Made in the Shade: 10 Cool Summer Trails

Wanting to see some great sights this summer, but aren’t up for a strenuous adventure like mountain biking or serious hiking? Or perhaps you’ve got young kids and you want to connect them to the outdoors, but don’t want to stray too far from bathrooms or mealtime options? Rail-trails offer an ideal way to catch some beautiful scenery on an easy, level straightaway with towns at frequent intervals that once served as stopping points along the old railroads. Here are some of our family-friendly favorites, especially for summertime.


New River Trail State Park


Photo: Courtesy Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

Nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands, the New River Trail State Park offers 57 miles of green. With most of the trail running under a lush canopy of trees, and the presence of two invitingly dark tunnels, the low-grade, crushed-stone trail provides a pleasant summer ride. Its proximity to the New River also offers prime opportunities to cool off with canoe, kayak, and tubing trips, or a simple dip in the water. The park’s headquarters at Foster Falls—near the trail’s center point—also offers guided horse rides, camping facilities, and a shuttle service, making the trail a perfect springboard for a jam-packed family vacation.


Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail


Photo by: Eli Griffen

One of America’s most iconic natural landmarks is its set of Great Lakes, and Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail allows you to pedal 24 miles along the sparkling eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan. The trailpartially built on what was once a narrow-gauge railroadis a beauty, traversing through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with its massive dunes to climb, sandy beaches to enjoy, and camera-worthy views of lush forests, rocky bluffs, and clear inland lakes. A couple of campgrounds in the park provide options for an overnight stay and the trail also connects travelers with two historic districts for fun, hands-on learning. The Glen Haven Historic District offers a refurbished general store, blacksmith shop, and cannery to explore what life was like here in the 1920s, while the Port Oneida Rural Historic District showcases Midwestern turn-of-the-century farm life.


Row River Trail


Photo by: mrdave

In western Oregon, the Row River Trail offers an easy, paved route for experiencing the foothills of the Cascades. The well-shaded, scenic rail-trail spans 17 miles, but if you wanted to take your time and split the ride into two days, camping is available in Schwartz Park, which sits about midtrial along the shoreline of Dorena Lake and adjacent to the Dorena Dam. Adding to the trail’s appeal are two historical covered bridges and a trestle in Harms Park that was included in the iconic coming-of-age movie Stand by Me.


General James A. Van Fleet State Trail


Photo by: mloliveir

If you’re planning on taking the kids to Florida’s Disney World, why not add a day of cycling into the mix? Only about an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of that popular attraction, lies a quiet natural oasis where youngsters will have the excitement of spotting alligators, tortoises, armadillos, deer, eagles, and other wildlife. Spanning 29 smooth, paved miles, the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail provides easy access to some of the state’s best wild treasures: the sprawling Green Swamp, lush forests, wetlands, and fields of colorful wildflowers.


Elroy-Sparta State Trail


Photo by: Eric Reischl Photography

Wisconsin’s Elroy-Sparta State Trail is famed not only in the state, but in the nation as one of the country’s oldest trail conversions from a former railroad right of way. The 32-mile rail-trail has a hard-packed crushed limestone surface and everything you need for a great summer ride: a leafy canopy for much of the route, frequent towns for supplies and food (ice cream!), a campground midway, andbest of allthree phenomenal old railroad tunnels that are dark and cool. The longest stretches a whopping three-quarters of a mile.


Pine Creek Rail Trail


Photo by: Pine Creek Outfitters, Inc.

If you’re looking for a multi-day trail and camping adventure, look no farther than northern Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Rail Trail, which is sprinkled with about a half dozen designated campgrounds between the communities of Wellsboro and Jersey Shore. Winding 61 miles through a heavily forested velvety greenness in a region commonly referred to as the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” the ride offers views of dramatic rock outcrops and numerous waterfalls along a relatively flat and well-maintained crushed-stone pathway.


Shelby Farms Greenline


Photo: Courtesy Shelby Farms Park Conservancy

Family outings don’t come much better than excursions on the Shelby Farms Greenline, which offers an easy bike ride or walk on a paved, tree-lined route that begins in midtown Memphis and heads nearly 7 miles eastward. The trail is anchored by Shelby Farms Park, which spans a vast 4,500 acres and is one of the largest urban parks in the country. Amongst the park’s woodlands, wetlands, and lakes, you will even find a herd of buffalo! Kids and the young at heart will enjoy its immense and whimsical Woodland Discovery Playground, horseback riding stables, disc golf and zip lining courses, and boat rentals.


Cape Cod Rail Trail


Photo by: mybikeymio

This scenic 22-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail serves up a genuine Cape Cod experience, stretching through quaint villages and along sandy beaches past a diverse landscape of salt marshes, pine forests, and cranberry bogs. It’s an easy route with smooth pavement and few inclines. Trailheads sprinkled along the route offer restrooms, food, water, and swimming areas to cool off in the summer heat. Of course, Cape Cod National Seashore, with more than 40 miles of beach and picturesque lighthouses along the Atlantic Ocean, is the highlight of the trip. About midway, the wooded Nickerson State Park in Brewster offers camping, swimming pools, and picnic areas.


Centennial Trail State Park


Photo by: Ben Tobin, Courtesy Visit Spokane 

The physical and metaphorical heart of the Centennial Trail State Park lies in Spokane’s delightfully whimsical and lovely Riverfront Park. Rising 155 feet above the park stands an impressive clock tower dating back to 1902. A few paces away lie two other unusual sights: the turn-of-the-century Looff Carrousel with hand-carved and beautifully painted wooden horses and Chinese dragons, and the Spokane Falls SkyRide, a world-class gondola ride offering panoramic views over a series of rushing waterfalls. Spiraling outward in both directions from the park and hugging the Spokane River, the paved trail spans a total of 37.5 miles, reaching the community of Nine Mile Falls in the west and the Washington/Idaho border to the east. 


Tunnel Hill State Trail


Photo by: k.watchtower

The Tunnel Hill State Trail offers a bucolic 55-mile route through southern Illinois, but, with frequent entry points along the way, there’s no need to feel that you have to do it all! A good starting point is the town of Vienna Station, which has a nice park that serves as a perfect picnic spot. From there, it’s about a 10-mile ride to Tunnel Hill (including passage over a couple of pretty bridges) to reach the trail’s landmark tunnel, which spans a cavernous 543 feet. If you decide to continue north to Harrisburg, you’ll have a comfortable downhill grade and pedal through the cool Shawnee National Forest.

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