Calling all daredevils: The newest Rail Explorers location in Boone, Iowa. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers
Calling all daredevils: The newest Rail Explorers location in Boone, Iowa. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

Hop On, We're Going Rail Biking

Companies like Rail Explorers give whole new meaning to riding the rails.

When they were first constructed in 1931, the elongated tracks of the Nevada Southern Railway were purely utilitarian. A Boulder City spur off Union Pacific’s main Las Vegas line, they bolstered steel horses shuttling billions of pounds of concrete, metal, and the occasional sweaty man to a city created solely for the construction of the Hoover Dam—which to this day stands as one of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering. But the vivid Mojave desert scenery—gorgeous, shrubby open space helmed by the rugged volcanic River mountains—was lost on the railway’s inanimate haul.

The rails fell into disuse after the last generator was delivered, but the tracks remained, their presence alerted every time the desert sun glinted off the weather-beaten metal. And their quiet persistence worked: In the late 1990s, the rails were revived by the Nevada Southern Railway. Today, leisure excursion trains share those tracks with a new, entirely novel way to take in the scenery once eclipsed by those Hoover Dam-bound locomotives: via Rail Explorers’ open-air rail bikes.

Visitors can choose between eight jaunts, some round-trip journeys with an uphill pedal assist, some one-way with a train ride back, and at least one nighttime option that allows you to bike in darkness draped in neon glow sticks (this is Vegas, after all). The best part? It can all be done with a refreshing White Claw in hand.

Don't worry, they check for rattlesnakes on the Vegas route. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

Rail Explorers’ Las Vegas operation is now one of five different company locations. And thanks to the region’s consistently warm winter, it’s the only one open year-round. It fills out a roster comprising Rhode Island—the company’s headquarters—the recently added Boone, Iowa, and two New York locations in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Catskills.

It’s in the latter where I find myself strapped into my own tandem rail bike, my closed-toed shoes pedaling alongside the rippling Esopus Creek on tracks that belonged to the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, once responsible for voyaging mid-century vacationers to the sprawling Borscht Belt resorts. Today, much like the resorts it serviced, the line is mostly abandoned.

But the stretch I’m on is full of life. This location closes for the season on October 31, but the next couple of months are sure to be resplendent. Leaves have already begun to turn, and will only become stunning deeper shades of yellow, oranges, and reds in the coming weeks (the NY tourism site has a foliage chart mapping the progress). On the parallel roads Upstate, leaf-peepers create traffic jams witnessing the flamboyant display. In contrast, a breezy ride down the tracks is a secret, much better alternative.

This could be you in the Catskills in a few weeks. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

Throughout our eight-mile roundtrip ride we’re spaced out enough to feel like we have the tracks to ourselves, 20 or so quad and tandem bikes interspersed with guides to lead and help us cross the highway (or to, say, retrieve a baseball cap that’s flown off). But as a pack we’re a diverse bunch, so much so that safety instructions are printed in different languages.

I ask Casey Farrell, the Rail Explorers Catskills manager, just how people find their way to them—though, it should have been obvious. “We actually have quite a few people from TikTok come up there,” she says. “Mainly from the New York City area and New Jersey. I’m pretty sure a lot of it is social media.” Case in point: When Amy Schumer and Michael Cera visited while filming Life & Beth, Schumer posted the adventure on her Instagram stories (pictured with her husband). “That gave us quite a boost.”

From sea air to lush greenery: the Rhode Island route has it all. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

Not only do the cherry red rail bikes shine camera-ready against their natural backdrops, they’re an eco-friendly and active way to get outdoors. Numbers exploded during the pandemic, as it was one of the only COVID-safe activities in the area. They’ve hosted office bonding excursions, family outings, tour buses, and bachelorette parties. “Those are usually a riot because they’ll bring the giant inflatable penises and sometimes my guides get souvenirs like snap bracelets or penis straws,” adds Farrell.

And if you get lucky, you’ll also see wildlife. Out here there’s deer and chipmunks, and, every now and then, a bald eagle. Plus, a resident mama bear and two baby cubs. “When the guests see them, there’s a little bit of a freak out moment sometimes,” says Farrell. “The bears are more scared of the sound of the bikes so they tend to stay away, but the cubs are just so cute.”

But animal sightings aren’t limited to the woods: Customers are also allowed to bring one non-human companion along for the ride, complete with their own special seat. That means on the next vehicle over, there could be a dog or cat enjoying the wind whipping through its fur. Or perhaps an adventurous duck, nestled in its own bubble carrier (“I thought the quacks were a ringtone at first,” says Farrell). Farrell’s most memorable guest so far was a parakeet, who perched on its owner’s shoulder throughout the round-trip expedition, thanking the guides in its little parakeet voice when they were done.

Bikes come in tandems or quads, but can be hooked together. Have a party. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

From Korea to Iowa

Once the arteries pumping blood into Westward Expansion and the Industrial Revolution, the rise and fall of America’s railroad system has left thousands of miles of tracks in its wake. Some remain abandoned, posing as after-school entertainment or sets for indie horror flicks. Others have been ripped up, their metal salvaged and their pathways converted to biking, running, and other non-motorized greenways. Others have been converted into city parks, like the High Line in New York City, the 606 in Chicago, or the Rail Park in Philadelphia. And some have found new life as a modified version of their former selves, as with Rail Explorers.

But the concept of a rail bike isn’t new. The mechanism is essentially the same as the handcars that were used for track maintenance when the railroads first appeared in the 1800s. There are various styles; the first patented “rail bike” shows up in 1869, literal bicycles with an outrigger wheel used by workers to get around sites . In Europe, they favor the “draisine,” two bikes set side to side, attached by a metal platform.

Another kind of rail bike. He must have somewhere fancy to be. | Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images

The commercial-style recumbent bikes utilized by Rail Explorers were first spotted by founder Mary Joy Lu in a romantic sunset scene of a Korean soap opera back in 2012. Rail bikes had long been popular in the Asian country, a go-to for everything from sightseeing on Jeju Island to date nights in Gangchon Rail Park near Seoul, cruising its themed, lit-up tunnels. According to the Rail Explorers website, Lu was so excited about the concept that within 10 days, she was on a plane to South Korea to learn more about the pedal-powered contraptions.

In 2015, she and her husband Alex Catchpoole opened their first Rail Explorers outpost in the Adirondacks, using vehicles from the same Korean manufacturer she visited three years prior. The company saw 15,000 riders that first year, and 25,000 the following. The original location shuttered when the county wanted to reclaim the tracks to construct rail trails, but in 2017, the company opened their second location in their now-headquarters of Newport, Rhode Island, overseeing two routes accompanied by salty air and ocean views. Five years later with five locations under their belt, they haven’t looked back.

Pedaling all by himself! His friends must have gotten scared. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

There are a few factors that come into play when choosing a new Rail Explorers location. Is the city, county, or other operators currently responsible for the rail lines willing to collaborate? Will riding the rails interfere with road transportation? Will the guests have somewhere to park? And, perhaps most importantly, are the locations visually interesting? “They have to have an appeal about them,” says Farrell. “They’re gonna wanna have something scenic to look at.”

Of course, with the country’s abundance of rail lines, there are several companies aside from Rail Explorers offering rail bike experiences. There’s River Fox railbikes in Sacramento, California, Vance Creek Railriders in Shelton, Washington, American Bike Rail Adventures in Pennsylvania, and Revolution Rail Co in the Adirondacks, Colorado, and New Jersey, plus many more. But Rail Explorers is the only one able to thrill daredevils with their newest location: Boone County, Iowa.

Sunset in Iowa. | Courtesy of Rail Explorers

Stationed 45 minutes from Des Moines, Rail Explorers’ Boone County excursion is a 13-mile trip aboard the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad tracks, saved from demolition by the Iowa Railroad Historical Society and turned into a tourist rail. Like the locations in Nevada and the Catskills, there’s an adjacent train museum run by the historical society, an added bonus for ferroequinologists.

Saddle up on a Rail Explorers bike, and you’ll first traverse rural Iowa farmland, soaking up the languid rolling hills. You’ll then dip into the lush Des Moines River Valley, where you may encounter a deer or two. And then—then!—you’re suddenly suspended 156 feet above ground on the breathtaking Bass Point Creek High Bridge, a trestle bridge built in 1913 that originally connected coal mines below. If you dare take the ride, make sure to empty your pockets. If you don’t, look for it soon on TikTok’s next viral hit.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She saw her first chipmunk when riding the rails in the Catskills. Next time she's hoping for a parakeet.