Vermont rail trails are the perfect antidote to cabin fever and quarantine.
Since the 1960s, thousands of miles of old abandoned railroad lines have been converted into public recreational trails across the United States.
And in this summer of travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and canceled summer camps, ridership at rail trails is up significantly nationwide. Between March and June, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy reported a 110 percent increase in ridership on rail trails, compared to the same time period in 2019.
A Glimpse of Rail Trail History
Vermont is home to a variety of rail trails, the most famous being the Island Line Trail along Lake Champlain. But rail trails got their start long before. The United States rail trail movement began with the opening of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin in the 1960s.
Rail trails gained steam nearly 40 years ago when the nation’s railroad industry was deregulated by Congress and allowed for the discontinuation of unprofitable routes. The deregulation prompted the abandonment of 4,000 to 8,000 miles of lines each year throughout the early 1980s.
In 1983, Congress was concerned about the loss of thousands of miles of rail corridor and amended the National Trails Systems Act to create a tool known as railbanking, which preserves inactive corridors for future rail use and allows for interim trail use.
The first Vermont rail trail was the Burlington Bike Path between Oakledge Park and the Winooski River, which was completed in 1992.
The Burlington project sparked a legal battle that became a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed the conversion of rail beds to rail trails around the country, according to Rick Sharp, author of “The Burlington Bike Path and Waterfront Park.”
Today, the Burlington Bike Path is part of the Island Line Trail, a popular 14-mile route that runs along the shore of Lake Champlain in Burlington to the scenic Colchester Causeway. Its route follows an abandoned Rutland Railroad bed that eventually juts out to Mallet’s Bay at the northern end of the trail.
Not only are Vermont rail trails scenic and historic, they encourage outdoor recreation by providing a safe, car-free space for bicyclists of all ages.
“I think what makes rail trails special is the history piece,” says Jon Kaplan, bicycle and pedestrian program manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. “And then there’s also the user side—just having that complete car-free experience while you’re biking. It’s especially nice for less experienced bicyclists.”
Four Vermont rail trails worth exploring
Here are four Vermont rail trails to explore this summer and fall.
The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail
Spanning across northern Vermont, the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail will eventually be New England’s longest rail trail. The state-owned, scenic trail currently includes nearly 35 miles of open trails in the three separate sections—St. Johnsbury to Danville (15.4 miles), Morrisville to Cambridge (17.4 miles), and a short, 1.5-mile section in Sheldon that connects to the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail.
The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail uses a route created by the former St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad, which passed through 18 communities between 1877 and 1994. Today, bicyclists can pedal past cornfields, riverbanks, and barns, stop for a beer or bite at Lost Nation Brewing in Morrisville, and soak up mountain views in every direction. When the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is complete—hopefully within the next few years—it will extend 95 miles from St. Johnsbury to Swanton, becoming the longest in the region.
For more information, visit www.lvrt.org.
Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail
The Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail, another state-owned trail, spans 26.3 miles from St. Albans to Richford. The rail trail, which follows the rail bed of Central Vermont Railroad’s Richford Branch, meanders past dairy farms and cornfields in Franklin County and comes within a short distance of the Québec border.
The rail line between St. Albans and Richford was chartered as the Missisquoi Railroad in the late 1860s, and Central Vermont leased it in 1872. Eventually, the Central Vermont Railroad came under control of the Canadian National Railway. A train derailment near Sheldon in 1984 closed the line. Fortunately for Vermont, it opened the door for the creation of the Missisquoi Rail Trail.
For more information, visit mvrailtrail.org
Island Line Trail
Vermont’s most famous rail trail is the Island Line Trail, a 14-mile path from Oakledge Park to the Colchester Causeway and Allen Point Access Area in South Hero. The trail follows the route of the Island Line railroad, built by the Rutland Railroad in 1901. The last passenger and freight trains ran in 1955 and 1961, respectively. In the early 1980s, Burlington residents began to rally around the idea of making a trail on the abandoned line.
From Oakledge Park in Burlington, the path runs parallel to Lake Champlain, passing city parks and neighborhoods before it crosses the Winooski River, winds through Delta Park in Colchester, and ultimately leads to the scenic Causeway in Mallet’s Bay. A bike ferry transports riders between a 200-foot cut in the Causeway, giving riders a chance to continue on to South Hero in the Champlain Islands. The ferry reopens for the 2020 season on Aug. 12.
For more information, visit www.localmotion.org.
Delaware and Hudson Rail-Trail
The 19.8-mile, state-owned Delaware and Hudson Rail Trail follows the route created by the Rutland and Washington Railroad in the 1850s to serve the slate quarries in western Vermont and parts of New York State. The line closed in 1983, and the Vermont portion was developed into a rail trail in the late 1980s. Because of a lack of railbanking, there is a four-mile gap between East Granville, New York, and a farm field near the state line. Long-range plans requiring acquisitions of private land are underway to complete the route in New York.
Start in at the trailhead in Castleton near the train station and ride to Poultney before entering New York. Crossing a bridge over the Mettawee River, the trail heads back into West Pawlet, Vermont, about 2.5 miles past the Granville trailhead.
For more information, visit vtstateparks.com
Have you biked a Vermont rail trail or rail trail elsewhere in the country?