Five Rail-Trails in America’s National Parks

Posted 08/11/16 by Suzanne Matyas in Trail Use, America's Trails

Grand Teton Multi-use Pathway/Greater Yellowstone Trail, Wyoming | Photo by Camrin Dengel

Rail-trails travel through some of America’s most iconic places—including our national parks, which officially turn 100 years old this year (Aug. 25)! On the eve of the U.S. National Park Service centennial, we thought it was a great time to bring you this list of five national park rail-trails, which dot the country’s landscapes from the Great Lakes to Washington State. So lace up your shoes, and go explore! 

By the way, in honor of their birthday, NPS and the National Park Foundation are encouraging you to #FindYourPark with free admission Aug. 25–28, 2016. And remember, when you’re out on the trail, be safe, respect nature, and wish the NPS a “happy birthday!”

1Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail (Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky)

Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky | Photo by Rick Heeth

No, you won’t unearth any woolly mammoth remains here, but you will find an elephantine amount of history and the world’s longest cave. Mammoth Cave rests underneath Kentucky’s Green River Valley and boasts 390 miles of mysterious passages—more than double its closest competitor! Before delivering you at the mouth of the cave, the 9-mile Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike & Hike Trail will carry you by the historical ruins of Bell’s Tavern, a famous 19th-century stage coach stop. You’ll also pass a wooden boardwalk and scenic pond along Sloan’s Crossing, as well as the Hercules: the last of the Mammoth Cave Railroad engines.

Cyclists be warned; do not go on any bourbon tours before your ride (amblers too!), because the rail-trail has a few hills, steep grades and two cemeteries that require you to dismount. Note that camping, horseback riding, fishing and boating are all available along the route. Also, be sure to check out the free tours offered on Aug. 27 and 28 in celebration of Founder’s Day! (Read more about this trail in our August 2012 Trail of the Month.)

2Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail (Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio)

Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio | Photo courtesy David Fulmer | CC by 2.0

If you have visited Cuyahoga Valley National Park, chances are you’ve experienced the ever-popular—but not overly crowded—Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail. What once served as a path for mules to pull boats in the early 1800s is now an 85-mile journey from Cleveland to Bolivar, with most of the northern half of the trail traversing the park from north to south. Although the mules may not have fully appreciated the hand-dug canal and variety of landscapes during their years of pilgrimage, its 2.5 million annual trail users certainly do. The wheelchair/bike/walk/horse-friendly (in some locations) trail is open for 24 hours, inviting visitors to experience the majesty of the park by sunlight and moonlight. You’ll love the views, which include forests, wildlife, wetlands, fields, canal locks, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, charming villages and bridges (historic, new and floating).

RELATED: 10 More Game-Changing Rail-Trails

3Moab Canyon Pathway (Arches National Park, Utah)

Moab Canyon Trail in Arches National Park, Utah | Photo by Maggie Tacheny | CC by 2.0

Being surrounded by the red sandstone cliffs and whistling arches might make you think that you’ve accidentally landed on another planet. But don’t worry; this type of terrain is typical along the Moab Canyon Pathway—where gravity is normal, but the experience is out of this world! The nearly 13-mile off-road rail-trail starts in Moab and winds around the southern edge of Arches National Park. The route follows the retired Old Highway 191 as it carries you across the Colorado Riverway and Bicycle/ Pedestrian Bridge and then brings you to the entry of the Arches National Park visitor center. Inside the park, you’ll find a kaleidoscope of rock formations, desert flowers and more than 2,000 natural stone arches. Anyone interested in treading the Moab Canyon Pathway should visit the NPS website for detailed safety rules and recommendations—like important hydration info—before riding on this incredible route.

4Olympic Discovery Trail/Spruce Railroad Trail (Olympic National Park, Washington)

Olympic Discovery Spruce Railroad Trail in Olympic National Park, Washington | Photo courtesy ericncindy24 | CC by 2.0

In accordance with its name, the Spruce Railroad Trail—a segment of the 126-mile Olympic Discovery Trail—offers a potpourri of adventure. Nestled underneath a shady evergreen canopy, this nearly 20-mile rail-trail honors the name and route of the Spruce Railroad—a project of the U.S. Army during World War 1. The winding, narrow trail transports cyclists, skaters, walkers and horseback riders from the E. Beach Road trailhead to the Camp Creek trailhead. Along the way, visitors will be exposed to some of the iconic sites associated with Olympic National Park: Lake Crescent, mountains with snowcapped peaks, verdant forests, meadows and diverse wildlife. Olympic National Park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, and NPS periodically hosts guided tours on the rail-trail.

5Greater Yellowstone Trail (Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana)

Ashton-Tetonia Trail/Greater Yellowstone Trail in Iowa | Photo by Camrin Dengel

Although this trail is still under development, we thought it was too epic to leave out of this list. Upon completion, the Greater Yellowstone Trail will span 180 miles through five national forests and three national wildlife refuges to connect two of the most legendary national parks in America: Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Wow, right?! The aspiring trail system already consists of more than 110 passable miles through the majestic wildlands of the West. Trail users can currently experience the Rocky Mountains, agricultural lands, creeks, valleys and seriously spectacular wildlife. Once you’re out there, we suggest hopping on the nearly 30-mile rail-trail once occupied by a line of the Union Pacific: the Ashton-Tetonia Trail; in addition to its sweeping views, this segment would provide a key connection to the visionary, multi-state trail.

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