For most folks, enjoying a recreational or family bike ride means getting away from cars. And there's no better way to escape traffic than to ride one of America's more than 1,100 rail-trails, now in every state. Here's a step-by-step guide to finding and enjoying rail-trails, one of our most precious recreational opportunities.
What is a Rail-Trail? Rail-trails are multi-purpose, public paths created from former railroad corridors. Flat or following a gentle grade, they traverse urban, suburban and rural America. Ideal for bicycling, walking, in-line skating, cross-country skiing, equestrian and wheelchair use, rail-trails are extremely popular for recreation and transportation. Since the 1960s, more than 11,500 miles of rail-trails have been created across the country, with a goal of 15,000 miles by 2004.
How Do I Find a Rail-Trail to Ride? Head for the Internet. Go to www.railtrails.org, the official site of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). Here you'll learn about the rail-trail movement and how to get a rail-trail started in your area. This site will take you to www.traillink.com. Select your state and BIKING or MOUNTAIN BIKING and you'll see all the trails close to you.
The Right Bike Almost any bicycle in good working order is fine. Mountain bikes, hybrids, comfort bikes, all will work great. In fact, because rail-trail grades tend not to exceed three percent (the maximum a train can climb), 10 or 12 gears are plenty. If your area is hilly, however, riding a one-speed cruiser may be a struggle.
Most rail-trails are surfaced with crushed limestone, which can be soft around the edges or when wet, so a wide tire is better than a narrow one to keep from sinking into the trail. Unless you're an experienced cyclist, it's best to avoid riding the trails on super-skinny tires.
Safety The first rule of safe cycling: Always wear a helmet. Being away from cars greatly reduces, but can't eliminate, the potential for accident and injury. In the case of a fall, a helmet will drastically reduce the risk of serious injury. Still, be especially careful at bridges, overpasses and other trail transitions.
Rail-trails can be busy thoroughfares on weekends or near trailheads. The most common cause of accidents is riders colliding, so keep your distance and slow down when passing other trail users. Teach your kids to say, "on your left" when overtaking, or get everyone a bell.
Day Trips The biggest difference between preparing for a rail-trail ride and a recreational spin on public roads is that you need to be self-contained. Because rail-trails get you away from cars, you can't depend on 7-Elevens or gas stations for pit stops or snacks.
So, bring plenty of water, one more snack or energy bar than you think you need, and provisions for flat-tire repair (a pump, a patch kit, tire levers, a spare tube, a wrench for wheel removal). Because you'll see a steady stream of cyclists who can help you, you don't need to know how to fix a flat. When someone stops to help, pay careful attention so you can do it yourself next time.
Bathroom facilities are usually at every trailhead, every dozen miles or so, but sometimes the kids can't wait. Please be respectful of private land. In many areas, rail-trails mean sensitive landowners. Be a good citizen: Don't trespass, climb fences or leave gates open.
Longer Trips Rail-trails of 100 miles or more create an opportunity for challenging, multi-day family bike trips. Gauge the distance by the age of the kids. For 6-8 year-olds, 20-25 miles a day is plenty. Pre-teens can handle 30-40 mile days, depending on the terrain.
If you're thinking about camping, your selection of trails will be limited. It's better to start with a motel trip, where the kids will have a swimming pool and a hot shower as their reward for a day's pedaling.
Carrying gear is easy with a trailer. If you're a cycling family, you may have kept that child trailer for errands. Time to turn it into a rail-trail gear hauler. If you haven't already, remove the seat and pack the trailer evenly from front to back. You can carry stuff for 4-8 people, depending on how light you travel. Give the trailer to the strongest rider, and she will get as good a workout as the kids!
Don't have access to a trailer? Simply install rear racks on a couple of the bikes. Then purchase bags (called "panniers") that attach to the racks. By filling the bags and strapping things onto the tops of the racks, you can carry essentials comfortably. And, if you need more capacity, you can add racks and bags to the other bikes on the trip.
Rail-trails create unique opportunities for recreational cycling. They allow you to ride all day without worrying about cars. For families, they're the perfect training ground for our next generation of cyclists. So get out there and enjoy your local rail-trail!
Selected Trails for Multi-day Trips
Katy Trail State Park, Missouri, 225 miles Travel dense forests, wetlands, deep valleys, remnant prairies, open pastureland and gently rolling farm fields and pass through some of the most scenic areas of Missouri on the longest open rail-trail in the United States. For information visit www.mostateparks.com/katytrail.htm
George S. Mickelson Trail, South Dakota, 114 miles Explore national forest land, more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four tunnels on this scenic trail through South Dakota's Black Hills. For information including accommodations visit www.mickelsontrail.com
Withlacoochee State Trail/General James A. Van Fleet Trail, Florida, 75 miles Take in rural Florida's citrus groves, scenic swamps and varied wildlife on these rail-trails in the central part of the state. While not connected, the trails are close enough to make for a good multi-day trip.
Great Allegheny Passage/C&O Canal Towpath, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C., 336 miles Combine the Great Allegheny Passage with the C&O Canal Towpath to pedal from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. on rail-trails, bike lanes and the canal towpath. For information visit www.atatrail.org
Pere-Marquette State Trail/White Pine Trail State Park, Michigan, 148 miles. Travel through the heart of central Michigan and across scenic and varied terrain while pedaling along these intersecting trails.