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Easy Hiking Trails-Rail Trails

Updated on October 2, 2013
Rail trail in Virginia
Rail trail in Virginia | Source

Enjoy an Easy Hiking Trail

Sometimes it's hard to tell from a map which trails are easy hiking trails and which are challenging, but one type of trail is almost always easy - a rail trail. Rail trails are abandoned railway lines that have been re-purposed into hiking, bicycling and horseback riding trails. Most are relatively flat with a gentle incline, if any, and some are wheelchair accessible. Here's how to find a rail trail near you and tips for enjoying an easy hiking trail.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy Movement

In 1976, a relatively obscure bill called the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act was signed into law. It contained provisions for grant funds to transform disused railway corridors into trails. In 1986, the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting the creating and use of these trails, was born. Since then, the network of former railway lines turned into easy hiking trails has blossomed. There are well over 1,400 rail trails nationwide throughout the United States. Some are short trails while other stretch for many miles.

Greenbriar River Trail
Greenbriar River Trail | Source
Greenbriar River Trail
Greenbriar River Trail | Source
High Bridge Trail in Prince Edward County, Virginia
High Bridge Trail in Prince Edward County, Virginia | Source

Easy Hiking Trails: What It's Like Hiking a Rail Trail

Rail trails are almost always flat, or at least relatively flat. The Rails to Trails Conservancy website offers links and search tools to help you find a trail near you. Each trail is different, but most feature at least hard packed dirt. Some offer gravel footing and others are even paved. The trail quality varies considerably across the country.

Trails begin in a variety of locations. I've hiked rail trails that started behind a private farm, in the middle of a town, and at a fancy railway car fixed up as a visitor's center. While you have to hunt for the trail heads in some cases, in other cases the trail is a major tourist attraction.

Three rail trails I've personally hiked and loved include:

  • The Virginia Creeper Trail (Virginia-North Carolina): Rent a bicycle at one of the many towns along the Creeper trail, or walk the trail on foot. If you rent a bike, do so on a weekday; weekends, the trail gets very crowded and there are often school, church and community groups enjoying the gentle slope. The trail follows a beautiful waterway, but there are also views of woodlands, forests, Christmas tree farms, fields and other farms. Bike rental places will drive you and your bike to the Whitetop Station. The trail is downhill from Whitetop, so you practically coast the entire ride down the trail, enjoying the gorgeous scenery. Many bike rental facilities have a shuttle bus that picks you up at the bottom of the trail. The ride isn't bad the other way, but you will get some exercise pedaling uphill. Pack water and food; there is a snack booth at Whitetop Station and the next nearest town, but there is no potable water along the route.
  • Greenbriar River Trail (West Virginia): The Greenbriar River Trail was voted one of America's 10 best trails, and for good reason. It has so much to see and do! I love old railroads, and so the hike from Clover Lick, a tiny town in West Virginia, to Cass to see the old railroad trains was a pleasure. It's a long hike on foot but an easy hike. There are no facilities, so pack toilet paper, water and food. The trail is maintained by the West Virginia State Parks Association, and it is wonderfully groomed and easy to walk.
  • High Bridge Trail (Virginia): This is a brand-new rail trail, and the state has spared no expense creating a well-groomed gravel pathway. There are bike rental facilities in the town of Farmville near the trail head. Outside of Farmville, you can see the remains of an old drive in movie theater and even some magnificent old Virginia farms and homes from the easy walking trail. High Bridge, the site of a major Civil War skirmish, is under construction, and hikers, bicyclists and history buffs should be allowed onto the actual bridge itself by 2012 or later.

Hiking Equipment for Rail Trails

Most rail trails begin or pass through small towns, but not all do, and sometimes you have to leave the trail to find amenities such as bathrooms or potable water. The best way to prepare for your hike is to take what you need with you.

  • Shoes: You can wear sneakers or comfortable hiking boots on rail trails. Because they are gentle or on mild slopes, you do not need heavy hiking boots, heavy boots will hurt more than well-padded sneakers. Be sure to wear good quality socks and bring along a first aid kit and moleskin to treat blisters.
  • Backpack: A comfortable, lightweight backpack makes transporting your hiking essentials easy.
  • Rain poncho: Bring a rain poncho. Lightweight hiking ponchos pack easily into the backpack and can save you from an uncomfortable hike if it rains.
  • First aid kit: Always bring a first aid kit to treat blisters and minor injuries.
  • Cell phone: Although cell service is spotty in locations, bring your cell phone in case of emergencies. At worst, you'll have to leave the trail and follow a road until you get a signal to call for help.
  • Water: Bring plenty of fresh water with you! Never drink from ponds or streams, even if they look clean. The clearest water can harbor bacteria and parasites that can make you very sick.
  • Food: Trail snacks such as granola mix, apples and easily portable fruit, and a nutritious lunch provides you with food for the day.

Because rail trails are made from old railway lines, there aren't any trail signs to follow as there are on state trails, the Appalachian trail and other hiking trails. The pathway should be clearly marked and usually there's only two ways to go; the way you came, or forwards. If you are worried about getting lost or finding amenities, print the trail map out and carry it with you.

Other Rail Trail Activities

Rail trails aren't just for hiking! Other activities to enjoy include:

  • Bicycling
  • In Line Skating
  • Horseback riding
  • Fishing
  • Snowmobiling

It's important to check the rules for the specific trail you wish to enjoy, since the activities vary according to the trail. For example most, but not all trails, prohibit motorized vehicles, yet a few do allow ATVs and snowmobiles. Others permit walking and bicycling but not horses.

No matter where you live, chances are good that there's a rail trail near you. If you have young children and want to introduce them to the joys of hiking, hiking an easy trail such as a rail trail is a great way to give them a taste of hiking the great outdoors. With gentle slopes, generally well-groomed pathways and gorgeous scenery, hiking rail trails is a fun experience for the whole family.

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      6 years ago from United States

      Nice hub & a beautiful first photo! We love the Greenbrier River Trail. It's great for cycling. Vote up!

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