There’s a growing trend happening in the Midwest and across the country. With the support of local and regional governments, long distance bike routes are being converted from abandoned rail corridors in an attempt to connect a nationwide network of trails most commonly referred to as rails-to-trails. These trails are generally flat or follow a gentle grade, perfect for beginning or casual riders, yet, with the option for traveling long distances, can also challenge the more advanced cyclist. Rail trails travel through many towns which stimulates the local economy and raises cycling awareness. Of course the best part of these trails is- NO CARS ALLOWED, providing a safe and annoyance-free alternative to commuting and long-distance cycling.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the continuing development and preservation of this bike route infrastructure and is the best resource to learn more about individual trails. The Midwest offers some of the longest rail trails with a variety of picturesque landscapes and the proverbial quaint towns to explore. Following are a sampling of a few of the more popular and award-winning rail trails found in the Midwest.
Katy Trail- Missouri
Running along the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT or “katy”) route, the Katy Trail is the nation’s longest rails-to-trails project with 237 miles of crushed limestone. Following the Missouri River, the Katy trail offers some beautiful scenery from rolling farm fields and prairie lands to river bluffs. History lovers will enjoy visiting the preserved railroad cars and restored train depots along the route. The section from St. Louis to Boonville is part of the Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail which extends all the way to Clarkston, Washington, so riders can follow in the footsteps of the historic journey of the famous explorers.
Despite the diverse landscape across Missouri, the Katy Trail rides reasonably flat and is well-maintained. This, along with the abundance of amenities, from restaurants and grocery stores to shuttle services and bike support, makes the Katy Trail an excellent choice for beginning touring cyclists. Wine enthusiasts can visit one of the many wineries along the route. You can then rest up for your next day of riding at one of the myriad of Bed and Breakfasts. Plans are underway to make a link from Clinton to Kansas City using the old Rock Island rail line. The Katy Trail has a fantastic website for you to thoroughly plan your visit.
Cowboy Trail- Nebraska
Set to rival the Katy Trail is the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska which, when completed, will stretch for 321 miles. Currently, 195 miles of the trail are completed with some paved sections and the rest in crushed stone. The route uses an old rail line from the Chicago & Northwestern railroad who called this section of track the Cowboy Line.
Meandering through a variety of scenic landscapes, the trail crosses over 200 bridges including a 148 foot high railroad bridge. Communities along the way have embraced the development of the Cowboy Trail with amenities including camping, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and bike shops. For more on the Cowboy Trail see bikecowboytrail.com.
Paul Bunyan State Trail- Minnesota
With the final stages of paving completed in 2010, the Paul Bunyan State Trail is one of the longest paved rails to trails project in the U.S. with 110 miles of continuously paved trail. Beginning in Brainerd, the trail follows an abandoned Burlington Northern Railway line north to Lake Bemidji State Park where the Blue Ox Trail can be picked up and followed for another 110 miles to the Canadian border
Cyclists can stop at any one of the 15 communities along the route for food, camping, and lodging or to take a dip in one of Minnesota’s lakes. The trail is for non-motorized use except in the winter when snowmobiles are permitted. With other trail extension projects underway, the Paul Bunyan State Trail is geared up to become one of America’s longest rail-trails. For more information visit the Paul Bunyan State Trail website.
Illinois Prairie Path
Don’t let the name fool you. The Illinois Prairie Path is a fusion of both rural and urban settings and is popular with bike commuters. Found in the western suburbs of Chicago, the Illinois Prairie Path follows the lines of the old Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Electric Railroad that carried early 20th century passengers from the suburbs to downtown Chicago.With 3 main branches and 2 spurs, the trail totals 61 miles with a combination of paved sections and crushed stone. The Wheaton branch is the most urban as it follows through the shopping district and shares part of the Metra corridor, making it convenient for downtown Chicago commuters to combine bike commuting with train commuting. The Aurora and Elgin branches offer a more rural experience. The Illinois Praire Path connects with another Illinois rail-trail, the Fox River Trail which runs from Algonquin to Oswego for another 37 miles of riding. Click here for more on the Illinois Prairie Path.
Little Miami Scenic Trail- Ohio
Before Minnesota finished paving the Paul Bunyan State Trail, the Little Miami Scenic Trail in Southwestern Ohio was the longest paved bike trail in the country extending 78 miles from Springfield, Ohio south to Milford with plans to connect it to the Ohio River Trail which can take riders on to Cincinnati and the Ohio River. The trail runs along the remnants of the Little Miami Railroad who began operations in the mid-1800s and later merged with the Columbus and Xenia Railroad providing an important route between Cincinnati and Columbus.
Cyclists will find this largely wooded route to be nicely shaded with plenty of opportunities for side trips including the Caesar Creek State Park and charming towns who cater to the trail riders. In the southern section you can travel across the Jeremiah Morrow bridge, a 239-foot arch truss bridge that is the highest in Ohio. To learn more about the Little Miami Scenic Trail click here.
Wabash Trace Nature Trail- Iowa
The Wabash Trace Nature Trail extends from Council Bluffs, Iowa 63 miles south to Blanchard on the Iowa/Missouri border. The trail runs along a former corridor of the Wabash Railroad, an historic railway that connected the farms of the Midwest with the major cities of Chicago, Detroit, and Buffalo. Great for beginners and seasoned cyclists alike, the Wabash Trace Nature Trail is well-maintained by volunteers. The trail is surfaced with crushed stone with about 4 miles of concrete.
Praised by Outside Magazine as one of the “prettiest trails” in America, the Wabash Trace Nature Trail is popular for its’ tree-lined borders making most of the trail shady and comfortable in the summer. The trail has also become popular for the weekly Thursday night Taco Ride which attracts thousands of cyclists for an evening of recreation followed by socializing, margaritas, and, yes, tacos. For more information on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail click here.
Prairie Spirit Trail- Kansas
The Prairie Spirit Trail in eastern Kansas is a 51 mile ride through rolling farms, prairie land, and friendly small towns. The first north/south rail line in Kansas, built by the Leavenworth, Lawrence, and Fort Gibson Railroad and later became part of the Santa Fe, this route offers much in the way of wildlife viewing as well as a variety of ecosystems that one normally wouldn’t think they could find in Kansas (yes, there are wooded areas).
The Prairie Spirit Trail is mostly composed of crushed limestone, but is paved through the towns. In Ottawa the trail connects to the Flint Hills Nature Trail which is currently under development and when finished will stretch 117 miles from east to west across the state to Herington. Since public land is scarce in Kansas, Kansans take great pride in their development and preservation of public bike trails. The trail is well taken care of by volunteers. Visit the Prairie Spirit Trail website and BikePrairieSpirit.com for more information.