What are Rail Trails? Who Can Use Them?

Did you know there are approximately 2400 rail trails in the United States? As of early 2023, there are 25,401 miles of rail trails and 9,202 miles of potential rails to trails projects in the planning stages! Also referred to as rails to trails, these multi-use paths take the place of former railroad beds and provide a much safer and accessible way to enjoy the outdoors!

So, if you enjoy running, riding your bicycle, walking your dog or an after dinner stroll, and want to experience these rails to trails, keep reading!

Cover Photo by Always On Liberty©

What are Rail Trails - Always On Liberty

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What are Rail Trails?

Rail Trail Sign on Brick Fence - Always On Liberty

Rails to Trails, also known simply as rail trails, are multi-use recreation trails that are converted from abandoned railroad or street car tracks that are no longer serviceable. Local and state governments are transforming land where trains once rolled through to become usable green space. 

Rail trails can be found in rural and agricultural areas as well as more urban settings in small towns and cities. 

These type of walking paths and bike trails are generally flat with gentle elevation grades that makes them easily accessible for all ages and abilities.

You can find rail trails not just in the United States, but in many parts of the world. There are rail trails in several countries in Europe and Australia as well as our neighbors to the north in Canada. 

Usually, rail trail paths are designated for outdoor recreation use for non-motorized activities such as bicycling, running, walking and strolling. Depending on location, some of these multi-use trails may even permit horseback riding in the more rural paths.

Rail trails are a great way for residents and visitors to explore the natural green spaces where trains once traversed through.

But also, they offer a safe place away from traffic to ride your bike, skateboard, walk, take your family for a stroll or a great morning or evening run.

Unlike greenways, rails to trails may lead users on different terrains and even significant elevation changes much like the railroad trains did decades prior.

And at some rail trails with considerable elevation changes, there may be shuttles that will take you up to the top so you can ride your bicycle down. That’s what we did when we rode our bikes down the Virginia Creeper Trail!

But, they typically run through natural green space environments like wooded forests, farms and fields, urban open spaces and even along blue spaces such as wetlands, rivers, and lakes.

Some may abut State Parks or even run through them. Our favorite is the Spring to Spring Trail in Florida literally right outside Blue Spring State Park.

These multi-use trails may or may not be paved. Depending on location, some rail trails may offer bicycle rentals, picnic areas, restrooms and even an occasional ice cream stand. 

Some rail trails may pass through small towns and urban areas that offer easy access to cultural and art attractions and historic sites.

On some of the more urban rail trail bike paths, we’ve rolled past hotels and restaurants that are within easy walking distance to and from the trail.

✰ READ MORE ✰  How Blue Spaces Can Improve Your Health & Well Being

What are the benefits of Rails to Trails?

Bonneville Shoreline Rail Trail Multi-Use Bike Trail - Lady Riding on Bridge - Always On Liberty
Photo by Always On Liberty©

Rail trails offer many benefits to natural environment and wildlife habitats and even the local communities. The recreation paths promote a positive environment; helping to improve water and air quality.

They are also safer for wildlife to thrive because the path locations have less pollution and less threats of moving traffic.

But also, these outdoor walking paths promote wellness through physical fitness and mental health. Rails with trails are a great alternative to busy bike lanes or using sidewalks on dangerous roadways.

Economically speaking, rail trails are favorable tourist attractions for those looking for fitness and exercise. For rail trail users, there’s no need to contend with the stresses of motor vehicle traffic. And, they’re FREE to use!

I know for us, whenever we land in any given location, we seek out to find rail to trail paths. They’re a fun way to spend a day without spending very much money. And they’re a great way to get some exercise and some sunshine!

Visitors and residents who use the rail trails are stopping in area communities to shop, dine and use other services that promotes economic development. Thus, making the rail trail locations a hugely valuable resource for nearby restaurants and stores.

Rail trails also present great business opportunities as well as they may boost property values.

✰ READ MORE  Why E-bikes are GOOD for Your Health & Well Being!

Can you use rail trails anytime?

Rail Trail with Posted Trail Hours - Always On Liberty
Photo by Always On Liberty©

One may think that public use recreation trails are open 24/7. But, some trails are not. 

Most rail trails are available for use from dawn to dusk. Some trails may have lights that permit night riding or walking.

Those trails that have specified hours for usage are put into place to keep trail users safe. Unfortunately, some communities may experience crime at certain hours of the day or night that deems the trail unsafe.

In some areas that are prone to inclement weather, local communities may ban usage to help prevent trail damage and injury to users.

And of course, there comes times when trail managers will close certain portions of a rail trail for maintenance and landscaping work.

Some multi-use trails may have actual gates that users must pass through. If and when they are locked, that’s a tell-tale sign that you should not enter the trail.

Anytime you ride, run or walk on rail trails during inclement weather or during times of limited visibility, it’s wise to stay alert, watch for trail traffic and wear hi-vis outerwear. Also, leave the earbuds at home.

Are Rail Trails only for bicycles?

Rail trails are not exclusive to just bicycle riders. They are accessible trails for anyone who wants to use them.

So, whether you’re a cyclist, roller blader, runner, power walking with your dog, rail trails are just the ticket to enjoying the outdoors without worrying about dangerous traffic and intersections.

They are also the perfect outdoor recreation venue for people with disabilities and young families with baby strollers.

Rails to trails paths are typically wider and have designated lanes like a roadway but on a smaller scale. Thus, allowing more maneuverability room for wheelchairs, walkers and strollers.

Best of all, rail trails are away from traffic; making them the ideal stress-free, outdoor environment to get some exercise and sunshine!

Are eBikes permitted to use on rails to trails?

Bonneville Shoreline Rail Trail in the Fall - Always On Liberty
Photo by Always On Liberty©

Rail trail usage for e-bike owners varies by state, county and local jurisdiction in which the trail runs through.

While some rails to trails paths may allow ebikes, others may have restricted use on which type of transportation vehicles can be used.

According to Rails to Trails Conservancy, the prevailing concern regarding e-bike usage on trails is safety; particularly how fast ebike riders are riding.

There is a certain perception that motor-assisted riders speed on the paths and trails, making them dangerous and unpleasant for other rail trail users.

Such vehicles in question may be electric bikes, hover boards, electric scooters and motorized skateboards.

It’s very important to know that while some rail trails may permit ebike usage, know that typically applies to Class 1 ebikes which don’t exceed 20 mph.

There may be, however, an occasional rail trail that does permit usage of Class 2 or Class 3 ebikes that provide a higher speeds. However, those are very few and far between.

Typically, where e-bikes may be permitted for use on multi-use trails, ebike riders are subject to the same rules and regulations that govern other cyclists.  

Again, it’s the responsibility of each ebike rider to know and respect the state requirements and restrictions regarding ebikes on any of the rail trails near me. This includes age requirements for ebike operation as well as bicycle helmet laws.

Lastly, when riding any bicycle with pedal assist or manual pedal, ALWAYS exercise caution and show respect to fellow rail trail users. Limit speeds through blind curves or bends and always look beyond your handlebars. Most of all, respect other trail users who are also using the rail trail.

✰ READ MORE  E-bikes in National Parks? *Everything You Need to Know*

What outdoor equipment is allowed on Rail Trails?

Woman walking with stroller on Rail Trail Greenway - Always On Liberty

Rail trails allow usage of non-motorized wheeled outdoor equipment:

      • ADA Accessible – Wheelchairs, strollers, walkers, canes
      • Strollers for children or pets
      • Inline skates – Roller Blades
      • Manual skateboards
      • Manual pedal bicycles and unicycles
      • Electric Assist Micromobility Devices – Hoverboards, Segways, e-bikes, e-skates & e-Scooters (Class 1 ebikes with pedal assist only; all electric assist equipment must comply with each trail requirements)

Winter time in some regions of the country do allow rail trail access to snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Some may or may not grant access to snowmobiles.

Always check with specific rails to trails near me before assuming you can take any outdoor equipment.

What outdoor equipment is not allowed on Rail Trails?

Rail trails are not roads for regular motorized vehicles such as cars and trucks. And, they are quite explicit about restricting access for safety and accessibility. It’s one reason why rails to trail builders install gates; to limit access to certain vehicles.

What you cannot take or ride on rail trails

      • Automobiles (of any type)
      • RVs or Campers
      • Motorcycles
      • Mopeds or Scooters
      • Golf Carts
      • UTVs or ATVs
      • Dirt Bikes
      • Snowmobiles
      • Horses (unless specified)

When in question, always research the rail trails near me to learn what is allowed and not allowed.

Who funds and manages Rails to Trails?

Rails to Trails are usually owned and managed by government entities; states’ department of transportation or local departments of parks and recreation.

Rail trails may also be funded by non-profit organizations, through grants, private donors as well as public contributions.

Boogie Bikes Coupon Ad - Always On Liberty

Rails to Trails Safety & Etiquette

The most important thing about riding, running or jogging, walking or even strolling, is these multi-use rail trails are for everyone. Hence, why you need to practice proper trail etiquette.

All trail users are to respect property, wildlife, abutting property owners and other trail users.

Rail Trail Etiquette Safety Rules:

    1. Always be considerate of other trail users.
    2. Ask permission to cross private property.
    3. Leave entrance or thru gates as you found them.
    4. Yield to those traveling uphill or passing.
    5. Alert others using voice ‘on your left’ or ring your bike bell well ahead of passing.
    6. Pass other trail users on their left.
    7. Be cautious around animals; domestic or wild.
    8. When sharing the trail with horses, always move aside and stop completely. Never approach or pass horses without asking.
    9. Refrain from creating ruts and holes in the mud with bicycle tires or footprints. It’s best to avoid the mud and puddles when possible.
    10. Do not intentionally splash water, mud or stir up dust unnecessarily
    11. Practice Leave No Trace Principles – Pack in, Pack out!
    12. Leave the earbuds at home. You need to hear alerts from other trail users.

Leave No Trace Principles Banner - Always On Liberty

✰ PRO TIP  When it’s time to ride on the rail trails, read first!  Bicycle Safety:  How to Ride Safely on Roads & Bike Trails

Just a few of our favorite rail trails

Helpful Rail Trail Resources

Great American Rail TrailsTrail NationTrail Link Rails to Trails Conservancy

Final thoughts on What are Rail Trails

Virginia Creeper Rail Trail in the Fall - Always On Liberty
Photo by Always On Liberty©

Rail trails are a fantastic way to take your family out for an afternoon bike ride or Sunday stroll. They’re also great for commuting longer distances from town to town.

These type of multi-use trails are created to provide a safe place to enjoy the outdoors and exercise. Whether home or away, you can use any rail trails near me that are ‘near you’!

Can You Ride Your eBike on Rail Trails - Always On Liberty

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