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8 Top Rail Trails for Biking

Cycling paths that offer smooth rides and plenty of scenery


spinner image Bicycle riders cross a bridge over the Youghiogheny River on the Great Allegheny Passage trail
Great Allegheny Passage trail
Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo

It turns out that the same things that make for a good train route — gentle grades and access to town centers — are perfect for a bike ride, too. So when train companies began to abandon rail lines about 50 years ago, communities and states saw an unprecedented opportunity to convert them to trails.

Today, the nation's 2,100 rail trails range in length from a few miles to several hundred, and usually have bike-friendly restaurants and stores along the way.

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These are eight wonderful trails for an easy-riding day trip or, in some cases, a multiday cycling adventure. (Find more on the TrailLink website operated by the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.)

spinner image two people riding bikes on a rails to trails bike trail in front of a tunnel
Scott Smith/Getty Images

George S. Mickelson Trail

Distance: 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont, South Dakota

No need to get on a horse for a Wild West adventure. Just hop on a bike. This crushed gravel and limestone path leads through the ponderosa pine forests and high plains of South Dakota's Black Hills. Along the way, the trail crosses 100 converted railroad bridges and passes through four hard rock tunnels. Your outing can start (or end) in the former gold boomtown of Deadwood, where Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok once roamed, and now home once again to gambling halls.

Mickelson Trail Adventures and Rabbit Bicycles offer rentals and shuttles to all 15 trailheads.

Insider tip: Cyclists can easily detour to landmarks like the Crazy Horse Monument and Custer State Park.

spinner image Great Allegheny Passage Bike Rail Trail
Tom Uhlman / Alamy Stock Photo

The Great Allegheny Passage

Distance: 148.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh

Follow the path of early western settlers on this route across the Mason-Dixon Line, over the Eastern Continental Divide and alongside wild rivers and wilderness parks.

Cumberland-based Wheelzup Adventures rents bikes and offers shuttles going all the way to Pittsburgh, or you can use Amtrak to carry your bike. With hotels and bed and breakfasts along the way, many riders make this a four-day trip. To double the fun, the trail connects with the 184.5-mile C&O Canal National Historical Park towpath, which stretches east to Washington, D.C., all together making for an epic 333-mile ride.

Insider tip: The trail town of Cumberland offers plenty of surprises, including a tunnel under a church once used by the Underground Railroad.

spinner image Monterey Bay Coastal Trail
David Zaitz / Alamy Stock Photo

Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail

Distance: 18 miles from Pacific Grove to Castroville, California

Few trails can match the stunning Pacific scenery of this California path, which follows the Monterey Bay coast. Along the way, riders pass by the sand dunes of Monterey State Beach, a eucalyptus grove and surfers at Lovers Point Beach.

The trail also has a rare connection to literature. It's built over a Southern Pacific railroad line that served historic Cannery Row, familiar to any fan of John Steinbeck. Adventures by the Sea and Big Sur Adventures rent traditional and e-bikes.

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Insider tip: Take time to look for harbor seals (the best spot is a few blocks west of the Monterey Bay Aquarium), along with sea lions, sea otters and even an occasional whale.

spinner image Biking the Katy Trail State Park
Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

Katy Trail State Park

Distance: 239.6 miles from Machens to Clinton, Missouri

The nation's longest rail-trail offers a bucket list adventure, passing through dozens of railroad towns, and tracing the route of Lewis and Clark beside the Missouri River. Along the way, the route passes four restored depots and crosses 30 trestles.

Spur trails lead to the state capital, Jefferson City, and to the Kansas City suburbs. Several companies, including Bike Stop CafeShow Me MO Tours and Red Wheel Bike Shop, offer rentals and shuttles. It's also possible to bring bikes on Amtrak, which connects several trail towns.

Insider tip: Visit wineries in Hermann, Missouri, just 2.5 miles off the trail. During the late 19th century, this was one of the world's great winemaking regions.

spinner image a bike trail leading into a tunnel that was formerly part of a railroad
John Brueske / Alamy Stock Photo

Elroy-Sparta State Trail

Distance: 33.8 miles from Elroy to Sparta, Wisconsin

The nation's first rail-trail, Elroy-Sparta passes through five small towns and three rock tunnels as it crosses through Wisconsin wetlands, farm fields and prairies. The crushed stone path opened as a hiking trail in the 1960s, and now provides an easy connection to other routes leading from Elroy, including the 400 State Trail, which runs 22.3 miles to the east, and the Omaha Trail, which heads 12.5 miles north.

Cyclists must purchase a $5 trail pass (or $25 for the season.) Rentals and a shuttle service using your own car are available through Kendall Depot, the trail headquarters.

Insider tip: Cyclists must walk through the stone-arch tunnels, which are open May through October. Remember to pack a flashlight: The longest is 3,810 feet.

spinner image The Virginia Creeper Trail
Andre Jenny / Alamy Stock Photo

Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail

Distance: 34 miles from Whitetop Station to Abingdon, Virginia

Named for an historic steam engine, the Virginia Creeper offers bikers an easy Appalachian adventure, crossing dozens of wooden trestles and passing Christmas tree farms and trout streams along the way.

With several shuttle and rental companies, including Virginia Creeper Trail Bike ShopSundog Outfitter and Abingdon Adventures, it's easy to arrange a day trip. Afterwards, take in a play at the Barter, Virginia's state theater, where Gregory Peck and Patricia Neal got their start, and then nurse your sore muscles at the historic Martha Washington Inn and Spa.

Insider Tip: As you pass the trail's halfway point in the town of Damascus, look for the Appalachian Trail, a hiking path that stretches from Georgia to Maine. With several routes crossing here, the city has earned the nickname Trail Town USA.

spinner image Coeur d'Alenes bicycling path
Gregory Johnston / Alamy Stock Photo

Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes

Distance: 73 miles from Mullan to Plummer, Idaho

This Bitterroot Mountains ride takes in some of the best of Northern Idaho's Panhandle, including silver mining towns, mountain lakes and the Coeur d'Alene tribal reservation.

For many, the highlight is the 28-mile stretch between Harrison and Cataldo. At times it can feel like riding through a zoo with sightings of elk, moose, bear, eagles and more. Most riders do the trip in three days. The Friends of the Coeur d'Alene Trails can help set up shuttles, rentals and lodging.

Insider tip: The Coeur d'Alenes is only 20 miles from another top-rated rail-trail, the 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha, which includes 10 tunnels.

spinner image Silver Comet Trail
Billy Blume / Alamy Stock Photo

Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails

Distance: 94.5 miles from Smyrna, Georgia, to Anniston, Alabama

This Deep South adventure starts in suburban Atlanta on the Silver Comet trail, taking cyclists 61.5 miles to the Alabama state line. The path then changes its name to Chief Ladiga and continues another 33 miles, crossing Appalachian foothills through the Talladega National Forest. Taken together, it makes for one of the longest paved pedestrian trails in the nation.

Rooted Trading Company in Powder Springs, Georgia, offers rentals, along with local and long-distance shuttles. On the Alabama side, Wig's Wheels has rentals and can provide limited local shuttles.

Insider tip: The small college town of Jacksonville, Alabama, has a restored train depot and a downtown square.

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