10 Rail-Trail Winter Wonderlands

Posted 12/20/16 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Trail Use

Snow biking and skiing on the Rio Grande Trail near Basalt, Colorado | Photo courtesy Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

This article is from the "A View From ... " section of the Winter 2017 issue of Rails to Trails magazine, which is hitting mailboxes in early January 2017. It has been republished here in an extended format. 

When the snow hits, many trail enthusiasts stow their running shoes or tuck their bikes into the back of the garage, missing an opportunity to enjoy rail-trails in a completely different way.

This winter, those who love biking may want to give fat-tire bikes a try; these specialized bikes handle like mountain bikes but have wider tires for gripping the snow. Switching to cross-country skiing or snowshoeing can be a fun option for walkers and runners; the gliding motion not only keeps legs strong, but also works arm, back and core muscles. The adventurous might try dog sledding or snowmobiling; visit local trail websites to see if these uses are permitted and to explore related clubs and other groups in your area. Here are some winter wonderland trail views to get you motivated! To learn more about these and other trails, check out TrailLink.com.

Rio Grande Trail | Photo courtesy Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

Rio Grande Trail

Stretching 42 miles from the famed ski town of Aspen to Glenwood Springs, Colorado’s Rio Grande Trail offers year-round fun. In winter, the eastern portion of the rail-trail through Pitkin County is groomed for cross-country skiing and fat-tire biking. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and glitter-dusted pine trees, a winter excursion doesn’t get much prettier. 

New River Trail State Park in Virginia | Photo by Amy Boucher

New River Trail State Park

Nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands, the New River Trail State Park offers 57 miles of serene wilderness for cross-country skiing. Traveling from Pulaski to Galax in the southwestern corner of the state, the rail-trail winds through a rugged valley with high rocky walls on one side and steep slopes going down to the river on the other side.

Aroostook Valley Trail in Maine | Photo by Paul Cyr

Aroostook Valley Trail

In northeastern Maine, not far from the Canadian border, the Aroostook Valley Trail offers a densely wooded, backcountry experience that snowmobilers will find appealing. The rail-trail travels 28 miles from Presque Isle to New Sweden and connects to the 61-mile Bangor–Aroostook Trail for an even longer ride. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog sledding are also popular on the trail during the winter months.

Brownstone Trail in Wisconsin | Photo courtesy Nick and Laura Kazynski

Brownstone Trail

Northern Wisconsin’s Brownstone Trail packs a lot of scenery into its 3-mile length. Beginning in Bayfield, the rail-trail follows the shoreline of Lake Superior along the brownstone cliffs that give the trail its name. Winding through glistening trees, it offers the perfect winter outing for a peaceful and picturesque journey on a pair of snowshoes or skis.

High Trestle Trail in Iowa | Photo by David V. Johnson

High Trestle Trail

Central Iowa’s High Trestle Trail, spanning just over 25 miles from the outskirts of Des Moines to Woodward, provides a pleasant winter trek by ski or snowshoe with friendly towns spaced every few miles to stop in and warm up. A highlight is the trail’s eponymous bridge towering 130 feet above the icy Des Moines River with an impressive view of the snow-covered valley below.

RELATED: A View From ... The Industrial Heartland Trails Network

Bike and Hike Trail in Ohio | Photo by Rob Blair

Bike and Hike Trail

Although Ohio’s Bike and Hike Trail has an unassuming name, this pathway is packed with winter wonders. Spanning nearly 34 miles in Greater Akron, the trail includes passage through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is perhaps best visited during the less crowded off-season. Enjoy an overlook of the icy Cuyahoga River, trekking through deep rock cuts and a short side trip to a jaw-dropping view of a crystalline Brandywine Falls.


Ferry County Rail Trail

Ferry County Rail Trail in Washington | Photo by Bobby Whittaker, courtesy Ferry County Rail Trail Partners

If you’re new to cross-country skiing, there is perhaps no more perfect place to learn than northeast Washington’s Ferry County Rail Trail. Each January, Ski Day is held on the trail, where participants receive free ski instruction, as well as free skis, boots and poles to use during the event. Framed by mountains, the 25-mile trail winds through a forested valley carved by the pristine Kettle River and crosses a 770-foot trestle that skims over a vast lake.

Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by Clark Maxwell

Illinois Prairie Path

Spanning 61 miles through the western suburbs of Chicago, the Illinois Prairie Path offers an easy escape for long winter walks. Connecting several parks and forest preserves, it makes for a scenic and serene journey, buffered from the wind with tunnels of trees where the only the sound might be that of snow crunching under foot.  

Prairie Spirit Trail State Park in Kansas | Photo by Trent McCown

Prairie Spirit Trail State Park

The Prairie Spirit Trail State Park in eastern Kansas offers a rich diversity of experiences over its 51-mile length: native prairie, wooded ravines, farmlands, rural small towns and busy urban areas. In Ottawa, at the north end of the trail, history buffs will want to stop in the Old Depot Museum, which is open year-round and offers exhibits on the region’s railroad history. 

Leelanau Trail in Michigan | Photo courtesy TART Trails Inc.

Leelanau Trail

Snow-filled meadows and quiet woodlands await those who venture out on the Leelanau Trail in northwestern Michigan. In the winter, the 16-mile pathway is groomed by TART Trails volunteers for both classic and skate skiing, fat biking and snowshoeing from its southern trailhead at Cherry Bend Road on the outskirts of Traverse City to its northern trailhead at Fourth Street in Suttons Bay.

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