2020’s Silver Lining: Six New Rail-Trails to Treasure
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.
We love hearing about rail-trails opening in any year, but 2020 seems to have outdone itself. Among this year’s class of new rail-trails is a pathway that’s key to a 275-mile route across Michigan, a Virginia stunner with a nearly milelong railroad tunnel, a new segment of the multistate East Coast Greenway in Massachusetts, and a Pennsylvania rail-trail that’s part of three vast regional trail systems—quite an impressive bunch!
With trail use surging all around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are especially grateful for each additional mile of trail, so that more people can enjoy these essential community assets for their physical and mental well-being. Nearly 24,500 miles of rail-trails are now open for public use all around the country, so if you don’t live close to one of these fresh additions, you can find many other great adventures close to home on TrailLink.com.
Michigan Air Line Trail (Michigan)
It’s no surprise that Michigan makes the list with an exciting new rail-trail; the Great Lake State leads the country in open rail-trail mileage at nearly 2,500 miles. The Michigan Air Line Trail, opened in April 2020, offers a tranquil outing on the northwestern outskirts of Detroit. Across its 5.5 miles, the paved pathway provides access to the recreational facilities at Gunnar Mettala Park and connects the communities of Wixom, Walled Lake and Commerce Township through a mix of commercial, residential and natural areas.
Why It Shines: The design process for the next phase of the trail, which will add another 2.5 miles and travel through downtown Wixom, will complete a connection to the Huron Valley Trail in 2022. With this future connection and its current links to the West Bloomfield Trail and M-5 Metro Trail, the Michigan Air Line Trail is part of a growing trail network helping residents navigate Oakland County without a car. It also fits within the Great-Lake-to-Lake Trail system that, when completed, will stretch 275 miles across the entire Lower Peninsula from South Haven along Lake Michigan to Port Huron on the tip of Lake Huron.
Related: How to Adapt Trail Activities and Gear for Cold and Winter Conditions
Swampscott Rail Trail (Massachusetts)
This summer, the first segment of the Swampscott Rail Trail opened in the charming seaside community of Swampscott, about 15 miles outside of Boston. The short but sweet crushed-stone pathway begins at Beach Bluff Avenue and runs a tenth of a mile northeast through a residential neighborhood to the Marblehead town line at Seaview Avenue. There, it meets the Marblehead Rail-Trail, a 4-mile pathway that offers access to historical sites related to the American Revolution and the infamous Salem witch trials. Another section of the Swampscott trail is anticipated to open by the end of the year and will continue the route down to Bradlee Avenue. Once complete, the 2-mile pathway will connect playgrounds and athletic fields, two schools and the Ewing Wood Conservation Area.
Why It Shines: Both the Swampscott Rail Trail and the adjoining Marblehead Rail-Trail are part of the East Coast Greenway, a developing 3,000-mile trail system linking 15 states and 450 cities from Maine to Florida.
Prestonsburg Passage Rail Trail (Kentucky)
The Prestonsburg Passage Rail Trail, anchored by the county seat of Prestonsburg in the Big Sandy River Valley of eastern Kentucky, winds southwest for just over 8 miles to the historical coal-mining community of David. Opened in August 2020, the trail was funded by an Abandoned Mine Lands Pilot Program Grant with the hope that repurposing the former railroad corridor could help spur economic development via recreational tourism. The new paved pathway rolls through lush wooded terrain interspersed with pockets of open countryside, and features six refurbished railroad bridges, including an unusual crossing with its top and sides created from a school bus donated by the Floyd County School District.
Why It Shines: For history buffs, a highlight of the route is passage through the Middle Creek National Battlefield, where visitors can learn about the Civil War battle that took place here in 1862 between Union troops led by Colonel James A. Garfield (who later became President of the United States) and the Confederates led by Brigadier General Humphrey Marshall.
West Virginia Northern Rail-Trail (West Virginia)
In a state renowned for its mountainous beauty, the West Virginia Northern Rail-Trail, nestled within an Appalachian backdrop, joined the ranks of new rail-trails in October 2020. The crushed-stone pathway begins in Kingwood, not far from the Maryland border, and winds through neighborhoods on the southwest side of town before popping in and out of the woods along its 2-mile course. Future plans will continue the route another 8 miles to the small town of Tunnelton, named after a 4,137-foot tunnel built by hand and horse for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the mid-1800s.
Why It Shines: On its northern end, the rail-trail connects to the developing Kingwood Trailhead Park, which will offer lots of new recreational opportunities for residents, including a bike park, outdoor event space, skate park, beginner-friendly bouldering area, miniature golf course, 5K fitness trail, nature play space and a heritage garden. A welcome center reminiscent of a railroad depot offering bike rentals is under consideration as well. In addition, the Tunnelton Trailhead Park, on the rail-trail’s southern end, is in the works and will also include a 5k fitness trail (slated for construction in 2021) and the possible restoration of a railroad pump-house and maintenance building, which could be repurposed to provide amenities for trail users.
Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail (Virginia)
Although only 2.25 miles long, the Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail has plenty of wow factor. Opened in November after nearly 20 years of effort, the crushed-stone rail-trail passes through a 4,700-foot tunnel bored through the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia between 1850 and 1858. Spanning nearly a mile long, it was the longest tunnel in America at the time of its completion. There are two access points to the tunnel: one in Afton at 215 Afton Depot Lane, which offers little to no elevation gain; the second in the Waynesboro area at 483 Three Notched Highway, which offers a steeper, heart-pumping experience (19% grade in one section!). As the tunnel isn’t lit, visitors should bring a headlamp or flashlight for the exciting experience. Hot tip: Since the trail is already quite popular, trail managers recommend visiting during the week in the morning or late afternoon to avoid overcrowding.
Why It Shines: The Blue Ridge Tunnel Trail is located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley area with several outdoor destinations nearby, including Shenandoah National Park, the Appalachian Trail, U.S. Bicycle Route 76 and two scenic drives: Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.
Upper Bucks Rail Trail (Pennsylvania)
Opened in November 2020, the Upper Bucks Rail Trail offers a valuable connection between the eastern Pennsylvania communities of Richland Township, Springfield Township and Coopersburg, as well as a relaxing respite for city dwellers from nearby Allentown. Veterans Park, on the trail’s southern end, is a good place to begin with picnic tables and charcoal grills, athletic fields and other amenities. From there, the crushed-stone path heads north for 3.2 miles, traveling through rock outcroppings and open vistas, bridging picturesque streams and crossing over wetlands with an 800-foot boardwalk. At trail’s end, adventurers can extend their journey with a direct connection to the 7-mile Saucon Rail Trail.
Why It Shines: The new Upper Bucks Rail Trail plays an important role in three growing regional trail networks: the Circuit Trails, an RTC TrailNation™ project spanning 800 planned miles in the Greater Philadelphia-Camden area; the Pennsylvania Highlands Trail, which will connect 13 counties and numerous natural and historical parks across its 300 miles; and Lehigh Valley’s The Link, connecting 62 municipalities in Lehigh and Northampton Counties with 125 miles of trail.