As transit networks for human-powered activities, rails to trails are bringing together communities, linked by a shared interest in a safe way to commute and commune with nature, and, in the process, protecting natural resources while also revitalizing local businesses.
1. Illinois Prairie Path, Illinois
Nicknamed the Roarin' Elgin, the now retired Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad once carried commuters and freight between Chicago and its suburbs. Its legacy, the 62-mile Illinois Prairie Path (IPP), one of the country's oldest rails to trails, is perfect not only for the botanically inclined but also the committed commuter.
2. Ojai Valley and Venture River trails - California
Urban grittiness is evident along the six-mile Ventura River trail where rotating and decommissioned oil derricks are in plain sight. But art installations also dot this trail, such as a bronze of oranges, reflecting the produce the railroad once transported, and other Ventura themes.
3. Burke Gilman Trail - Washington
Traced by a sandy beach, Golden Gardens as well as other parts of the trail offer views of the mighty Olympic Mountains, even snow-capped Mount Rainier, in the distance.
4. Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, Florida
The path -- it's dotted with aluminum sculptures as a nod to its railroad history -- allows bladers, walkers and cyclists to safely and scenically traverse the Gulf coast, tidal waterways, myriad leafy parks and quaint neighborhoods in a state that's hardly noted for its pedestrian-friendly clime.
5. Minuteman Bikeway - Massachusetts
Short but oh-so-sweet, the 10-mile-long Minuteman Bikeway wanders through the landscape touched by the Revolutionary War, paralleling the Battle Road, aka Massachusetts Avenue, the route taken by British soldiers that marched to Concord. Following the path of the Lexington & West Cambridge Railroad from Cambridge to Bedford, this rail-to-trail is heralded as a year-round commuter way, even in the dead of winter.
6. Washington & Old Dominion Trail - Virginia
Many cyclists, joggers and bladers escape D.C. or commute on this trail that compliments the capital's retinue of memorials and monuments with lessons in history that are blended with a sense of peace rarely found in the chaotic Beltway.
7. Silver Comet Trail - Georgia
For 22 years since 1947, passengers could board a luxury train that cruised over towering trestles and through tunnels bored into mountains as it made the trip from New York to Birmingham, Alabama. That storied corridor has been transformed into the 62-mile Silver Comet Trail that spans Smyrna, Georgia (on the outskirts of Atlanta) to the Georgia/Alabama border near Cedartown in a rural North Georgia corner that's a mix of hardwood forests and rolling fields.
Find out more about this these seven urban rails to trails in the article I wrote for NationalGeographic Traveler - Intelligent Travel.