Air Line State Park Trail showcases the engineering behind the Air Line Railroad, laid down through this hilly region in 1873 as a direct route between Boston and New York. As its name implies, the tracks ran flat and straight, like 'a line in the air.'" The Air Line employed the finest trains of the day, featuring the Pullman Palace Car, marketed as the White Train for its luxurious white-and-gold decor.
Frequent rider Rudyard Kipling once wrote of the line:
Without a jar, or roll, or antic
Without a stop to Willimantic &
Rain nor snow ne'er stops its flight
It makes New York at nine each night
The south section of the trail stretches from East Hampton to Willimantic, linking midway with a spur south to Colchester. From Willimantic, the trail continues north and east, as the Air Line State Park Trail North, all the way to Rhode Island.
Roundtrip cyclists should start in East Hampton. If you forgot to fill your water bottle at home, you can do so in the first 0.5 mile from one of the small waterfalls, created when railroad crews blasted Bishops Cut through solid rock. For the next 3 miles, you'll cross the Rapallo and Lyman viaducts. Built in the 1870s, each spans more than 1,000 feet, the latter soaring more than 150 feet above the valley floor. In 1913 crews reinforced the viaducts with rock and sediment to support heavier trains. Visible from trailside benches, the top corner of each span pokes out through the fill.
Onward the trail soars over boisterous, rushing streams, smaller brooks and the broad Blackledge River before crossing a causeway through Raymond Brook Marsh. Watch for signs of beaver.
An eighth of a mile from a trailhead and large parking area on State Route 85, the 3.4-mile Colchester Spur Rail-Trail joins the main Air Line State Park Trail South. Though a tad rougher, the spur offers an enjoyable ride through hemlock woods. You'll soon cross SR 85 and eventually emerge at an undeveloped trailhead anchored by the old Colchester Railroad Station and its twin depots.
From the turnoff at the Colchester Spur, the Air Line State Park Trail South continues several miles north to Willimantic. To hop on the Air Line State Park Trail North
, take Kingsley Road/Pleasant Street east to South Street and turn north (left). Cross the river and look for Union on the east (right). The north branch of the Air Line Trail is just off Union Street.
To reach the western trailhead in East Hampton, take State Route 2 to Exit 13 and follow State Route 66 south for 4 miles. Turn left on State Route 196/Lakeview Street and drive 0.5 mile, then turn left on Flanders Road and drive a quarter mile. Turn right on Smith Street; the trailhead is on the left.
The best eastern trailhead is at the junction of state routes 207 and 85 in Colchester. Take Route 2 to Exit 18, follow State Route 16 for 0.5 mile, then turn left on Route 85. The parking lot is 4 miles down on the left.