As much as we love to explore new places via bicycle, it hasn’t always been trouble free. I remember one time we tried to cycle to an old fort on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia, and we found ourselves on a highway that got busier and busier while the bike lane got narrower and then disappeared—and to turn around you had to cross four fast traffic lanes.
So on this trip we initially would search online for bike-friendly routes when we’d arrive in a new place—sometimes that was a hit, sometimes a miss. And of course we tried several apps, like Map My Ride. But it wasn’t until I discovered TrailLink that we really started to hit our stride riding in all kinds of urban and rural settings.
TrailLink is a trail-finding app from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the group that has undertaken a nationwide effort to convert old rail corridors from neglected relics and wasted space to community resources of real value. Turning unused rail lines into trails for pedestrians and bike riders promotes connections within and between communities, and healthy lifestyles.
It’s certainly done that for us. I think our first TrailLink route on this trip was in Davenport, Iowa—the Duck Creek Trail that connects together neighborhoods and parks to take you through several towns down to the Mississippi River. Like most urban TrailLink routes, it minimizes traffic and takes you over or under busy streets and highways.
But it’s the more rural trails that we’ve especially enjoyed. Like the Elroy-Sparta State Trail—more commonly known as the Tunnel Trail—in central Wisconsin: 32 miles through farms and small towns, across 34 bridges and three long tunnels. Or urban-rural routes trails like the Schuylkill River Trail: 27 miles from downtown Philadelphia out to Valley Forge, which traverses park trails in the city, then follows an old canal towpath and rail trails as you get out into the country.
Not all trails are perfect. We started out on the Cross County Trail near Fairfax, Virginia, with the intention of riding to the trail head at Great Falls National Park. It began on busy streets, then veered into a park, and quickly devolved into a narrow, rocky, slowly disappearing path about 15” wide along a cyclone fence. After a few miles we gave up and drove to Great Falls!
The idea for RTC grew naturally out of the fact that when railroads were abandoned, people just came out and started walking along the old grades, exploring railroad relics, bridges and tunnels, and old industrial buildings along the corridors. In the 80s, as the railroad industry was abandoning thousands of rail line miles every year, a bunch of walking and biking enthusiasts, railroad history buffs, conservation and parks people, and transportation activists began to organize behind the idea of preserving rail corridors for public use, eventually forming the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
RTC makes the long-term investment in building collaborative relationships with a range of government and private organizations to make this happen. It must be a real political feat to align the interests of a whole series of cities and towns, counties and states, federal funding entities, as well as private property owners and interest groups like environmental and cyclist organizations, to make each of these trails a reality; and then to do that on a regional and national basis!
RTC is a nonprofit that raises money through membership donations and community, foundation and government support. Now there are 21,000 miles of rail trails (and growing) in the network, used by tens of millions of people (and growing) every year. And there are more than 160,000 RTC members. I can attest to how much fun all you cyclists will have riding these trails, and encourage you to support this very cool organization. You can join us here, and you can download TrailLink from the App Store or from Google Play.
All photos © 2014 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.