How to Make a Rail Trail Successful

Words and photos by Robert Annis

When it comes to a relaxing bike ride, few options are better than a rail trail. Hundreds of the repurposed greenways have popped up over the last two decades, with many more in the planning phases.

But not all rail trails are created equal. Some things you might not notice right away, others you will – especially if it’s an amenity the trail is lacking. So what makes a rail-trail great?


Connections to Other Trails, Towns, and Attractions

In Michigan, the Iron Belle Trail connects existing greenways into a nearly 800-mile semi-contiguous trail that stretches from Detroit to Ironwood State Park in the Upper Peninsula (although most of the UP section is currently highway shoulder, not trail). Scattered throughout are trail connectors, leading riders to different greenways, sights, and towns throughout the state.

“Most are going to pick a destination as a starting point for the day and do a 30-40 mile ride,” said Kristen Bennett, Iron Belle Trail Coordinator. “They (might prefer not) to come back the exact same way, so you need these arterial trails where the riders can (see different sights and) eventually loop back to where they came from.”

Indianapolis’ Monon Trail is the most heavily trafficked trail in the Hoosier state, as it bisects the northern part of the city and acts as a launching point for multiple other trails, each of which has their own unique character, thanks to quirks of geography. Looking for some peace and quiet? Both the Wapahani or Fall Creek trails are built primarily on floodplain, so there are few businesses and fewer people. Looking for more excitement? The Monon empties out onto the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, where options abound for concerts, nightlife, and more.


A Defining Character

Many rail trails look to the past for their branding. The Monon Trail uses the old railroad logo, as well as repurposed or recreated infrastructure from when locomotives ruled the route.

“We have a couple of train stops that have been repurposed into a restaurant and an ice cream shop,” said Andre Denman, Indy Parks Trail Planner. “Many of the bridges along the route have that old-time railroad character.”

Destination trails should spell out the type of experience you should expect. The Nickel Plate Trail in north central Indiana promises riders an opportunity to experience the rural beauty of the Hoosier state, while the Monon Trail allows people to discover some of Indianapolis’ best entertainment options intersected by some pretty scenery.


Community Buy-In

Mississippi’s Longleaf Trace might be a member of the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame, but it now seems like a relic from another time. While the pavement is pristine and services available on either ends of the trail, the 40-ish connecting miles is a bit of a tree-lined snooze. Going by the few signs along the trail, there’s only one potential food and supply stop located along the greenway’s middle 30 miles. With the exception of several miles out from its respective trailheads, it’s generally ignored by residents.

On the northern side of the state, the Tanglefoot Trail offers so much more. The trail rolls through several small towns, and while there aren’t a lot of microbreweries or coffee shops, it does offer the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten at the Algoma General Store. Riding the Longleaf, you learn nothing about the communities you ride through, but each of the towns along the Tanglefoot seem to have bought into the trail and the sense of civic pride is evident.

It was important that “people along the Tanglefoot embrace it, welcoming visitors and being helpful in meeting the needs of all users,” said Trail Manager Don Locke, adding that he’s received multiple compliments from trail users about how well the business and townspeople along the trail welcome visitors.


Access to Food, Drink, Restrooms, and a Bike Shop

Coffee and beer are the preferred fuel for cyclists. Open a brewery or a coffee shop near a heavily trafficked trail, and it’s almost as good as printing money. Old Ox Brewing saw an opportunity on the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Rail Trail and took full advantage, adding racks, tools, and pumps for visiting cyclists. The gamble paid off, with riders accounting for 40 percent of their customers on weekends.

“From day one, we made sure we had signage on the trail, a clear view of the brewery from the trail and a nice path to our door,” said Old Ox President Chris Burns. “It’s actually easier to find Old Ox from the bike trail than it is from the road.”

But there’s an even more important amenity than a brewery needed on or near every destination trail, a bike shop. Rail trails often attract beginner cyclists who may not know how to fix their own flat, let alone a broken derailleur. Communities like Vicksburg, Mississippi, are in such need for professional wrenches, they’re offering massive incentives to attract prospective shop owners.


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