My husband Bob and I retired in 2005. Having more recreational time allowed us to pedal the Heritage Rail Trail County Park, where our grandson first learned to ride in our home state of Pennsylvania. By the time Wayden turned 10, he was pedaling 20 miles on the trail and especially enjoyed the paralleling historical tourist train and visiting the 1898 Monkton train station on the connecting Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail across the border in Maryland. After he started school, we decided it was time to further explore all of the nation’s other great Hall of Fame rail-trails—and began planning.
For the last three years, we have concentrated on pedaling different regions of the country using two important planning tools: the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame guidebook and TrailLink.com. We have also expanded our agenda by incorporating other interests such as canoeing and geocaching. Our journey started with an F150 pickup carrying two solo canoes on the roof, bicycles and hiking attire in the truck bed, and a very comfortable 20-foot travel trailer towed behind.
Related: Geocaching: Find the Fun!
To begin, we decided to tackle a longer Hall of Fame rail-trail in the eastern United States, the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage (gaptrail.org). From its eastern endpoint in Cumberland, Maryland, the trail quickly crosses into Pennsylvania. Gradually climbing over the Eastern Continental Divide, it eventually parallels the mighty Youghiogheny River. A restored rail station, long trail bridges, sidewalk cafés and B&Bs adorn the quaint community of Ohiopyle—one of our favorite spots along the route. One can even bicycle over 300 miles, from Point State Park in Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., via this trail and the connecting C&O Canal Towpath.
Our easiest and most scenic Hall of Fame experience was along the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail in southwestern Virginia. An outfitter drove us and our bicycles to the top of the trail at Whitetop Station, and then—with the trail’s significant drop in elevation—we coasted along a lovely creek with lush greenery. It was also a very memorable ride because two of our closest friends accompanied us.
We also loved Vermont’s Island Line Rail Trail and its 3-mile Colchester Causeway that followed Lake Champlain with vistas of the Adirondack Mountains. It was a unique experience crossing such a large waterway on bikes. The bridge over the mouth of the Winooski River was also striking with its 2,500-foot elevated boardwalk.
Heading westward to Idaho, the Route of the Hiawatha proved that we would embark on a ride like we had never experienced. The gravel trail began with a 1.6-mile tunnel that opened to jaw-dropping scenery, and it was jam-packed with lots of mining and railroad history. The trail grade allowed us to virtually coast downhill through scores of tunnels and across towering trestle bridges.
In Plummer, Idaho, we picked up the Trail of the Couer d’Alenes, which was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with the Route of the Hiawatha. We enjoyed another downhill coast through a beautiful forest, and then crossed Lake Couer d’Alene via the lengthy Chatcolet Pedestrian Bridge. The 73-mile trail is paved, and at most places, it follows the picturesque Couer d’Alene River. Moose, deer, coyote and beaver were seen feeding along the trail and swimming in the water. The following day, we canoed the river and got to admire the trail and its surroundings from a different viewpoint.
Turning south, we visited California’s Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, which traverses Lassen National Forest. The old logging route winds through a rugged canyon, crosses the scenic Susan River a dozen times and travels through several tunnels. Although 5 miles of the trail were tarnished by wildfires, we managed to finish the 25-mile ride by carrying our bikes around a few burnt, collapsed bridges.
In Arizona, the Prescott Peavine National Recreation Trail and Iron King Trail are a must-do duo because of their varied, colorful landscapes and railway relics. The beauty was unparalleled. After riding the trails, we took a day to paddle along Watson Lake among the Granite Dells. While sitting in our canoes, we could imagine watching an old rail engine racing though that canyon over the rugged terrain. This was one of our favorite areas in the state, but it was time to move northeast.
Mid-summer 2020, we started our journey in America’s Heartland. The region has scores of wonderful trails, and one of our favorites is South Dakota’s George S. Mickelson Trail. The experience is diversified with lush valleys, babbling brooks, ponderosa pine forests, flat open prairies, hills, agriculture and—most importantly—helpful, neighborly folks. Many animals, domestic and wild, wander the spectacular landscapes. Now and then, you must share the trail with a mostly friendly stray bull. After completing this memorable ride, we thought, “How could this adventure get any better?”
We’ll never forget the hospitality displayed by a board member of the Hill City Fairgrounds in rural Malvern, Iowa, who made sure we were comfortable in their small campground. The town, located midway on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, had it all: a fairground, a Friday night all-you-can-eat fish fry at one of the local restaurants, and some of the neatest metal art we’ve ever seen. Conversely, Silver City looks more like a Wild West town with a bar and an old-time jailhouse. The trail varied from wide-open fields, tree-canopied sections with smaller streams and quiet countryside communities.
It was late July 2021 when we embarked on our final journey in this region. Four Hall of Fame trails remained, and we were anxiously awaiting Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s announcement of the 2021 winner by public vote. Although not a Hall of Famer, the acclaimed High Trestle Trail in Iowa was already on our agenda, and the Raccoon River Valley Trail—a 2021 nominee—was nearby. In fact, the two are planned to eventually connect, creating 119 miles of continuous trail. We were excited when the Raccoon River Valley Trail won as we had taken a hankering to Iowa’s trails, state parks and friendly people.
Our Outdoor Odyssey
We had actually experienced our first Hall of Fame rail-trail many years ago on Florida’s Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, and we ended our current three-year Hall of Fame journey on that same trail in March of this year. To date, we have pedaled 1,900 miles one-way on all 35 Hall of Fame rail-trails. Also, through our travels, we managed to paddle at least one stream in all 50 states. Often, we would geocache along the rails-trails as well. Diversifying our agenda allowed us to explore our beautiful country by roadway, rail-trail, waterway and footpath.
Looking back during the planning stages, we sometimes questioned ourselves. Could we maintain the momentum to complete our quest? Might we lose interest or find it hard to stick to the plan? But we never faltered because every trail possesses its own varied attributes and landscapes—and the anticipation made it easier to remain focused on the goal.
Near our home, Pennsylvania’s Swatara Rail-Trail connects to the Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail, which is listed on RTC’s Top 10 Trails in Pennsylvania. After enjoying hundreds of trails throughout our country, volunteering at Swatara State Park has been our way of giving back to the community and the rail-trail movement.
We’ve been contemplating setting other goals, but not sure where our future travels will take us. To anyone who hasn’t the time or resources to explore as we have, please remember there are scores of beautiful rail-trails in every state. Who knows: Your favorite may be the next Hall of Famer or part of the Great American Rail-Trail®!