You can now ride for miles and miles with no traffic on these 5 long-distance rail trails.
By David Goodman
This article was originally published August 15th, 2017
I have a lifelong romance with the rails. While in college, I freight-hopped across the country, experiencing America from the open door of empty train cars. Later, my wife Sue and I took a two-day train journey from Zimbabwe into South Africa. It felt like time was suspended as we crossed the African desert, mesmerized by the rhythmic pulse of rolling steel.
It had been a while since I reveled in a slow ride on a long, at, straight path through a magnificent landscape. But recently, I revived that old love affair with rail travel by exploring Vermont’s growing network of rail trails, by bike and then heading north to ride Quebec’s P’tit Train du Nord, a 200 km trail.
In the past few years, miles of rusting steel ribbon that once crossed Vermont have been removed to make way for paths of crushed gravel and cinders, perfect for the rubber soles of running shoes or two tires.
Rail routes, once the foundation of how we traveled, still criss-cross Vermont’s valleys, carving through farmland and bordering the major rivers. Best, most have easy stopovers en route at brew pubs and B&Bs, farm stands and old opera houses.
The national rails-to-trails movement dates to the mid- 1960s, when the first rail trails opened in the Midwest.
In the 1980s, after Congress deregulated the railroad industry, unprofitable routes closed around the country and 4,000 to 8,000 miles of rail lines were abandoned each year. Congress then passed a regulation to allow for the preservation of abandoned rail corridors and enable their conversion into multi-use trails, a process known as railbanking.
A number of Vermont’s small rail lines closed in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Delaware & Hudson line (now the D&H Rail Trail from Castleton to Rupert), a portion of the Central Vermont Railway (closed in 1985, now the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail), and the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad line (closed in 1995, now the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail). Under Gov. Howard Dean, the State of Vermont moved to railbank the corridors.
Sue Minter, my wife and cycling partner, authored Vermont’s first bicycle and pedestrian plan in 1996, and later served on the House Transportation Committee and was Deputy Secretary and Secretary of Transportation. She explains, “What we are seeing now is a coming to fruition of efforts begun by Gov. Dean, who championed rail trails in the 1990s. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail got a huge boost in 2005 when then-Rep. Bernie Sanders secured a $5.2 million earmark for VAST to transform an underutilized resource into a bike and snowmobile trail.”
Now, Vermont is on the cusp of a golden age of rail trails. In the past few months, Burlington’s bike path, a feeder to the Island Line Rail Trail, has been redeveloped and rerouted and should be completed by this December. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is now at 33 miles and growing, with a goal of crossing the entire northern tier of the state, east to west, a total of 93-miles, traffic-free.
Last year, New York State awarded a $22,500 grant to help complete the missing New York link between the two western Vermont sections of the Delaware & Hudson Rail Trail. The 19.8-mile Vermont trail crosses western Rutland and Bennington counties in two sections–one between Castleton and Poultney, the other between West Pawlet and Rupert. When it’s done, you should be able to ride nearly 34 miles from Castleton to West Pawlet, off-road, and then on to New York’s East Salem village.
Bicycling on rail trails has several key benefits: there are no cars, they are at and they travel through beautiful countryside. Since they go in a straight line, you won’t get lost. The view is completely different in each direction, making out-and-back rides interesting and worthwhile. In winter, the trails are used by fat bikes, skiers and snowmobiles.
I recently rode parts of three Vermont rail trails. All three rail trails are meticulously graded and have surfaces of ne packed gravel (except the paved Burlington Bike Path), making them suitable for all types of bikes. (We used road bikes with standard 700 x 28cm road tires. )
In addition to great riding, we couldn’t pass up another attraction on or near each of these rail trails: Vermont craft breweries. We ended each ride by raising a glass.
My romance with the rails has been rekindled.
1. MISSISQUOI VALLEY RAIL TRAIL
Length: 26.4 miles, St. Albans to Richford Pit Stop: 14th Star Brewing Company, St. Albans
What was once the route of a milk train that serviced the farms of Franklin County is now the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail (MVRT). In the early 1990s, the State of Vermont and local citizens began converting the former Central Vermont Railway into a multi-use trail that follows the Missisquoi River through the rolling farmland of Franklin County with views east to the Greens.
We started in the Rail City, St. Albans, whose downtown has undergone a renaissance in recent years. The trailhead was easy to find: a large brown MRVT sign and a bicycle mounted high on a post signaled our arrival. A trailhead kiosk and parking lot has free color maps and a guide to the entire trail.
As we rolled out of St. Albans on the well-maintained rail trail, we passed walkers, cyclists and runners in the first few miles. The population on the trail and in the countryside thinned quickly as we rolled through open farmland. Views stretched over miles of green cornfields to where Jay Peak rose in the distance. After 7 miles we came to Sheldon, a former summer resort based around the town’s once famous mineral springs. The 100-room hotels have long since been replaced by dairy sheds that shelter an equivalent number of cows. In 1984, a train derailment damaged a bridge here and that marked the end of the rail service on this line. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (see below) will eventually connect to the MVRT at mile 9, opening possibilities for extended and even multi- day tours across the state. We continued riding through farm fields with views of the northern Green Mountains.
At mile 16 we came to the town of Enosburg Falls, where cyclists can refuel at diners and convenience stores. We stopped to eat lunch in front of the beautifully restored Enosburg Opera House, built in 1892, where a summer theater camp was in full swing and a community theater was rehearsing on the main stage.
We pedaled on for several more miles north of Enosburg to take in views over the Missisquoi River rapids, which flows parallel the trail. This section of river is part of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a water trail that runs from New York to Maine. This scenic high point was where we turned around for a fast ride back to St. Albans. More info: champlainbikeways.org —David Goodman
2. LAMOILLE VALLEY RAIL TRAIL
Length: 33 miles completed; 93 miles eventually, from St. Johnsbury to Swanton. Pit Stop: Lost Nation Brewing, Morrisville
After two decades of debate, planning, and construction, the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is now a reality—partly. Two sections of trail are open for riding: St. Johnsbury to Danville (15.4 miles), and Morristown to Cambridge (17.4 miles). When completed and connected to the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, the route will run 93 miles, making it the longest rail trail in New England, spanning the state from St. Johnsbury to St. Albans. Managed by the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), the trail is popular with snowmobilers and skiers in the winter.
We arrived at the trailhead in downtown Morrisville to find a bustling parking lot of riders. Lamoille Valley Bike Tours was there renting electric bikes.
We headed out on the former St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad line, which ceased operation in 1995, and pedaled across a restored railroad bridge. Within a mile, we passed Lost Nation Brewing, a local craft brewery and restaurant and saw it’s bike rack was already packed. We knew immediately where we would end our day.
The trail follows the meandering Lamoille River in the first few miles. After passing through Hyde Park, we emerged into open farm fields with expansive views of Mt. Mansfield. Sue and I clicked into a rhythm as we rolled through the pastures at a good clip, taking in the different perspectives on the mountains that we ski in the winter. As we arrived in Johnson after 8 miles of riding, the skies opened up with rain. We took shelter at a LVRT trailhead kiosk at a covered picnic spot at Old Mill Park. Several other riders soon joined us.
The sun returned and we rode on to Cambridge, where the old train station has been restored and converted into a community playground with a train theme. We slowly rode through a historic covered bridge and admired the elaborate trusswork.
From Cambridge, a mile-long Greenway Trail brought us to Jeffersonville, where we stopped at The Farm Store, which features an espresso bar, home-baked breads and local products. Sue and I spotted posts outside that were topped with replica golden horse heads. We both smiled: this was what remained of Le Cheval D’Or, a small French restaurant where I proposed to Sue 27 years ago. Farm Store owner Jennifer Bishop loved hearing our tale, and ran in back to offer us one of the old black lanterns that once hung in the restaurant. Like the railroad, every building has history here. More info: lvrt.org —D.G.
3. ISLAND LINE TRAIL
Length: 14 miles (rail trail); 30+ miles, Champlain Islands tour Pit stop: Snow Farm Vineyard, South Hero.
One of the most scenic rail trails in Vermont is the Island Line Trail. The remnants of the Rutland Railroad, founded 1901, the rail trail runs from Oak Ledge Park in Burlington, along the paved Burlington Bike Path, and crosses the lake via a three-mile long, crushed gravel causeway to South Hero, with a short bike ferry ride to span the causeway gap.
We set out on our ride through the Champlain Islands by starting at Airport Park in Colchester. After a mile-long ride through the Colchester Bog, the rail trail abruptly launches out into Lake Champlain on a narrow rail bed built atop large marble boulders. We were surrounded by water and mountains. We spun along, with views of the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to the east. We soon came to The Cut, a 200-foot gap in the causeway, and boarded a bike ferry that Local Motion operates from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Emerging at South Hero, we continued our ride past Snow Farm Vineyard where you can stop for wine tastings from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (I suggest you save this for the return leg.)
Sue and I continued on the Stone Castles bike tour (so named by champlainbikeways.org, which has a great list of bike tours around Lake Champlain), and had fun finding the many miniature castles that Harry Barber built around the South Hero before he died in 1966.
As we cycled by the acclaimed Blue Paddle Bistro in South Hero, we couldn’t resist popping in to make a reservation, then dashed back across the lake to catch the last bike ferry and rode back to the car. More info: localmotion.org —D.G.
4. WELLS TO MONTPELIER RAIL TRAIL
Length: 18 miles, South Ryegate to Marshfield Pit stop: Rainbow Sweets Bakery, Marshfield
Just south of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, the Montpelier-Wells Rail Trail makes up the wildest and most scenic part of a route that’s being mapped and developed as the Cross Vermont Trail, traveling more than 90 miles east/west across the state between Wells and Burlington.
For many years, the “Granite Train” ran a 45-mile stretch of tracks, connecting the mines of Barre with the main train lines that ran down the Connecticut River valley. It’s now made up of three sections, the longest of which runs 18 miles through Groton State Forest, one of the state’s wildest parks.
From Ricker Pond, at the southern end of Groton State Forest, nearly all the way to Marshfield, you can ride dirt and cinder trails through largely undeveloped land. Watch out for moose and deer. Stop at Lake Groton or Kettle Pond for a dip. Camp out at Groton State Park’s many camp sites or book a room at the state-owned Seyon Lodge in the middle of the forest.
In Groton State Forest the trail can get rough at times, so be prepared for downed trees or muddy spots. But you’ll also be rewarded with plenty of places to stop and parking areas where you can cut the 21-miles short. But if you start or continue on to Marshfield, get there in time to stop at Rainbow Sweets Bakery. In business for 42 years, the bakery has been named the best bakery in Vermont by Buzzfeed and its caramel-coated cream puffs are something you can dream about the entire ride. More info: crossvermont.org — Lisa Lynn
5. DELAWARE & HUDSON LINE RAIL TRAIL
Length: 19.8 miles in two sections, Castleton to West Pawlet Pit stop: Consider Bardwell goat farm
Little to no bike or foot traffic, open meadows, a goat farm where with a self-serve cheese stand, and a slate baron’s mansion (now a B&B) are just a few of the things that make the Delaware & Hudson Line rail trail one of the most interesting and most beautiful trails in the state.
Once named the “The Bridge Line to New England and Canada,” the Delaware and Hudson line once connected New York with Montreal, Quebec and New England. During the 1800s, it transported minerals up and down the East Coast, crossing the western portion of Vermont. “Slate picker” cars stopped in Castleton, Granville and Poultney (a region still known as “slate valley”) and carried roofing slate from Vermont to towns around New England. The railroad went bankrupt in the 1970s and a decade later Vermont state purchased the abandoned tracks and began rehabbing the route as a rail trail and put in more than 17 wood-deck bridges to span the many streams and rivers.
Today, the rail still relies on its cinder and gravel bed and is better suited to wider or knobby tires of a hybrid or mountain bike. Start at the Amtrak station in Castleton or at the parking ahead at the Castleton State College trailhead. From there, the trail runs south to Poultney before crossing into New York. At present, the trail stops for about four miles just over the New York border, becoming densely overgrown, before picking up again in Granville, NY. This is one of two portions that New York State just received a grant to build out, and when that is completed (town manager Dan Boone expects it to take a couple of years,) you will be able to ride 34 miles south to West Pawlet and then, via another section New York hopes to rehabilitate, on to East Salem.
If you start or end in Granville, you can make a weekend of it if you book a room at the Station House B&B (in the old train station) or at the red slate Sheldon Mansion Inn whose 10 acres border the trail. A new brewery, Slate Town Brewery, is hoping to open this December in Granville, too.
South of Granville, you’ll ride through dense forest before the landscape opens to farmland. As the trail crosses the 300-acre Consider Bardwell goat farm, look for a small sign for the serve-yourself farmstand with the creamery’s cheeses and other products. From there you can continue south to West Pawlet.
As one reviewer writes on Traillink. com, “When riding this trail you’re almost always alone with your thoughts – you DO see others, but it’s not the highway that other trails can be. It’s a country trail bisecting fields, paralleling a stream for a good portion of the ride, cow pastures, some old ‘urban’ decay near West Pawlet and Granville, but it’s completely scenic, quiet, and easily ridden.” More info: vtstateparks.com —L.L.
David Goodman is the best-selling author of 10 books, including Democracy Now! For more rail trail ideas, see his story on riding Quebec’s P’Tit Train Du Nord line.