During the 19th century, railroads crisscrossed America, connecting goods, provisions, and passengers to previously inaccessible parts of the country. Although railroads no longer dominate domestic travel, thousands of miles of old routes have found new life, repurposed as multiuse recreational paths for cyclists, pedestrians, and others. From Maine to New Jersey, the eight rail-trails below offer up scenic cruising and history in tandem.
Saint John Valley Heritage Trail
Fort Kent to Saint Francis, Maine
The crushed-stone Saint John trail covers more than 16 miles along the former Fish River Railroad corridor, paralleling the Canadian border near New Brunswick. Follow the Saint John River for views of forests, farmlands, and wetlands, then stop and explore the history of the area at the Fort Kent Historical Society. The Fort Kent Blockhouse, a fortification from the Aroostook War of 1838, was the site of a bloodless border dispute between Maine and New Brunswick. The trail’s only main traffic crossing is at Route 161, but be aware of walkers, horseback riders, and ATV riders along your journey.
Distance: 16.9 miles one way
Info: Explore Maine; TrailLink
Cotton Valley Rail Trail
This trail gives you full access to the beauty of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, meandering past Lake Winnipesaukee, Crescent Lake, and Lake Wentworth. Starting from the center of Wolfeboro, AKA “America’s Oldest Summer Resort,” follow the trail to Cotton Valley for a 12-mile round trip. A shorter, 3.8-mile out-and-back includes the route’s highlight—a narrow causeway over Lake Wentworth—as well as the chance to stop at Allan H. Albee Beach for a swim. The trail starts on packed stone but soon turns more rugged, including a stretch bordered by the original rails from the 1800s. (The ties have been taken up, but the rails remain and can be slippery when wet.) Farther east, a new 0.75-mile section of trail opened in Wakefield in 2013, featuring a restored turntable from the Boston & Maine Railroad.
Distance: 3.8 or 12 miles round trip
Info: Outdoors with Kids Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont (AMC Books); Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Pondicherry Rail Trail
Whitefield to Jefferson, N.H.
Relatively unknown to those outside the community, Pondicherry offers abundant wildlife, seclusion, and spectacular views of the Presidential Range. Park in the trailhead parking lot off Airport Road in Whitefield; 1.6 miles in, you’ll reach a junction with the Presidential Rail Trail but continue straight to Big Cherry Pond. From there you can explore the shore or hike a 1.5-mile trail to Little Cherry Pond, home to a great blue heron rookery. If you’d prefer to stay on two wheels, head back to the Presidential Rail Trail junction and follow it east until you hit a bridge with views of the Kilkenny Range and Cherry Mountain. In the summer, raspberries line the gravel-packed trail, and moose often wade in the shallows of Cherry Pond. A platform at Little Cherry is a hotspot for viewing bird species such as osprey, gray jays, and ring-necked ducks, as well as the occasional black bear, so keep your binoculars at the ready.
Distance: 7.2 miles round trip
Info: Discover the White Mountains, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands
Island Line Trail
Formerly known as the Burlington Bikeway, this path was inducted into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame in 2010. The stunning, 14-mile trail includes a 3-mile stint on a causeway over Lake Champlain, with views of the Green Mountains in the distance. Starting from Burlington, the first 7 miles are paved, while the rest is gravel. To complete the entire trek, you have to cross “the cut,” a gap in the causeway near mile 12.5, by ferry. The nonprofit Local Motion offers summer ferry service seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ($8 round trip for adults, $5 for kids ages 7 to 17). Look for kingfishers or fish for lake trout along the causeway; you might even wait to watch the sunset from the path.
Distance: 14 miles one way
Info: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; TrailLink
Ashuwillticook Rail Trail
Lanesborough to Adams, Mass.
Passing through a red maple swamp, Ashuwillticook’s 10-foot-wide paved path hosts bikers, walkers, and inline skaters alike. Park at the trailhead behind the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough and follow the path 3.7 miles to Farnam’s Road. The swamp is dotted with trees felled by beavers, while the trail itself is lined with oaks and black birches, in addition to maples. In the wetlands, you’ll spot great blue heron, painted turtles, bullfrogs, and butterflies. Continuing on, you’ll pass Berkshire Pond, where a panorama of North Mountain begins to come into view. There’s a series of picnic tables and benches by the Cheshire Reservoir, a great place to relax before heading back to the parking area. If you want to keep going, the trail continues for another 7.5 miles to the center of Adams, with views of Mount Adams and Cole Mountain along the Hoosic River.
Distance: 7.4 miles round trip or 11.2 miles one way
Info: AMC’s Best Day Hikes in the Berkshires, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation
Cape Cod Rail Trail
Orleans to Wellfleet, Mass.
This trail passes pine-filled woods, marshes, iconic cranberry bogs, and six towns, offering the chance to explore both the ocean and bay sides of the Cape. The whole trail is a gem, but stick to the more remote Lower Cape for a quieter adventure. Start your journey in the center of Orleans, located at mile 13 on the paved 22-mile trail, 9 miles south of Wellfleet. If you want to hit some of the Cape’s famed beaches, take a turn east at Locust Road and again at Salt Pond Road, toward the National Seashore. Once you reach the Salt Pond Visitors Center, follow the bike trail to Coast Guard Beach. For $3 you can park and lock your bike while you swim in the Atlantic or wander the adjacent trails.
Distance: 18 miles one way
Info: Outdoors with Kids Boston (AMC Books); Discover Cape Cod (AMC Books); Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation
Harlem Valley Rail Trail
Amenia to Millerton, N.Y.
Although the planned 46-mile rail-trail is still in the works, the completed stretch from Wassaic Station to Millerton Station offers 10-plus miles of paved trail along the former New York and Harlem Railroad. Start at Wassaic Station, near the center of Amenia, and head north, watching for Sharon Station Beaver Pond. En route to Millerton Station you’ll cross six bridges, with the chance to see duck, beaver, deer, and fox along the shore. Millerton is filled with restaurants, country stores, and antique shops, making it a great location to recharge before returning to Wassaic Station. Try to spot the olive hairstreak butterfly, rare in this region, or river otter in the cattail marshes of Webatuck Creek. In July 2014, the trail was named a National Recreation Trail, part of the National Trails System.
Distance: 10 miles one way
Info: Harlem Valley Rail Trail; TrailLink
Elephant Swamp Trail
Elk Township, N.J.
This trail gained its peculiar name after an escaped circus elephant disappeared into the swamp in the 1880s. Accessible from County Road 538 or at the rear of Frank Stewart Memorial Park in Aura, the cedar-lined gravel trail travels for 6 miles, passing through rural Gloucester and Salem counties along the former railroad bed that once connected the towns of Glassboro and Bridgeton. While you likely won’t spot the namesake species, white-tailed deer, raccoons, and eastern box turtles are common in the swamp’s 300 protected acres. In summer, an abundance of wildflowers blooms along the trail. The swamp is adjacent to private property, so remember to stay on the path.
Distance: 12 miles round trip
Info: Elk Township Environmental Commission; TrailLink