Pedal These Rustic Rail-Trails to Scope Dramatic Fall Foliage

Just grab your helmet and go.

Sometimes, cycling can be enchanting. Pedaling on a car-free path beside a lily pad-coated pond where blue herons hunt for fish, cruising along a sun-drenched expanse that suddenly plunges into near darkness under a thick tree canopy, or navigating to a small town offering scrumptious baked goods. But no matter what path you choose, the curious truth is that these and other magical cycling experiences are fundamentally interwoven with the rise and fall of the railroad industry in the US.

A vast network of active rails criss-crossed this country in the late 1800s, when train travel was at its zenith. But as cars and planes emerged as transportation kings, thousands of miles of tracks were abandoned, ultimately strewn with garbage and choked with weeds. Thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy alongside numerous trail advocates, more than 25,000 miles of formerly derelict tracks have now been resurrected as multi-use trails—AKA rail-trails—that have revitalized communities, reinvigorated small businesses, and become a cyclist’s paradise, while another 9,000-plus miles remain in development. Most of these routes have a gentle grade, and many offer insights into the culture and history of the region as well as opportunities for the whole family to commune with nature, whether its via bird watching, fishing, or leaf peeping.

This fall, instead of joining the crowds hitting the road to gape at Mother Nature’s magnificent color show, hop on any of these nine designated rail-trails for a truly intimate autumnal experience. You’ll find the crisp air energizing, and cycling at a casual pace will allow you to be mindful of the cornucopia of brilliant hues enveloping you. Just don’t forget a helmet—equipped with a Go-Pro if bringing home bragging rights tops your agenda.

Just try to keep your eyes on the road in the face of the Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail’s breathtaking eruption of fall colors. | Flickr/JR P

Length: 34 miles
Coursing from the 3,500-foot-high Whitetop Station near the North Carolina border to Abingdon, Virginia, this rail-trail crosses more than 40 wooden trestles, offering cyclists a year-round bucolic ride alongside splashing streams, dense forests, and fertile farmland. But autumn is especially dramatic, thanks to the fiery colors of the beech, ash, and oaks lining this route that follows the corridor of several former railroad companies, including the Norfolk & Western Railway. Keep an eye out for the native Virginia Creeper vine that turns scarlet in the fall. Especially popular is the 17-mile, gentle downhill ride from Whitetop Station to Damascus, a vibrant town that’s bisected by the Appalachian Trail.

From dawn to dusk, the Nashua River Rail Trail has it all. | Mavo Media 360/Shutterstock

Length: 12 miles
Barely dipping into New Hampshire, this trail spends most of its time in Massachusetts, terminating in the town of Ayer. Following a branch of the Boston and Maine Railroad, it cuts through thick woodlands that offer a spectacular display of colors each fall. Given the wetlands and ponds along the way, it’s likely you’ll see numerous bird species, such as Canada geese or Great Blue herons. (And don’t be surprised if a wild turkey crosses your path.) At the town of Pepperell, you may want to detour and explore reminders of the Revolutionary War, including a memorial to one of their own, Prudence Wright, a “Minutewoman” and American Patriot.

Pause to catch your breath on one of the Hop River State Park Trail’s quaint wooden bridges. | Hop River Trail Alliance

Length: 20 miles
Winding from Manchester to Willimantic through swaths of eastern Connecticut forests, this path passes by several lovely New England towns dating back to the late 1600s. (A nearby attraction requiring a short detour is the homestead of Connecticut’s hero, Nathan Hale.) Pedal through narrow rock cuts, created when the hillside was blasted to make way for the former Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad. A dense canopy of maples and oaks accompanies your ride as you cycle through several tunnels, including a particularly impressive one built in 1849. Fans of geology will enjoy Bolton Notch State Park for its interesting rock formations, including garnets on exposed outcrops.

Blue skies, paved paths, and autumnal colors fit for a king. | Flickr/moarplease

Rhode Island
Length: 14 miles
As you ride between Providence and Bristol, take in views of Narragansett Bay as the route meanders through eight green spaces. (The path follows the railway bed that numerous companies ran, including the Providence, Warren and Bristol Railroad.) One of the most scenic stops edging the bay is Colt State Park, while a nice side trip leads to the historic circa-1895 carousel in Crescent Park, remarkable for its dozens of hand-carved figures. The historic waterfront town of Bristol—established 1680—is worth exploring, especially for architecture fans who will delight in the proliferation of Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and other period styles.

Celebrate the Green Mountain State in all its outdoorsy glory along the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. | Lamoille Valley Rail Trail

Length: 44 miles (expanding to 94 miles in 2023)
Traversing northern Vermont along the site where trains from the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad once ran, this rail-trail will soon offer a much longer journey. It’ll be New England’s longest rail-trail when it’s completed in 2023, extending to a 94-mile path from St. Johnsbury to Swanton. For a charming downhill cruise, hit the 16-mile portion from West Danville to St. Johnsbury. You’ll roll through old railroad tunnels, shaded woodlands that alternate with agricultural fields, and impressive outcrops of bedrock. An especially scenic spot is Joe’s Pond in West Danville, rimmed by fiery-hued aboreals in the fall.

Nothing but lush evergreens and fresh air await on New Hampshire’s Presidential Rail Trail. | Flickr/Mark Nenadov

New Hampshire
Length: 19 miles
This route mostly follows the corridor of the former Boston and Maine Railroad, coursing along the foot of the Presidential Range (so named for the peaks, such as Mount Washington, that honor US presidents). A perfect vantage point is the observation platform in the wetland-laden Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge, a birdwatcher's Eden rife with belted kingfishers, where your journey begins. The surrounding landscape is rich in beaver ponds, bubbling rivers and streams, expansive meadows, and dark forests. The remote feeling is enhanced by possible sightings of moose and other wildlife. Rail enthusiasts should check Gorham’s early 20th century remodeled train station, now home to the Railroad Museum.

It doesn’t get much better than autumn on the Illinois Prairie. | Illinois Prairie Path

Length: 61 miles
Named for the numerous sweeping prairie tracts that once covered the region, this rail-trail runs along the route of the old Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad—AKA the “Roarin Elgin.” Three main branches comprise the trail with the town of Wheaton, just a half-hour from Chicago, serving as its nexus. For the leafiest experience, choose the 13-mile Aurora Branch that wanders through myriad forest preserves and the almost 600-acre St. James Farm, a former equestrian estate that’s a picture perfect spot for picnicking, whether near a black walnut allee or a cattail pond. Don’t miss the many sculptures dotting the property, including a lifesize bronze rendering of a champion horse.

Get into the midwestern spirit along the Paul Bunyan State Trail. | Flickr/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Length: 115 miles
Set along the Burlington Northern’s former right-of-way, this trail passes by almost two dozen lakes enroute from Bemidji to Brainerd. Named for the mythical lumberjack who’s gigantic footprints reportedly created the state’s multitude of lakes, this route encounters a town every 10 to 20 miles—especially on the section spanning Walker to Brainerd. Weaving through a mix of conifer and hardwood forests, you’ll find curiosities aplenty, such as the huge statue of Paul’s girlfriend, Lucette, in Hackensack, and a giant carved corn-on-the cob in Backus.

Mountain views and smooth sailing? The Rio Grande Trail has you covered. | Rio Grande Trail

Length: 42 miles
This rail-trail offers a quintessential Western mountain experience—lined with aspen groves, dry sagebrush, evergreen woods, and ranches, and, of course, offering stellar views of soaring peaks. Coursing from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, a town famed for its hot springs, the route follows the former Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s path, providing access to several charming villages. Contemporary art aficionados will be thrilled with Carbondale, where the Rio Grande ARTway promotes the area’s creativity and cultural diversity. (Look out for a steel archway built from bicycle parts curving over the trail.) Later, soak up the calming vibes at Carbondale’s True Nature Healing Arts, complete with Peace Garden showcasing a reflexology path and a Zen garden.

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Jeanine Barone is a contributor for Thrillist.