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America’s Trails

The Alternative List: 10 Great Trails for Fall (Under the Radar)

October 8, 2015

Fall vista from the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail in California | Photo by Stan Bales, courtesy Bureau of Land Management
Fall vista from the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail in California | Photo by Stan Bales, courtesy Bureau of Land Management

Fall is a great time for trail adventures. Cooler weather, that crisp, fresh air, and the bright colors of the season inspire outdoor enthusiasts everywhere.

Dominating the season’s lists of best trails for fall are always the long, rural pathways of New England, famous for their colorful foliage where leaf-peepers flock each October.

But for those of you looking for a fall adventure that might not be on everyone’s bucket list, we’ve uncovered 10 great trails for fall.

1. Allegheny River Trail (Pennsylvania)

Allegheny River Trail, Pennsylvania | Photo courtesy
Allegheny River Trail, Pennsylvania | Photo courtesy TrailLink user ajs123

A recent review: “Truly cannot say enough about the beauty of this trail. Each time I thought I had hit the pinnacle of scenery, I went around a bend and saw an even more spectacular view.”

Pennsylvania is blessed with some of America’s most scenic, and most visited, rail-trails. As beautiful as any of them, but slightly under the radar, is the Allegheny River Trail, which runs 32 miles through the lovely Lake Erie region in the state’s northwest.

In addition to the vibrant orange and yellow palette of the surrounding woodland this time of year, this stretch of the Allegheny River also features a number of historic railroad towns that now welcome bikers, hikers, horse riders and fishermen drawn to this spectacular watershed and the rail-trail that connects it. The 115-year-old Belmar Bridge, and the Kennerdell and Rockland tunnels (right), are noteworthy highlights.

2. Ontario Pathways Rail Trail (New York)

The charming resort town of Canandaigua is one of the star attractions along this 19-mile rail-trail through New York’s Finger Lakes region. The rural trail is the pride of an industrious community organization, Ontario Pathways, Inc., that purchased the unused railroad corridor and transformed it into a popular recreation destination. The trail includes 12 bridges over myriad creeks and streams that snake through this rich and fertile landscape.

Canandaigua is the scene of October’s Great Pumpkin Walk along the rail-trail, which is lined with hundreds of artistic Jack-0-Lanterns for the occasion. Cider and donuts are included in the small admission fee. Yes, you read that correctly. Cider and donuts. Included.

3. North Bend Rail Trail (West Virginia)

North Bend Rail Trail, West Virginia | Photo courtesy Dave
North Bend Rail Trail, West Virginia | Photo courtesy TrailLink user Dr.Dave

Big on small-town charm and beautiful natural scenery, and small on crowds, the 72-mile rail-trail dives deep into the state parks and wilderness areas for which West Virginia is famous.

The North Bend Rail Trail also passes through the small city of Salem, which just put on its wonderful Salem Apple Butter Festival. The heady aromas brought people in from miles around to see live demonstrations of old-fashioned apple butter making, the copper kettles suspended over a crackling wood fire. Now that’s a fall getaway weekend. 

4. River Trail of Illinois

Looking for something genuinely different this fall? The 7.5-mile River Trail of Illinois runs from East Peoria in the center of the state to the rural community of Morton, widely recognized as the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” (85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin is produced in Morton, so it’s hard to argue with that).

Every October, Morton hosts the thoroughly weird but certainly entertaining Morton “Punkin Chuckin” Contest, where enterprising Illinoisans build gigantic pumpkin launching machines out of propane gas tanks, aluminum piping and elastic slings and gather in a huge field to do their thing. The smart tip: Bring lawn chairs; seating is scarce.

If you’re keen to extend your trail trip, the lovely Rock Island Trail runs north from Peoria. One of America’s oldest and most loved rail-trails, the 37.6-mile Rock Island Trail paints a great picture of central Illinois as it travels through friendly small towns, classic Midwestern farmland and woodlands.

5. Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail (California)

Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, California| Photo by Sheri Houck
Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, California | Photo by Sheri Houck

Okay, we probably can’t claim the Bizz Johnson as genuinely “under the radar.” As an inductee into RTC’s Rail-Trail Hall of Fame, this 25-mile trail through spectacular canyons and upland forests is one of California’s most loved.

But no list of the best fall excursions is complete without mentioning the annual Rails to Trails Festival in Susanville, the trail’s hub and one of the best examples in America of a small community making the most of its location next to a destination trail.

Centered around the historic Susanville Railroad Depot, this yearly celebration attracts visitors from far and wide, with live music, railroad handcar races, a chili cook-off and salsa contest, and the Bizz Johnson Marathon. Better yet, the festival, held this year on Oct. 10, supports the Lassen Land and Trails Trust in its work to enhance public trails in northeastern California.

RELATED: 10 Great Hiking and Walking Trails

6. Galloping Goose Trail (Colorado)

With such spectacular surroundings, you’d think the Galloping Goose Trail would just about be a household name among rail-trail fans. But this eye-opening, high-altitude trail in southwestern Colorado enjoys a relatively low profile.

A sterner test for the legs and lungs than most rail-trails, the Galloping Goose—bearing the nickname given to the unique, gasoline-powered, part car-part train vehicles that once traversed the narrow-gauge line—winds for 20 miles through Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest. The glow of the region’s famous aspen trees is the main draw this time of year, framed by the snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks (in fact, don’t wait too long to ride the Galloping Goose, as it quickly morphs into one of the area’s first skiable cross-country trails as early as October).

7. Red Cedar State Trail (Wisconsin)

Red Cedar State Trail, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Aaron Carlson | CC by 2.0
Red Cedar State Trail, Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Aaron Carlson | CC by 2.0

There are few lovelier places to be on a bright October day than Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley. This bucolic 14.5-mile rail-trail follows the gentle Red Cedar River past forests and farms, canopies of trees, wetlands and crimson sumac, the landscape changing with the distinct seasons.

The Red Cedar also connects with the Chippewa River State Trail, connecting in turn to a number of trailside communities waiting to welcome you with a roaring fireplace and a restorative beverage.

8. North Central State Trail (Michigan)

The Tip of the Mitt is a great place to experience the coming of the cooler season. The 62-mile North Central State Trail winds through Michigan’s north woods with connections to well-established tourist towns at both ends. The evidence of fall pours generously over this remarkable rail-trail and the surrounding agricultural fields, forests, lakes, rivers and wildflowers. The section north of Indian River, particularly, is illuminated with iridescent birch and maples through mid- to late October.

9. Boise River Greenbelt (Idaho)

Boise River Greenbelt, Idaho| Photo courtesy
Boise River Greenbelt, Idaho | Photo courtesy TrailLink user shellycurtis

Albino deer, foxes, blue heron, eagles, osprey, rainbow trout, owls and wood ducks—photos of the Boise River Greenbelt at reveal a rail-trail that is as much nature preserve as it is paved pathway.

In the fall, the 39-mile streak of riverside trail outside Idaho’s largest city blazes warm reds, oranges and yellows; a city ordinance requiring all development to be set back a minimum of 70 feet from the river means rich foliage at every step.

10 .Lake Wobegon Trail (Minnesota)

The trail’s namesake is the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, made famous by author and radio personality Garrison Keillor. Along the 10-foot-wide paved trail, you’ll find small towns that provided Keillor with inspiration, including Holdingford, a town once referred to by Keillor as “most Wobegonic.”

Following the former Burlington Northern Railroad corridor between Osakis and St. Joseph, the 62-mile Lake Wobegon Trail offers scenic views of prairie remnants, lakes, woodlands and open farmland, with surprising deep reds and toasty yellows greeting visitors in the autumn months.

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