With spring comes a near-universal urge to get outside, get fit, and revel in the greening landscape. A great bike ride accomplishes all those desires — and it’s a refreshingly green mode of travel, too.
While I relish the challenge of a tough hike, I confess I tend to prefer more leisurely bike rides. If I’m not pedaling arduously up killer hills, I’m better able to survey the scenery, drink in the air, and hear birds in the trees or the rush of a stream. Give me a gentle gradient and a slow cardio burn any day.
That’s exactly what Rails-to-Trails provides. This non-profit land conservancy takes unused rail corridors and converts them to trails that enhance the health of the environment, the economy, and the people who use this nationwide network. With a mantra that exhorts users to “burn calories, not carbon,” Rails-to-Trails is an advocate for active transportation, promoting policy that enables trail-building and seeks to enhance federal investment in trails designed to increase walking and biking.
More than 1,450 rail-trails currently cover nearly 14,000 miles, and the system is continually growing. I recently sampled three routes in Colorado and Virginia — check these out as examples of what you may find near you, too.
Steamboat Springs, CO
April in the mountain resort town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, signals the start of cycling season on the Yampa River Core Trail, as skis and snowshoes are swapped for bikes and blades. The paved path follows the Yampa for seven miles through town, while a dirt trail, popular with runners, parallels the main route.
Starting at the southeastern trailhead, the trail passes through big cottonwood groves and skirts alluring fishing holes before entering the Yampa River Botanic Park, a-flutter with native birds and butterflies. From late June through August, the Strings in the Mountains Music Festival presents free 1-hour concerts at the park each Thursday at 12:15 pm. Then, it’s on through downtown Steamboat Springs, with its many historic Old-West brick buildings.
Flower gardens, benches and picnic tables line the corridor, inviting cyclists to stop and soak in the scenery — which include plenty of inner-tubes, rafts and kayaks running the rapids in late spring and summer.
The trail winds through the broad Yampa Valley, with big vistas from which to admire a rainbow of hot air balloons that dot the skies, especially during July’s Hot Air Balloon Rodeo. Cyclists may also catch jaw-dropping views of summer ski jumpers, Nordic-style Olympic hopefuls who train on a jump inlaid with a porcelain track on the side of famed Howelsen Hill, landing on a plastic outrun kept smooth with water. Afterward, soak any muscle strain away at Strawberry Park Hot Springs, a secluded collection of natural mineral pools a short distance from town.
Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
A longer, quieter ride than the Yampa Core, this premiere National Recreation Trail parallels the misnamed river – it’s actually one of the world’s oldest — for 39 miles of its 57-mile length along an abandoned railroad right-of-way past small family farms and mountain cabins while crisscrossing the New River. The route was donated to the state by the Norfolk and Southern Railroad when it removed the tracks, though many bridges and trestles remain.
The trail’s southern terminus is at the town of Galax, one of Virginia’s most important centers for historic Appalachian mountain music — not to mention some pretty good barbecue, too, at the Galax Smokehouse.
Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
Not far away, the Virginia Creeper Trail offers an even more exhilarating ride. This mountain bike trail through the forested backcountry of far-southwest Virginia descends 35 miles from Abingdon through Damascus to the North Carolina state line near Whitetop. More steeply pitched than most rail-trails, the Creeper is usually ridden one-way (down!) and a shuttle service enlisted to ferry cyclists back up.
Several shops in Abingdon and Damascus offer bike rentals and return shuttles.
To find rail-trails near you, or anywhere in the country, visit TrailLink, a free listing service provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.