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10 longest rail-trails for bicycling — John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Washington leads the list

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The John Wayne Pioneer Trail — stretching for 253 miles across two-thirds of Washington state — now leads the list of longest rail-trail conversions in the U.S.

Bicyclists get stunning views from trestles on John Wayne Pioneer Trail.

Bicyclists get stunning views from trestles on John Wayne Pioneer Trail.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy compiles the online list of 14 rail-trails that exceed 100 miles. In the latest update, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail jumped from 4th to 1st overall, leapfrogging the Katy Trail (Missouri), Cowboy Trail (Nebraska) and the Great Allegheny Passage (Pennsylvania and Maryland).

Another Washington state rail-trail, Columbia Plateau Trail, ranked 6th overall.

The John Wayne Pioneer Trail was measured at 145 miles in the Rails-to-Trails report two years ago. It’s not clear how the trail gained 108 miles in that time frame, as the railbed has been unchanged since the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) abandoned the route in 1980.

The recent reopening of four vintage railroad tunnels earlier this year made more of the trail accessible for biking and hiking. Also, a Spokane bicyclist and several companions undertook an arduous journey along the old railroad bed last summer. Although most of the old railbed is not maintained east of the Columbia River to the Idaho border, they proved that it was rideable. See 26InchSlicks: Crossing Washington State on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.

10 longest

Of the longest trails compiled by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, here are the 10 longest that are accessible to bicycles:

Cyclists ride along the nearly dry Keechelus lake bed in the fall.

Cyclists ride along the nearly dry Keechelus lake bed in the fall.

1. John Wayne Pioneer Trail (Washington), 253 miles — The western section rolls for about 100 miles between Cedar Falls and the Columbia River at Vantage. This well-maintained section passes through the narrow Iron Horse Trail State Park. Bicyclists are treated to dramatic scenery from high trestles in the Cascades and arid plateaus and canyonlands east of the mountains. One of the most visited features is the 2.3-mile-long Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel built 100 years ago.

The going gets much rougher east of the Columbia to the Idaho border. The trail here is often loose railbed ballast. Towns and services are few and far between.

The Cedar Falls trailhead is slightly less than an hour’s drive from Seattle. It’s also accessible by bicycle by a route that nearly all off-road. See all the stories about John Wayne Pioneer Trail at www.bikingbis.com.


2. Katy Trail State Park (Missouri), 238 miles — The route stretches from Clinton to Machens, with many towns in between that offers services to bicycle travelers.

3.Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail (Nebraska), 195 miles — The rail-trail is the old Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and rolls across northern Nebraska between Valentine and Norfolk. Sections of it have been closed since 2010 because of severe flooding damage.

Check out the Cowboy Trail Flickr slideshow ; also the Cowboy Trail state website.

4. Soo Line Trail — Northern Route (Minnesota), 148 miles — Rolls on gravel and ballast between Moose Lake and Cass Lake. Although bicycling is listed among the uses, it is more frequently used by all-terrain vehicles. The Minnesota state parks department warns — “This trail is not well suited to bicycling.”

5. Great Allegheny Passage (Pennsylvania and Maryland), 141 miles — This is becoming one of the nation’s most popular off-road bicycle routes. While the GAP runs through the Alleghenies between Cumberland, MD., and Pittsburgh, PA., it also connects to the C & O Canal Towpath that runs between Cumberland and Washington DC. Combined, the route is 325 miles and passes many small towns that offer services to bicyclists.

All services are listed at the Great Allegheny Passage website.

Scraped railway equipment in storage yard on JWP Trail.

Scraped railway equipment in storage yard on JWP Trail.

6. Columbia Plateau Trail State Park (Washington), 130 miles — The trail follows the historic route of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad in eastern Washington. The entire route isn’t passable to bicyclists. The state reports that 23 miles of the trail between Lincoln County and Cheney are developed and open for bicycling. Another 15 miles of trail from Ice Harbor Dam to Snake River Junction are open to hikers and bicyclers

See the state park website for details.

7. Flint Hills Nature Trail (Kansas), 117 miles — This rail-trail links dozens of towns across northeast Kansas that offer many services to bicycle travelers. Parts of its are unimproved, however, and rough going for road cyclists. The trails are suitable for mountain, hybrid and cyclocross bikes.

The trail connects with the Landon Nature Trail, creating nearly 150 miles of bicycling. The trails were developed by the nonprofit Kanza Rail-Trails Conservancy.

8. Soo Line Trail — Southern Route (Minnesota), 105.6 miles — Like its sister trail to the north, this rail-trail is mostly devoted to all terrain vehicles. The Minnesota state parks department warns — “This trail is not well suited to bicycling.”

9. Paul Bunyon State Trail (Minnesota), 112 miles — The trail may not be the longest rail-trail in the nation, but it is the longest paved trail. The website reports 112 paved miles from Brainerd to Lake Bemedji State Park. It connects the Heartland Trail, Blue Ox Trail, and the Cuyuna State Trail.

10. George Mickelson Trail (South Dakota) — The trail passes through the Black Hills for 110 miles, mostly through National Forest land. It has more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four tunnels over that distance. More information at the George S. Mickelson Trail website.

2 more

Since the Soo Line Trail – North and Soo Line Trail – South aren’t suitable for bicycling, here are two more trails to round out the list of 10 longest “bicycling” rail-trails.

11. Blue Ox Trail (Voyageur Trail) (Minnesota), 107.3 miles — Not surprisingly, the Blue Ox Trail connects with the Paul Bunyan Trail, rolling out from Bemidji to International Falls through black spruce swamps and aspen forest. While the trail admits all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, it also accommodates mountain bikers.

12. State Line Trail (Michigan), 107.1 miles — Iron in the soil makes this the reddest rail-trail as it passes through forests between Wakefield and Stager.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.bikingbis.com/2013/10/22/10-longest-rail-trails-for-bicycling-john-wayne-pioneer-trail-in-washington-leads-the-list/

16 comments

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  1. Carry

    Thanks for this list! We just completed the John Wayne Trail from N. Bend to Vantage and had a blast (well, mostly). We’d love to ride more of them.

  2. Mike

    Wheres the C&O Canal Trail?

    1. BIker-Dan

      C&O Canal Trail runs between the end of the Great Allegheny Passage trail in Cumberland, Maryland and Washington, DC. Every 5 miles or so there are camping spots along the trail, with porta-potties, water pump, fire rings – all maintained by the National Park Service; some of the campsites that are close to car accesses might be also used by non-cyclists, non-hikers, so plan accordingly. I have biked the distance numerous times and enjoyed it tremendously each time. http://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm

    2. Gene Bisbee

      C&O Canal is a great route, but it’s not on the list because it’s an old canal tow path. The list is just rail-trail conversions.

    3. David

      …or layover at Cumberland then head South to the Greenbrier River trail! I biked the C&O with a 20″ wheeled folding bike with 30-32mm tires at the end of a super rainy Spring. 38mm wise if its been wet. The Greenbrier is superhard packed limestone with superb drainage.

  3. Rick Nelson

    Your list is not complete, and in error.
    The NETT ( North East Texas Trail) Non – Motorized rail trail, which I believe would qualify for traffic free designation. It runs from Farmersville, TX to New Boston, Tx. That would be 132 miles.

    1. Gene Bisbee

      The list is for rail-trail bike routes and was gathered by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. When I checked on NETT just now, the information I saw called it a rail-trail conversion, so it should be included on the list. I’ll check with Rails-to-Trails and let them know it needs to be added.

  4. Joyce

    Mike, the C&O Trail links up with the Great Allegheny Passage. You follow the locks down to lock 0 in Georgetown.

  5. Wayne

    The Central Lakes / Lake Wobegon Trail in central and west central Minnesota is another 100+ mile trail. The trail connects Fergus Falls, MN and St. Joseph, MN for a total distance of ~104 miles.

  6. Al

    The C&O is 185 miles but it is a canal towpath, not a rail trail.

    1. Paul D

      & it’s scenic and wonderful.

  7. Daniel

    Although it’s paved, you guys could try mentioning the Silver Comet Trail outside Atlanta. It’s the longest paved bike path in the country and it’s a rail trail. Connected to the Chief Ladiga trail it runs all the way from Atlanta to Anniston, Alabama, where you can catch a train back to Atlanta. The trail never gets mentioned in articles like this and I don’t know why.

    1. Gene Bisbee

      That sounds like an amazing trail. I checked the website, and right now the Silver Comet Trail is 61.5 miles long, and the Chief Ladiga is 33 miles long for a grand total of 94.5 miles. Plans are underway for another 7 miles on the Chief Ladiga trail, which would make the entire route 101.5 miles.

      While it’s shorter than the rail-trails mentioned above, the fact that it’s paved certainly makes it worth noting.

  8. Ken Bettencourt

    The gap and the c&o has been one of my most enjoyable ride I have done in 25 yrs touring.you pass though lots of towns along the way.lots of history and beauty it’s like going back in time a100 yrs.

  9. Ken

    How the Flint Hills Nature Trail was included is certainly a mystery to me unless it has been drastically upgraded in the three years since I attempted to ride the entire length. Riding a three wheel recumbent tadpole trike with trailer was simply impossible along many sections of this trail. Numerous long sections where the rails were removed leaving the ballast behind, especially over iron bridges with open centers and no guardrails, was a bit scary. Many of the bridges had no ramps on either end with a foot, or more, of a vertical drop. Long, long sections where the weeds are never mowed, fissures hiding that will swallow a bike whole. Wooden bridges that are seriously deteriorated. Many of the towns are almost ghosts with little to no services and one of the larger towns want nothing to do with bicyclists of any type.

    That was why the Katy, only 100 miles away, was such a dream to ride upon. A maintained surface, ample facilities along the entire length and bicycle friendly towns.

  10. Sara

    Can’t believe the Natchez Trace Parkway was not included! It runs from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. The parkway is closed to commercial traffic. The locals described the parkway as a bike path that allows cars, with a maximum speed limit of 45 mph. Smoothest ride we ever had on paved roads! Lots of history!

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