Melanie McManus, 47, of Sun Prairie, Wis. (pop. 20,369), remembers the first time she and her husband, Ed, took their three children biking on Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta Trail. The 32-mile path, considered one of the nation's premier rails-to-trails projects, was an arduous undertaking in 2000 for their children, then ages 11, 10 and 7. The promise of ice cream at the end, however, was enough to keep the young explorers motivated.
"We had a picnic along the way and rode past picture-perfect farm scenes and quaint towns," McManus recalls.
"Ed and I found the history of the trail fascinating, but the kids didn't care about that." Not until the "train whistles" started blowing, that is.
The trail, between Elroy (pop. 1,578) and Sparta (pop. 8,648), is best known for three hand-dug train tunnels ranging in length from 1,694 feet to 3,810 feet. Cyclists and hikers now pass through them, and many bring along wooden toy train whistles to blow inside as a prank.
"It startled me for just a minute, but the kids howled with laughter," she says. "It was really a perfect family outing, and the kids still laugh at me being scared by the train whistle."
The McManuses are among an estimated 50 million people who enjoy time each year along rails-to-trails projects across the United States. More than 15,000 miles of rail beds that once carried freight and passengers have been converted to recreation trails, contributing to the physical, economic and environmental health of communities along their paths.
"Although some rails-to-trails efforts have taken off in Europe and Australia, the United States and Canada have really embraced the concept," says Jennifer Kaleba, 31, a spokeswoman for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. "The expansion of the interstate highway system in the 1960s closely coincides with the decline of rail service in this country and the beginning of rails-to-trails conversions, but the whole initiative really took off in the late 1980s."
Organized in 1986, the conservancy monitors and promotes projects under way, which today include about 9,500 miles of former rail tracks.
Wisconsin leads the nation with 1,591 completed trail miles, and another 220 miles under development. The Elroy-Sparta Trail, developed by the state and opened in 1967, ranks as one of America's oldest and best.
"All of the little towns have banners hanging from the light poles and welcome signs proclaiming their relationship to the trail," says Jim Moorhead, a park ranger with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the trail. "The tunnels really put us on the map and are a great source of civic pride here."
Just two blocks from the trail, Gina Rae, a lifelong resident of Wilton, Wis. (pop. 519), serves hundreds of hungry cyclists and hikers on a typical summer weekend at her cafe, Gina's Pies Are Square, which she opened in 1985. Trail users generate about 70 percent of her business. "I was a year old when the trail opened, so I grew up with it," Rae says. "I see miles and miles of Spandex every day."
Bob Eldridge's suburban home, near Washington, D.C., sits 10 yards from the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, a 45-mile asphalt path that meanders through a major metropolitan area. With 2 million to 3 million users each year, including thousands of weekday commuters to downtown Washington and Alexandria, Va., the trail is the nation's most used rail-to-trail route.
The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority created and oversees the trail. The first section, in Falls Church, Va. (pop. 10,377), opened in 1974 and was extended to Purcellville (pop. 3,584) in 1988.
"We joke that it is the Washington Beltway and about it being the Spandex rush hour," says Eldridge, 68, a retired CIA intelligence officer who has biked or run the trail almost every day for 30 years. "What's great about the Old Dominion is that it connects to so many other trails that lead you into downtown D.C., and out to Mount Vernon."
As a member of the nonprofit Friends of W&OD, which promotes trail preservation and enhancement, Eldridge is helping to create signs and markers to identify Civil War sites along the route. Other volunteers in brightly colored shirts patrol parts of the route every day, answering questions, providing directions and taking note of maintenance needs.
"I love being on the trail because of the freshness and energy I find there," Eldridge says. "It's this fabulous green zone in the midst of urban sprawl."
Rural Missouri route
When Missourians receive a gully-washing thunderstorm, Jim Howard and other volunteers with the Friends of the Katy Trail know they have work to do the next day, checking for washouts, downed trees or rockslides along 225 miles of a former route of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad. The volunteers are the eyes and ears of the trail that first was nicknamed and then officially named Katy in 1990.
"Each section of the trail has a beauty all its own, so I can't tell you what is my favorite," says Howard, 64, who with his wife, Bonnie, 64, patrols a 10-mile stretch near their home in Jefferson City (pop. 39, 636). Both pick up trash and notify the Missouri Department of Natural Resources when repairs are needed.
Stretching across the Show-Me State, the Katy is the longest completed rails-to-trails project in the United States, though one of the newest. Train service ended on the rail line in 1986, and 10 years later, the first 185 miles of trail opened between St. Charles (pop. 60,321) and Sedalia (pop. 20,339). Today, the trail extends to the Missouri-Kansas border near Clinton (pop. 9,311). About 300,000 people use it each year.
Paralleling the Missouri River west of St. Louis, the Katy passes through the rolling hills of Missouri's wine country, which has become one of the trail's most popular sections. Its path coincides with the Lewis and Clark Trail, which received hundreds of thousands of visitors during the bicentennial of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition. Through central Missouri, the trail borders limestone bluffs, winding through concrete tunnels and over steel trestles before entering the plains near Sedalia, where about 25 miles are available for equestrian use.
"It has become a masterpiece of a park for the state of Missouri and, really, for the entire country," Howard says.