By Jeanine Barone
The decline in train travel as a prime mode of transportation in the U.S. has had an unexpected upside. Many abandoned railroad corridors have been, and continue to be, repurposed as greenways for human-powered activities like bicycling, walking and jogging. These rail-trails, as they’re called, provide a great outdoor adventure for your next family road trip. Here are seven scenic trails worth checking out.
1. Withlacoochee State Trail, Florida
Following a portion of the original corridor of the Atlantic Coast Line (and later CSX Transportation), this 46-mile rail-trail route takes its name from the Native American word meaning “crooked river.” It’s no wonder — the more scenic southern section, from Istachatta to Trilby, parallels the serpentine Withlacoochee River. Reminders of its railway past are ever present, such as the numerous white concrete posts with black bars (whistle markers). A stop at Fort Cooper State Park allows cyclists to stretch their legs on nature trails shaded by magnolia and sweet gum. You can also bird watch, as well as learn about the area’s Seminole Indian history from signage on the Seminole Heritage Trail. Other bird watching opportunities can be found when the trail courses through Withlacoochee State Forest with its longleaf pine and cypress trees dripping with epiphytes.
2. Virginia Creeper Trail, Virginia
Despite its considerable length (34 miles from Whitetop Station near the North Carolina border to Abingdon), cycling the first portion of the Virginia Creeper Trail (from the border to Damascus) couldn’t be easier. It’s 17 miles all downhill from the 3,500-foot-high starting point. The entire ride is bucolic, rich in fields, farms, streams and dense woodland. Cyclists cross dozens of wooden trestles as they follow the route once taken by the Virginia-Carolina Railway and the Norfolk and Western Railway. This trail honors its railroad past, including repurposing the Green Cove Station, the trail’s only original depot, as a visitor’s center with historic railroad photos. You’ll also find remnants of its time as a general store until early 1970s — the counter, shelves stocked with inventory from the time, scales, display cases, pot belly stove and other items. An old caboose was transformed into an info kiosk in Damascus, a vibrant town crossed by the Appalachian Trail. Also, at the rail trail welcome center in Abingdon, you’ll find an exhibit of 1950s photos by O. Winston Link, well-known train photographer.
3. Shelby Farms Greenline, Tennessee
Built on the bed of the former Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis (and later the CSX line) Railway, the Shelby Farms Greenline runs almost 11 miles from Midtown Memphis to Cordova, a former railroad stop. The length of this trail traverses diverse landscapes, from open fields to forests dense with mulberry, elm and sycamore. (Original trestles carry cyclists above the Wolf River and surrounding wetlands.) Near Waring and Graham roads, a peaceful, sun-dappled section is nicknamed “the cathedral” owing to its stunning tree canopy. Part of the route follows the northern border of Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500-acre green space coated with meadows, forests and wetlands that’s one of the nation’s largest urban parks. It’s also a nexus for family-friendly outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing and hiking.
4. Swamp Rabbit Trail, South Carolina
The origins of the curious name of this corridor for the former Carolina, Knoxville & Western, and the Greenville & Northern railways are unclear. (It may have been nicknamed for the cottontail native to wetlands in this area.) But there’s no disagreement on the beauty of this 22-mile path. Mostly following Greenville’s Reedy River, the route starts in Cleveland Park, a green space worth exploring for its network of walking paths that wend to placid blooming gardens. Once in downtown Greenville, the trail parallels Falls Park, a gem of an urban oasis with tumbling Reedy River Falls and its elegantly designed pedestrian suspension bridge. Before reaching its terminus just beyond the small, lively town of Travelers Rest, this shaded rail trail passes the meticulously landscaped campus of Furman University with its picture-postcard lake and bell tower.
5. Thermal Belt Rail Trail, North Carolina
Aptly named for the isothermal belt — a temperature inversion producing milder temperatures in the area — this almost 14-mile trail is a delight year-round, even in winter. The most rural cycling is along the five-mile northern section starting at Gilkey. Especially appealing in the hot summers, the dense forest of sugar maples, white pines and red oak provides much needed shade. History buffs gravitate to the Bechtler Mint Site, some two miles from Gilkey, to peer into the former gold mine shaft and learn about the area’s gold mining past. This rail trail also recognizes its previous life as the corridor for the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford Railroad line, and later the Southern Railway. Two replica steel bridges — one quite grand — pay homage to the original bridges that trains once traversed, and a 12-foot section of rail is incorporated into each cement mile marker.
6. Silver Comet Trail, Georgia
Stretching almost 62 miles from Smyrna, an Atlanta suburb, to the Georgia/Alabama State line near the Esom Hill Trailhead, this former rail bed follows the route of the old Seaboard Air Line that ran the Silver Comet luxury passenger train. (Recreational cyclists should pick the section of this lengthy trail that most appeals to their interests.) The popular, bustling section near Smyrna allows easy access to verdant Heritage Park, a more than 100-acre nature preserve where a short walking trail navigates over wetlands. To avoid the route’s more isolated and hilly sections, casual cyclists may opt for activities near Dallas, such as cycling over the restored circa 1901 Pumpkinvine Trestle, one of the trail’s many railroad relics. The remote segment between Dallas and Rockmart is stunning, especially a section with dramatic boulders and rocky cliffs. And, those who bring swim suits can stop to enjoy a dip at Coot’s Lake Beach.
7. Mon River Trails, West Virginia
This 48-mile-long system of rail trails consists of three (mostly compact limestone) paths, two of which parallel the shore of the slow-moving Monongahela (aka Mon) River. A good place to fan out in different directions on each outing is Morgantown, where the trails meet. (Each follows the former route of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that carried mining and quarrying items to markets.) Wildlife sightings — such as snapping turtles, muskrat or beaver — are likely. Numerous reminders of the corridor’s railroad history are visible, including concrete whistle posts that are distinguished by an engraved “W.” Seasonal wildflowers are abundant, especially when the Caperton Trail — the urban, paved, six-mile stretch of the 29-mile Mon River Rail-Trail — cuts through the West Virginia University Core Arboretum. For an uphill ride, the Deckers Creek Rail-Trail offers a scenic route through a rocky gorge as well as views of swirling rapids and tumbling waterfalls.
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(Go Magazine August 2020)