Although many hallmarks of traditional tourism are closed down or restricted due to COVID safety concerns, there’s still one place that remains wide open for travelers: the great outdoors. In October, a new slate of 30 trails in 25 states—including the five rail-trails highlighted here—were ushered into the ranks of top outdoor destinations as 2020’s National Recreation Trails by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt. For those looking to get outdoors close to home, these invaluable assets offer a variety of enjoyable experiences coupled with an opportunity for much-needed mental and physical escape.
Nestled into peaceful countryside, rolling under leafy branches arched overhead like cathedral rooftops, and connecting friendly Midwestern towns, the Flint Hills Trail State Park proves there’s no place like Kansas. The 117-mile rail-trail—the longest in the state and one of the longest such corridors in the country—journeys across five counties between Osawatomie (southwest of Kansas City) and Herington (northeast of Wichita) with views of one of the last remaining tallgrass prairie ecosystems in the world. Partially following the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, a key travel route through the West in the 1800s, travelers can catch glimpses of the past in the old wagon ruts left behind and in the relics of historical buildings that still stand today.
Within about two hours of driving from three major cities—Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh—lies this rural gem in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio. Beginning on the outskirts of Cambridge, a city renowned for its glassmaking, the Great Guernsey Trail meanders 7 miles through the wooded valley of Leatherwood Creek. Views of wildlife-rich wetlands, beautiful wildflowers and farm fields await travelers on the quiet passage through this once industrial CSX corridor to Lore City.
The Y-shaped Manhan Rail Trail connects the quaint community of Easthampton and the college town of Northampton in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. Just north of Springfield, the third-most populated city in the state, the fully paved, nearly 10-mile route weaves together parks, neighborhoods and vibrant business hubs. Travelers will have views of the area’s natural bounty, including Mount Tom and the Connecticut River, and access to unique attractions, such as the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and a colorful mural honoring local history.
The Panhandle Pathway provides a 22-mile stretch of pastoral bliss in northwestern Indiana, roughly equidistant between Indianapolis and the bustling southern shoreline of Lake Michigan. The paved pathway rolls along a former Pennsylvania Railroad route between Winamac and Kenneth, linking a handful of small communities interspersed by Midwestern farmland dotted with broad barns and tall silos that stretch into the sky. Scenic creek crossings, tranquil wooded corridors and wildlife sightings (including birds, rabbits, woodchucks and deer) complete the relaxing experience.
Located within a relatively easy drive from the state’s largest cities, many Kansas residents can access one of the top rail-trails in the country, the Prairie Spirit Trail State Park. The mostly crushed-stone pathway, which covers a vast swath of eastern Kansas across its 51 miles, is a member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in addition to having a new place among the National Recreation Trails. It begins in the former railroad town of Ottawa—not far from both Kansas City and the capital of Topeka—and heads south, traversing tallgrass prairie, wildflower meadows, rolling pastures and wooded ravines to end in Iola, a charming town with picturesque Victorian architecture about two hours east of Wichita.