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A Great Family Activity: Rail Trails for Biking

I am an avid hiker and I like sharing some of the places I've hiked (or biked) with others. I also offer tips for beginners.

A rail trail is simply an old railroad bed that is no longer used and has been converted into a path for people to use for recreational purposes.

A rail trail is simply an old railroad bed that is no longer used and has been converted into a path for people to use for recreational purposes.

Get Ready to Hit the Trail

About twenty years ago the city where I lived opened up a rail trail along the bed of an old railroad. In fact, the trail bordered my neighborhood and traveled about 5 miles north and 15 to 20 miles south of me. Additional trails leading east and west of it eventually linked up to the original trail.

It was then that I left heavily traveled streets and returned to bicycling on a regular basis. These trails have sprung up all over the country and offer residents a wonderful activity whether they are alone or with an entire family.

What is a Rail Trail?

A rail trail is simply an old railroad bed that is no longer used and has been converted into a path for people to use for recreational purposes. Actually, some rail trails can provide functional transportation from one point to another in some instances. A rail trail is not used for vehicular traffic. Instead, traffic on a rail trail consists of runners, walkers, inline skaters, and bicyclists and therefore makes for a great family biking location.

Many rail trails are paved, but some have crushed limestone, dirt, or other surfaces. Clearly, a paved trail allows for the greatest variety of traffic as they can be used by inline skaters whereas other surfaces don't allow such activity.

Each rail trail may have different rules but in general, pets are allowed on trails, although they should be on a leash. Some rail trails are urban/suburban and receive heavy traffic while others are more rural and are lightly traveled.

Why is Rail Trail a Great Way to Bike?

These trails offer a number of advantages for families seeking a safe outdoor activity as well as for those focusing on fitness goals.

  • Some of the easiest bicycling possible. Many rail trails won't offer the challenge of steep uphill climbs or rugged terrain that mountain biking offers. Instead, you will generally find a more level path and one that may even be more protected from sun and wind in some areas due to wooded surroundings. There are few instances of potholes, unexpected gravel, and other "road hazards" thus they are one of the safest possible family biking options.
  • No vehicular traffic. Face it; cars don't mix that well with bicycles and other pedestrian modes of transportation. Rail trails separate you from automotive traffic with the exception of occasional, well-marked crossings.
  • Rail trails are nearly everywhere. When you plan trips around the country you can generally include biking a rail trail in your travel plans. Finding them is pretty simple and I'll tell you more about that in a bit. This ready availability makes it an activity that your family can build on and engage in routinely.
  • Rail trails offer convenience. These trails generally have trailheads and free parking areas where you can leave your car/truck. In addition, these trails sometimes offer "facilities" periodically or pass through populated areas where families can stop and take a break, have lunch, or perhaps even stay the night.

A Few Reasons Why Biking Is an Ideal Family Activity

Biking is an excellent family activity because:

  • It is a good fitness activity.
  • It exposes kids to the outdoors and nature.
  • It can create a sense of adventure when everyone is up for a longer ride and/or destinations along the trail have been identified to visit.
  • Kids who are a bit older can assist in planning the trip (what trails to take, what destinations to see, where to stop for a rest, a meal, etc.).
Biking is a great family bonding activity!

Biking is a great family bonding activity!

Where Can I Find a Rail Trail?

Finding a rail trail is very easy. The Rails to Trails Conservancy has a website that allows you to simply input your destination and the type of trail you prefer in order to locate trails in the area. Finding the perfect family biking experience is simple with this tool.

Once you have the name of the trail it can also be useful to research the trail further online. This can often provide more detailed information such as other trails that link up to it, sites of interest near the trail, and detailed maps.

What Should I Take Along on Our Trip?

The items needed for biking a rail trail are similar to that for any type of distance biking excursion and will vary based on the time of year and how far you plan to travel. However, here are some basics to get you thinking.

  • Your bicycles. Well, of course, but I would mention that my personal preference is to use a hybrid bicycle with tires that aren't too slick and yet not too "knobby". Knobby tires offer more resistance and require more effort to pedal. On the other hand, "slick" tires don't handle even crushed limestone very well and a fall needs to be avoided.
  • A repair kit. Be sure to take along a tire repair kit, including a pump, and any other tools to be sure you don't get stranded. I've had the experience and it isn't fun.
  • A cell phone. This isn't an absolute must, but just as in many other situations, having your cell phone available in case of emergency adds some security.
  • Water. Don't leave home without it. Get a holder for each bike and let each person carry their own water bottle.
  • Other sustenance. With a small bag on your bike, it's easy to take along some fruit, granola, or power bars, whatever you want to take along to assure you have the energy needed. Take along some cash if you will be purchasing a meal.
  • Protection from the elements. Bug repellent, sunblock, sweaters or jackets, a cap, sunglasses, and so forth should be considered. It never hurts to take along some bandages and so forth in case of scrapes.
  • Consider special needs. For example, if anyone has allergies don't forget tissues, allergy medications, inhalers, or whatever else needs to be readily available.
To prevent unnecessary collisions and injuries stay to the right, especially if you're walking on a rail trail.

To prevent unnecessary collisions and injuries stay to the right, especially if you're walking on a rail trail.

Rail Trail Precautions

Although family biking on rail trails is a safe activity, you should wear any safety gear you typically wear. Helmets in particular. Although the risk of getting hit by a car is minimal, falls can still occur.

Here are a few things to keep in mind on rail trails:

  • People are traveling a different speeds on rail trails. Walkers are obviously the slowest movers, then runners, and then inline skaters and bicyclists. To prevent unnecessary collisions and injury stay to the right, especially if you're walking.
  • Pass with care and alert the person you are passing by stating something like "passing on your left". Some people use a bell to alert people as well.
  • Watch your speed in areas with "traffic". Remember you are moving much faster than those on foot. In addition, many children are on rail trails and they have a tendency to look around and wander a bit in their "course"; suddenly turning out in front of you.
  • When trail traffic is significant, ride single file. When riding with small children it is best to have one adult in front to assure crossings are observed and another adult in back to avoid having stragglers.
  • Don't ride beyond your capabilities. Rail trails are not loops. If you ride 15 miles one way, remember you still have 15 miles to ride back to your car.

Riding Along a Spectacular Trail in Canada

© 2008 Ruth Coffee

What is Your Favorite Trail?

tstandiford on September 16, 2011:

I have a "rail trail" near my previous home. I used to ride that 11 mile trail down and back every morning. It was perfect because it had low traffic, and it was flat so I could focus on going fast and could safely listen to my music while riding. The trail ended at a gas station where I frequently would stop to get a drink.

You have me wanting to get my bike down to that trail now. Thanks for sharing.

PS: I had a very horrible experience when I chose my first bicycle, and made a video telling all about it. I'd love to get some input from you on my story:

Echo Phoenix on August 31, 2011:

I live along the Katy Trail which winds along the rails from Saint Charles to Kansas City along the Missouri River... I would love to see a trail system that eventually links all trails across the country into one massive system that extends from coast to coast! nice lens;)

gregoryolney lm on August 11, 2011:

A very good idea - bike paths should be a part of every community. We have some great rides in Milton Keynes !

Michelle77 LM on July 31, 2011:

where i live they are called metro parks...and it's wonderful not to have vehicles to worry about when you have children riding ...Nice lens :)

Deb Kingsbury from Flagstaff, Arizona on May 27, 2011:

There was a great rail trail in Confluence and Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, where I used to live. I'd hike, bike and run on it all the time. It followed alongside a river. LOVE rail trails! I wish there were many more.

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on April 12, 2011:

I love rail trails and experienced my first one in Michigan. Hope more and more places will join the movement to convert railroad beds. It's a win-win proposition.

nahmie on April 04, 2011:

Being a cyclist, I love your lens. In the Baltimore/DC corridor, there are quite a few trails for me to take advantage of, and I definitely do. Thanks for the great lens!

kimmanleyort on October 22, 2010:

I love that railway lines are being converted to bike trails. A safe way to be in nature and get exercise too. Thanks for all you do to promote trails and parks.

anonymous on September 28, 2010:

I thoroughly enjoyed your lens. You have included a lot of valuable information, and THANK YOU for including that wonderful YouTube of the Airline Rail Trail. I seldom ever watch all of even short videos. I watched every moment of that one and almost clicked the Replay link. I love it!

Ruth Coffee (author) from Zionsville, Indiana on September 24, 2010:

@sheilamarie78: I agree completely. Wish we had more trains! But, these rail beds haven't been used for generations and often connect towns that have also dwindled.

Cynthia Arre from Quezon City on September 23, 2010:

Those rail trails are wonderful for exercising and communing with nature as well. Thank you for sharing such useful info in this well-done lens. (:

Sheilamarie from British Columbia on September 22, 2010:

Very useful site! Rail trails are springing up everywhere and many people are enjoying biking and walking along them. I do hope we aren't getting rid of trains altogether, however, as they are necessary for public transportation, too. But that is a different lens. . . .

anonymous on September 22, 2010:

It is a great idea to convert an old rail trail to a bicycle trail. It is also safer to ride in a separate path just made for biking and pedestrians.

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on September 21, 2010:

Fabulous suggestion! We love discovering trails for biking and hiking!

Fit_Over_40_Buzz on September 18, 2010:

Your lens is great. Very informative. I liked your lens with a thumbs up.

SofiaMann on September 16, 2010:

They are wonderful places for biking. Thanks for the info.

anonymous on September 13, 2010:

I bet you have a blast riding trails. You have so many great lenses about places that have nice biking trails. Awesome! - Adding this to the list for Krispy"s Return.

Kiwisoutback from Massachusetts on September 13, 2010:

There's a long rail trail on Cape Cod that I want to take advantage of. It goes through about half of the towns on the Cape. I've never biked one, but I've always wanted to. First step: get a bike! I haven't had one since high school.

DoItYourselfer on August 28, 2010:

Great lens on rail trails for biking! I enjoy these trails and find them very interesting. In addition to the emergency kit I carry on the bike I carry some additional items in my car like a portable inflator air compressor to inflate my tires to the proper psi before setting off.

anonymous on March 28, 2010:

Good lens! Thanks for information. I hope, this is also good information about deck rail planters.

Brookelorren LM on November 10, 2009:

I never heard of rail trails before. Good job.

California_Dreamin on June 06, 2009:

Very interesting. I'd never heard of rail trails before reading this lens. I'm lensrolling this to my Brooks bicycle saddle lens.

MadcapDave on May 26, 2009:

I enjoyed your lens. I found it through the group lens section of the all things bike group and I enjoy rails to trails biking. Keep up the good work.

MudRider500 on May 14, 2009:

Mulberrey, I would like to add a link to this page from my bike page. I'm working on a section for travel and I think this lens is great.

Here is my lens [url=]My Cannondale 500 pit stop[/url]

Just leave a note in my guestbook letting me know if it's ok. Thanks

MudRider500 on May 08, 2009:

I used to love riding on rail trails growing up. Fabulous lens. great family stuff.

MobyD on January 15, 2009:

Great lens - 5 stars and favorited. I added a plexo link for the Springwater Corridor, a 21.5-mile trail from SE Portland to Boring, Oregon. It's a great trail for riding and walking.

seedplanter on January 06, 2009:

Another well-designed lens. I love the video, too. I'm surprised that more of the smaller towns don't look around and find wasted space for trails like this.

Great idea for a lens. Makes me want to grab my bike and go!

dustytoes on January 02, 2009:

I think this is a great lens! What fun...

greenerme on December 29, 2008:

Great idea for a lens! Looks like there's some cool rail trails in some interesting places. I'd love to see them in person.

Bookmama2 on December 22, 2008:

Great lens. Thanks for the link on where to find rail trails in your area. I've looked for this information unsuccessfully before!

Thomsonator on November 26, 2008:

Hey mulberry, love the lens. I have a great rail trail near me that I bike, hike and run on. It's so peaceful and tranquil to exercise there. When I do, all my stress and worries just evaporate. I see critters everywhere such as wild turkey, deer and a variety of birds. In these trying times we live in, it's nice to know we can quickly escape to somewhere peaceful to get back to the basics. I have some great pictures I'll post to my lens and submit to your list of rail trails.

MacPharlain on November 11, 2008:

Rail trails rock! They're great for walking, running & roller blading, too.

WritingforYourW on October 25, 2008:

These trails are fantastic. I highly recommend the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Northern Idaho. It's 72 miles and lots of it is through wilderness. I have seen moose and deer and eagles while biking out there. :)

rebeccahiatt on September 20, 2008:

I love the trails for bikes and walking we spend a lot of time on the Riverwalk.

FootballCrazy LM on September 16, 2008:

A very strong lens you've written there; I really like the way you've set it out and thoroughly enjoyed the read. I'd never heard of rail trails before and found your lens to be incredibly informative and of course extremely interesting. It's 5 stars from me. :)

Trailmix on September 15, 2008:

Nice Lens! Welcome to the Family Outdoor Recreation Group. Thanks also for the rails to trails conservancy link (on my way there now).

Mike Barlow

religions7 on September 15, 2008:

Learned a new word today! rail trail. We call them fietspaden (fiets = bike; pad= trail; paden=plural of pad). great idea for a lens :)

Cheryl Kohan from England on September 15, 2008:

Wow, VERY nice lens...the rail to trail site is terrific. Five stars and I'm forwarding this to some biking friends.