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Using Trails

Plan These Top 10 Summer Trail Experiences With TrailLink

By: Laura Stark
August 8, 2023

Virginia's Virginia Creeper Trail | Photo by Cindy Elswick McCrary
Virginia's Virginia Creeper Trail | Photo by Cindy Elswick McCrary

Summer speaks to outdoor adventure like no other, and what better way to connect us to those precious moments of joy—the feel of sand between your toes, the cool splash of water, the warm kiss of sun on your skin—than a trail? As the season draws to a close, take the opportunity to catch our top picks for summer activities before we roll into fall.

Below you’ll find a bucket list of top 10 trail experiences for fun in the sun, but—with more than 5,400 multiuse trails listed across the country—you can find nearly limitless options for other great summer outings on TrailLink™.

Find Your Trail on TrailLink.com | Graphic courtesy TrailLink
Find Your Trail on TrailLink.com | Graphic courtesy TrailLink

1. Tunnel of (Trail) Love

Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta State Trail | Photo by Eric Reischl Photography
Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta State Trail | Photo by Eric Reischl Photography

An intriguing feature of many rail-trails are the large tunnels blasted through rock for the railroads of yesteryear. Not only are they striking to look at, they are often several degrees cooler than the surrounding environment. Search for rail-trails using the keyword “tunnel” on TrailLink and you’ll find more than 150 of them to explore.

Idaho's Route of the Hiawatha | Photo by TrailLink user beverly.smith.coleman
Idaho’s Route of the Hiawatha | Photo by TrailLink user beverly.smith.coleman

Be humbled by the enormity of the three tunnels along Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta State Trail, one of the granddaddies of the rail-trail movement. Two of them span 1,600 feet and the other stretches 3,800 feet. Or check out Idaho’s Route of the Hiawatha, where you’ll travel through 10 tunnels, including the 1.66-mile-long St. Paul Tunnel (aka Taft Tunnel).

RELATED: “It’s a Scorcher Out There!” Quick Tips to Stay Hydrated on the Trail

2. Hit the Beach

California's Marvin Braude Bike Trail | Photo by Ben Kaufman
California’s Marvin Braude Bike Trail | Photo by Ben Kaufman

California—is there any state more closely associated with the word “beach”? And arguably the most iconic trail in the Golden State is the Marvin Braude Bike Trail, commonly referred to as The Strand by residents, which hugs the Los Angeles County coastline for the majority of its 22 miles. Stops at the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Boardwalk are a must, as well as simply taking a moment to sit on a bench, watch a pick-up game of beach volleyball and breathe in the salty ocean air.

Nearly half of U.S. states have ocean coastlines, and of course there are numerous beaches along lakes and other waterways, too. You can use TrailLink’s “Search by Map” feature to zoom in on beaches with trails near you.

3. A Taste of Summer

Texas' Brownsville Farmers Market | Photo courtesy Brownsville Farmers’ Market
Texas’ Brownsville Farmers Market | Photo courtesy Brownsville Farmers’ Market

Nothing says “summer” like biting into a sun-ripened peach, a juicy watermelon or a just-plucked strawberry. Traveling into the heart of many communities, trails can be great places to reach farmers’ markets, trailside fruit stands or neighborhood gardens.

In Texas, the Brownsville Farmers’ Market, located along the Historic Battlefield Trail, provides free space to more than 30 vendors that sell items such as fruits, vegetables, farm eggs and fresh herbs—offering healthy food access to locals and visitors. The market also hosts artisans and crafters in collaboration with the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, and offers free programs, including children’s activities, gardening classes and yoga. 

To find a farmers’ market near you, peruse the searchable food directory by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, then get there by trail using TrailLink.

RELATED: Farmers’ Markets + Community Gardens Along Rail-Trails (Spring-Summer 2018, Rails to Trails magazine)

4. Happy Campers

Oregon's Banks-Vernonia State Trail | Photo by Tad Reeves
Oregon’s Banks-Vernonia State Trail | Photo by Tad Reeves

Bikepacking, glamping, roughin’ it, RVing—whatever your vacation style—summer is the season for camping, and trail adventures go hand-in-hand with sleeping under the stars.

Family camping doesn’t get much easier—or more beautiful—than Oregon’s Banks-Vernonia State Trail. Situated a short drive west of Portland, the rail-trail offers just over 22 miles of smooth pavement through a gorgeous combination of woodlands and pastoral land, but the scene stealer is its collection of bridges; more than a dozen accentuate the trail, including a pair of 700-footers. A full-service campground with tent sites, rustic cabins and hot showers can be found in Buxton at L.L. Stub Stewart State Park close to the trail’s midpoint, or tent camping, as well as RV sites, can be found in Anderson Park at the trail’s northern terminus in Vernonia.

Lots of other great camping options throughout the U.S. can be scouted out on Recreation.gov, then search by location on TrailLink to find trails near your campground.

RELATED: Eight Scenic State Parks for RV Camping Along the Great American Rail-Trail

5. Go With the Flow

Maryland's Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail | Photo by Katie Harris
Maryland’s Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail | Photo by Katie Harris

During the summer, every trailhead parking lot along Maryland’s Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail is bustling. Paralleling the southern end of the tree-lined trail, Big Gunpowder Falls is a huge draw; its icy waters make for a refreshing dip. Don’t be surprised to share the trail with other outdoor enthusiasts hauling water tubes, colorful floats, kayaks or fishing gear. At the trailside Monkton Station, both inner tubes and bikes can be rented, making it a popular spot.

Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia River Trail | Photo by Sam Kittner, courtesy Capitol Riverfront BID
Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River Trail | Photo by Sam Kittner, courtesy Capitol Riverfront BID

Also in Maryland—and crossing into Washington, D.C.—the Anacostia River Trail is reconnecting residents with the riverfront. At the trailside Bladensburg Waterfront Park, the river takes center stage with opportunities to interact with the water via canoe and kayak rentals, interpretive riverboat tours, a fishing pier and boat ramp.

As many trails follow river corridors, you’ll find no shortage of pedal and paddle destinations on TrailLink. New to paddle sports? The American Canoe Association provides an online resource library for canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, including educational videos, best practices and safety checklists.

6. Playtime

Tennessee's Shelby Farms Greenline | Photo courtesy Shelby Farms Park Conservancy
Tennessee’s Shelby Farms Greenline | Photo courtesy Shelby Farms Park Conservancy

True to its name, Tennessee’s Shelby Farms Greenline offers something perhaps unexpected in the heart of a major urban city: a lushly wooded corridor. Beginning in Memphis’ Midtown, the trail unfurls largely under a canopy of large oaks and other shade trees, making it pleasantly cool in the summer. On its east end, the trail is anchored by one of America’s largest urban parks, five times larger than New York’s famed Central Park. At 4,500 acres, Shelby Farms Park offers just about every type of outdoor activity imaginable: horseback riding, ziplining, disc golf, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, nature trails, the fantastical Woodland Discovery Playground—there’s even a herd of American bison to watch.

Using TrailLink to plan trail excursions around visits to playgrounds, skateparks, amusement parks or other fun parks full of activities is a sure way to motivate kids to spend time outside and show them that commuting to a destination doesn’t have to be boring.

RELATED: Advice From a Mom: How to Get Kids to Love Biking

7. Attend a Trail Event

Nestled in the southwest corner of Virginia, the incredibly scenic Virginia Creeper Trail winds 34 miles through densely wooded areas and rolling farmland as it follows the former route of a steep mountain railroad. Many shops in the charming communities of Abingdon and Damascus offer bike rentals and shuttles to the eastern terminus at the Whitetop Station trailhead, sitting at a 3,500-foot elevation; trail users can then relish the cool breeze as they whiz downhill back to the start. Along the way, hikers may cross your path as the Appalachian Trail (AT) weaves its way through the area.

In fact, Damascus is aptly nicknamed “Trail Town, USA” for its convergence of several trails, including the Creeper and the famed AT, which stretches more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. Each May, the town of less than a thousand sees a twentyfold increase in its population with its Trail Days celebration—a reunion of sorts for hikers past and present that has been running for more than three decades.

Summer offers perfect weather for many outdoor festivals, like Trail Days. A good way to find them is to check out the events calendar on your local convention and visitors bureau website.

8. Splash Into Me

Oklahoma's Oklahoma River Trails | Photo courtesy Oklahoma City Community Foundation
Oklahoma’s Oklahoma River Trails | Photo courtesy Oklahoma City Community Foundation

Oklahoma may be a surprising entry on this list, but its capital city is home to the country’s #1 splash pad—a favorite summer pastime of children everywhere—according to the 2023 USA Today Readers’ Choice poll. The Scissortail Sprayground is less than a mile north of the Oklahoma River and the expansive trail system that traces both sides of the waterway. The well-loved Oklahoma River Trails bring people to the neighborhoods, parks, world-class attractions and flourishing downtown of Oklahoma City.

RELATED: Trail of the Month: Oklahoma’s Oklahoma River Trails (October 2021)
Georgia's Atlanta BeltLine | Photo by Lisa Panero
Georgia’s Atlanta BeltLine | Photo by Lisa Panero

The Atlanta BeltLine, one of the South’s premier pathways, even helpfully lists a handful of splash pads that can be reached by trail. When complete, the 22-mile loop will link public parks, mass transit stations, schools, businesses and other destinations throughout the city.

With TrailLink’s keyword search, you can look for trails using phrases like “splash pad” to find amenities like these near you.

RELATED: Trail of the Month: Georgia’s Atlanta BeltLine (March 2014)

9. Chill Seekers

Michigan's Hart-Montague Trail State Park | Photo by Jeff Swanson of Country Dairy
Michigan’s Hart-Montague Trail State Park | Photo by Jeff Swanson of Country Dairy

The rural flavor of western Michigan’s Hart-Montague Trail State Park is palpable. Dairy cows placidly watch bicycles whir by and, in the summertime, the small town farmers’ markets offer a friendly bustle of activity. About mid-trail, New Era has one not-to-miss stop: Country Dairy, a family-owned dairy farm (like 97% of Michigan’s dairy farms) and ice cream shop offering funky homemade flavors like Hoofprints and Udder Nutsense. Visitors can pet calves, watch cows being milked, tour the bottling plant and learn all they ever wanted to know about dairy farming at the company’s Moo School.

Maryland's C&O Canal Trail | Photo by Danielle Taylor
Maryland’s C&O Canal Trail | Photo by Danielle Taylor

Another route that offers the perfect pairing of ice cream and trail time is the C&O Canal Towpath with a whole web page devoted to places you can reward your physical activity along the 185-mile route between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland, with that magical summer treat.

Google “Ice Cream Trail” to get the scoop on dairy delights near you and then pair them up with a trail on TrailLink.

10. Go the Distance

The Majors family on a long-distance bike tour | Photo courtesy Dale Majors
The Majors family on a long-distance bike tour | Photo courtesy Dale Majors

A long-distance trail trip is a summer vacation like no other, packed with memorable moments: wildlife sightings, vistas that take your breath away, seeing inspiring public art, learning local history through interpretive signage and meeting new people from all walks of life. What better way to experience America’s amazingly diverse landscapes and communities up close than by foot or bicycle?

When complete, the Great American Rail-Trail® will span some 3,700 miles across 12 states and the District of Columbia, but more than half the route is ready to ride now. For ideas on long-distance rides within the Great American route, check out these two blog stories: “Four Long-Distance Rides Along the Great American Rail-Trail” and “Great American Rail-Trail: Long-Distance Adventures.” In these articles, we’ve included suggestions for places to stay and things to see along the route, plus shared links to TrailLink, where you’ll find interactive maps for each trail. You can also check out our long-distance riding tips to start planning your adventure. 

RELATED: Best Of: Great American Rail-Trail Adventures With the Traverses

GREAT AMERICAN RAIL-TRAIL

The 3,700-mile developing Great American Rail-Trail® is 53% complete to date. Learn more about this epic cross-country route.

Laura Stark | Photo courtesy Laura Stark
Laura Stark

Laura Stark is the senior editor for Rails to Trails magazine, responsible for highlighting trails and the people working hard to support them across America.

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