5 Rail-Trails to Awe at the Architecture
A stroll or roll down the trail is always a fulfilling experience, but add in some visual appeal and a dash of history, and you’ve got near-perfection. From stunning Victorian homes to industrial factories from a bygone era to structures designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright—no matter your architectural penchant—you’re sure to find a building (or two, or three) to gawk at while traversing these rail-trails.
Bloomingdale Trail (Illinois)
Chicago’s 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Trail, part of “The 606” park system, was once an elevated railway used to help rebuild the city after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In its wake, factories sprang up in the early 20th century; today, those factories—making everything from bicycles to furniture—flank the path. In many spots, the trail takes on the look and feel of the manufacturing district of yore.
At the Ridgeway Trailhead, you’ll see a brick building circa 1892 that housed the former Harmony Company, one of the top producers of stringed instruments. Other notable sights include another instrument manufacturer, the Geib & Schaeffer Company, located near the trailhead, and the H.N. Lund Coal Company, found about halfway down the trail.
Related: Eye On: Illinois’ Bloomingdale Trail
Capital City State Trail (Wisconsin)
Popular among downtown commuters and acting as a connector between two major trails in the area, Madison’s 17-mile Capital City State Trail offers unmatched views of Lake Monona and the city’s skyline, including the state’s gleaming white capitol building.
As Frank Lloyd Wright’s stomping grounds, it’s no wonder that his designs permeate this region and have found their way to this trail—namely, through the Monona Terrace. Originally designed in 1938 and built after Wright’s death in 1997, the civic center acts as a modern, glittering jewel on the lakeshore. You can bike or walk right underneath it, making for up-close viewing. Stop and take a tour, get one of the best views in town from the rooftop garden, and then visit other FLW stops near the trail such as the Robert M. Lamp House and the Eugene A. Gilmore House.
Burke-Gilman Trail (Washington)
In the heart of Seattle, you’ll find the nearly 19-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, a former railroad corridor that’ll take you alongside some of the most gorgeous homes in the city. Cross the Fremont Cut waterway via Fremont Avenue North for a detour through the Queen Anne District. These homes, with their grand porches, steep roofs and rounded towers, became popular in the late 19th century. Castle-like and striking, these residences, still lovingly maintained, can be found in this neighborhood that resides on the highest hill in the city at 450 feet.
Near Crockett Street and Nob Hill Avenue, you can’t miss one of the most colorful displays of this architecture in what’s nicknamed “The Coleman House.” Made over by Brian Coleman, the one-time Craftsman home now sports Queen Anne details and then some, with its sunflower designs and bold hues.
This Hall of Fame rail-trail is also part of the Great American Rail-Trail®, a developing route that will span more than 3,700 miles between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
Related: Trail of the Month: Burke-Gilman Trail (February 2008)
Trolley Trail (Iowa)
Running parallel with a former trolley line that now acts as a cargo-shipping railway, Iowa’s 7.5-mile Trolley Trail links Mason City and Clear Lake. The scenery along the path is idyllic, and if you’re on the hunt for architecture, you can deviate just 5 miles off the trail to reach the Rock Crest-Rock Glen Historic District. Here, you’ll spy a bevy of Prairie School homes; in fact, the district contains one the largest collections of Prairie School Architecture surrounding a natural area.
Molded in part by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 20th century, these homes embraced modernity, showcasing clean, horizonal lines, natural materials and an emphasis on craftsmanship. View these private residences on your own, or take a walking tour. Don’t miss the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, the Stockman House. In fall 2022, Mason City’s High Line Trail will be complete, which will offer a direct view of the neighborhood as well.
Related: Trail of the Month: Iowa's Trolley Trail (June 2013)
Historic Battlefield Trail (Texas)
Originally a railroad line that opened in 1904, Brownsville’s 10-mile Historic Battlefield Trail runs directly through the prairie where the first battle of the Mexican-American War took place, and there’s more history to be discovered through nearby Spanish architecture. Finish your walk or ride in Southern Pacific Linear Park and make your way through downtown Brownsville to spot some impressive buildings influenced by south-of-the-border designs.
Among these must-see architectural destinations is the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, built in 1929 and displaying ornate Spanish Colonial Revival visuals. Another study in Spanish aesthetics is the Market Square Research Center, built in 1850 as an open-air market turned city-hall building, the oldest in Texas. Adjacent residential neighborhoods contain anything from mid-19th-century cottages to charming 1920s bungalows, many featuring touches of that quintessential Spanish architecture seen in the area.
The rail-trail is also part of the broader Caracara Trails, a 428-mile trail network and RTC TrailNation™ project connecting communities—and other historical structures and natural treasures—across Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley.