfleet, Mass.
Passenger train service to Cape Cod ended in 1959, leaving this cross-Cape route as a prime candidate for conversion to a trail. The first section of trail opened in 1978 and has quickly become a popular destination, particularly in the summer. The route highlights all the Cape has to offer, passing sandy scrub-oak and pitchpine woodlands, reservoirs, and kettle ponds. The paved path also connects to the Old Colony Rail Trail, which you can follow into Chatham.
Distance: 22 miles one-way
Info: mass.gov; Discover Cape Cod (AMC Books)
Air Line Rail Trail
East Hampton to Thompson, Conn.
The Air Line was a simple concept: Connect Boston and New York along the shortest route possible. The reality was ill fated, however, hitting numerous engineering and political hurdles. After a brief run in the late 1800s, parts of the route were abandoned for decades. Connecticut began rehabbing it in the 1990s, and the result is a stone-dust and gravel trail through the state’s northeast corner. The trail passes massive viaducts, cuts through conserved land, and features views from some of the state’s most scenic ridgelines. The trail’s southern end is in the best condition.
Distance: 49.4 miles one-way
Info: ct.gov (search “official greenways”)
North County Trailway
Mount Pleasant to Somers, N.Y.
This paved path, located north of Manhattan, follows the route of the New York Central Railroad, which operated into the mid-20th century. Passing through heavily-populated Westchester County, the trail offers a welcome escape from the nearby traffic—while also benefiting from a number of convenient parking areas. Eventually, a 14-mile South County Trailway will connect the path to the Bronx. With just a short on-road ride necessary, the North County Trail can be accessed from the Brewster Metro North station.
Distance: 22.1 miles one-way
Info: westchestergov.com/parks (search “trailway”)
High Bridge to Long Valley, N.J.
Once a railway for the transport of iron ore, the Columbia Trail is now both an industrial and recreational corridor. A gas pipeline runs beneath the old railbed, while on the surface a gravel multiuse trail welcomes cyclists, hikers, equestrians, and skiers. Far from the state’s developed I-95 corridor, the Columbia Trail links forest and parkland while running parallel to the South Branch of the Raritan River. Of particular note is the Ken Lockwood Gorge, where a hardwood forest shelters a wide range of flora and fauna.
Distance: 11.3 miles one-way
Great Allegheny Passage
Cumberland, Md., to Duquesne, Pa.
Though just the tip of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) falls in Maryland, the trail opens up a world of possibilities. The GAP itself runs 135 miles from Cumberland, Md., toward western Pennsylvania, making it the third-longest rail trail in the country. It also connects to the C & O Canal Towpath, creating a 335-mile route from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh—and the rare opportunity for an entirely off-road multiday tour. The crushed limestone path is primarily flat.
Distance: 135 miles one-way
Contributors: Jerry and Marcy Monkman, Michael O’Connor, Bryan Wentzell, Ty Wivell