The COVID-19 pandemic has turned vacation planning on its head. With concerns about travel, reduced household budgets and many businesses closed, most people are foregoing traditional vacations and staying close to home for the foreseeable future. For those seeking adventure, exercise, stress relief and all the things that vacations typically bring, that means exploring the places near where we live and work—finding unfamiliar paths in familiar places. The Great American Rail-Trail, covering some 3,700 miles across the country, will be accessible by nearly 50 million people within 50 miles of the route. Here is a sampling of some of the unique close-to-home experiences that city dwellers along the way can already enjoy.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy urges all individuals seeking trail experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to practice social distancing at all times and follow the guidelines set by the CDC and state and local governments. More info: railstotrails.org/COVID19.
Forming an 11-mile arc around the northern and western borders of the District of Columbia, the Capital Crescent Trail connects Washington to its Maryland suburbs. Pedaling along, travelers will have views of the Potomac River and the iconic Washington Monument. At its southern end, the trendy Georgetown neighborhood, the prestigious John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the infamous Watergate complex are all nearby. Its first few miles are also nestled within a national historical park, tucked between the Potomac and the scenic C&O Canal. To the north, travelers will have access to the popular dining and shopping area of Bethesda.
Branching outward from downtown Pittsburgh, the Three Rivers Heritage Trail traces the banks of three major waterways—the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio—that lifted the city to prominence as an American industrial powerhouse. ‘Heritage’ is a key part of its name, and along the trail, travelers will find 61 interpretative signs covering a range of topics: everything from Ice Age geography to Native American settlements, the changing river ecosystem and visits by prominent historical figures like George Washington and Lewis and Clark. Dotted with parks, museums, sports stadiums, public art and restored woodland habits, the riverfront trail spans 33 miles and is bursting with cultural and recreational opportunities.
Hugging the banks of the Scioto River, the 12-mile Scioto Greenway Trail provides a delightful contrast of densely forested corridor and spectacular downtown views. As Columbus’ first greenway trail, it’s provided a role model for all that an urban pathway can be, connecting popular attractions, natural areas, vibrant neighborhoods, and important cultural and historical sites. City treasures along the route include the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, Bicentennial Park (and its one-of-a-kind fountain that shoots more than 1,000 jets of water), Battelle Riverfront Park and North Bank Park (with an iconic view of a railroad bridge across the river).
Nestled within western Ohio’s Miami Valley, the 86-mile Great Miami River Trail has Dayton right at its center. A highlight of its route through downtown is RiverScape MetroPark, which offers bike and paddle rentals, a café and food trucks, fountains and gardens, and lots of recreational amenities. Dayton is also known for its connections to aviation history. Before their famed forays into flight, the Wright Brothers started with bicycles. In 1896, they began manufacturing their own brand of bicycles and selling them at the Wright Cycle Company, which can be toured in downtown Dayton less than a half-mile from the trail. South of the city, the trail swings by Carillon Historical Park, where the original Wright Flyer III, which the brothers first flew in 1905, is on display.
QUAD CITIES, ILLINOIS AND IOWA
In northwestern Illinois, the Great River Trail rolls 62 miles along the Mississippi River through a chain of charming riverfront communities. The Quad Cities region—consisting of Rock Island, Moline and East Moline on the Illinois side of the river, and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa—anchors the southern end of the paved pathway. A not-to-miss attraction here is Schwiebert Riverfront Park with its open-air stage, interactive water fountain and perfect vantage point for riverboat viewing. Another quintessential experience along the trail is the Ben Butterworth Parkway, where visitors can board a paddleboat for a river cruise, or stay landbound, strolling across the park’s 50 acres to explore its gardens, Mississippi overlooks and fishing areas.
Floating sinuously over America’s longest waterway, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge straddles the Missouri River between bustling Omaha—Nebraska’s largest city—and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The graceful structure has become an iconic symbol of its home cities and is affectionately called Bob by locals. It even has its own catchphrase; visitors can go “bobbing” by standing astride the state line at the midpoint of its 3,000-foot expanse. The bridge’s distinctive curve is symbolic of the river 60 feet below, and from this vantage point, visitors can take in spectacular views of the city skyline. On its west end, the bridge lands in Omaha Plaza, a 3-acre park containing a play area, water spray fountain and National Park Service Visitors Center.
The Platte River Trail rolls out along the water’s edge under a canopy of cottonwoods in Wyoming’s second largest city. Many delights await on a journey on the 10-mile pathway, including the glow-in-the-dark labyrinth in Amoco Park, a towering wooden castle in Adventureland Playground, and outdoor yoga and tai chi classes in the riverside parks. Even in its most urban setting, travelers might see a mink or an otter—or perhaps an eagle or osprey searching for a meal in the river. With the waterway always close at hand, there are loaner stations along the way with life jackets for watersports. Not far from downtown, adventurers can enjoy the rush of whitewater rafting, a peaceful paddle by kayak or the thrill of a blue-ribbon trout catch.
From its beginning on the banks of the majestic Puget Sound, through dynamic Seattle neighborhoods, along beautiful Lake Washington and the University of Washington campus, to its endpoint in the suburb of Bothell, the Burke-Gilman Trail delivers a true Pacific Northwest experience. Unique attractions along this nearly 19-mile Hall of Fame Rail-Trail include the historical Ballard Locks; the quirky Fremont neighborhood with its artisan shops and lively restaurants; and Gas Works Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes an artful repurposing of a coal gasification plant circa the early 1900s.