Rail trails are roads without cars that are built and maintained by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that works with communities to save abandoned train tracks and convert them into recreational public trails. The goal of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is to build multi-use trails from former rail lines to create safe, scenic places for people to participate in a variety of fitness activities - including many rail-trails that are suitable for inline skating. These roads will eventually develop into a complete nationwide network of trails made of former rail lines and connecting corridors.
The rails-to-trails movement began in the Midwest, because most of the abandoned railway corridors were in that part of the country. Now, the movement is active in every state. Each season 2,000 miles of railways in the United States are abandoned. So far, more than half of the 300,000 miles of original railroad tracks built during the peak of rail transportation around 1916 have been taken out of service.
Since 1986, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has helped convert thousands of miles of these unused railroad lines into multi-use activity trails that almost anyone in the country can enjoy. Today, public rail-trails are found in every state, cover more than 15,000 miles nationwide and have been repurposed into skating/biking/hiking trails. There are about 1,300 rails-to-trails in the US, with another 1,000 in progress.
Most rails-to-trails are less than 5 miles long, but there are 10 in our country that extend for over 100 miles and there is at least one that is 225 continuous miles long. Backpackers have a network of fabulously signed and maintained long-distance footpath trails, and we now have the beginnings of a network of long-distance dedicated paths that may also be suitable for other activities. Many of these wide, sculpted, relaxing paths with a flat or gentle grade are the perfect place to hike, bicycle, inline skate, horseback ride or cross-country ski. They provide skaters and other fitness enthusiasts with many year-round opportunities to go outside to benefit from healthy exercise and wholesome fun for all ages. Most rails-to-trails have a lot of access points along the length of the trail that allow skaters and others to use as much or as little of each trail's length as they want.
There are many practical benefits for inline skaters who use rails-to-trails:
- Rail paths always have flat to gentle slopes that are skater-friendly.
- No cars or other motorized vehicles are ever allowed on these trails.
- Former train routes offer scenic rural, suburban or urban routes with no strip development.
- These trails often pass through many areas including small towns, big cities and fresh unblemished areas.
There are also valuable benefits for the communities that have active rails-to-trails. They bring many historic buildings, like former train stations, railroad bridges and tunnels back to life which also helps to preserve many important slices of American history. And in addition to providing healthy recreational activities, they generate income in the communities that one or more of these trails passes through.
Many communities across the country are looking for other innovative ways of re-purposing land for safe, popular and effective trail development. A rail-with-trail is another type of public path, but it runs parallel to a railway line that is still in use. There are more than 140 rail-with-trails in the United States, and they travel more than 1,400 miles.
Behind most of this planning and work is the non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The Conservancy publishes a magazine, newsletter, and a directory of known rail trails in the US, entitled 1000 Great Rail Trails. This publication is a bare bones listing with no traveling information, but it is a useful tool to browse to find out where rails-to-trails exist in any specific state. The complete rail-trail listings include the trail's length and endpoints, the type of surface (paved, dirt or gravel), the types of activities allowed and even wheelchair accessibility. The same information is also available on their supplemental website, TrailLink, which includes a list of the 10 longest rail trails, the top 100 trails, hotel information and introductory orientations to most current rail trails. You can also browse by your favorite trail activity. The Conservancy publishes 8 region-specific books that provide useful logistical details about the rails-to-trails in each region, too.