top of page

Rail Trails: From Once-Mighty Train Lines to Wonderfully Gentle Bike Paths

(Note: This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on April 19, 2023.)

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the responses I got when I told people I’d just completed a three-day bike ride across a large chunk of northern Indiana.

“Wow,” most said, with just a hint of surprise and perhaps a glance at my midsection. “Good for you!”

Such is the beauty of rail trails — bike paths built on abandoned train lines — that even I, a reasonably active but, um, husky man of 60, with the approximate flexibility of a rusty old tractor, can easily knock off more than 100 miles in three days.

And Chicago is teeming with them — rail trails, I mean. Once extolled by the poet Carl Sandburg as the “player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler,” it remains a national railroad hub. That means there are bike paths along existing lines, like the Green Bay Trail beside Metra’s North Line, and trails along the roadbed of long-abandoned lines, like the west suburban Illinois Prairie Path and the city’s Bloomingdale Trail, also known as The 606.

Chicago is also home to a stretch of the Great American Rail Trail, a 3,700-mile bike path from coast to coast that passes through northwest Indiana and the south suburbs. Though supported by the national Rails to Trails Conservancy, it is really a network of more than 125 locally backed trails that is still filling out some gaps in the run from Washington, D.C., to the Pacific Ocean west of Seattle. I did a relatively short stretch in Indiana, and it left me wanting to ride more.

The magic of rail trails is rooted in the laws of physics. Massively heavy freight and passenger trains simply cannot handle steep grades up and down. That’s why tracks are built up on bridges and artificial berms in some places, and carved into the land in others, leveling out elevation changes to allow trains to move up and down at a gentle rate.

The result is that riders can easily get into a comfortable cruise. One can maintain a pleasant speed with a steady churn in the higher gears, pushing hard enough to get the heart beating, without the extreme strains of steep uphill slogs. There is also the satisfaction of feeling the miles click away.

When I agreed to the three-day ride starting in my wife’s hometown of Richmond, Indiana, I was nervous. I ride maybe a few days a week when the weather is nice. But I know what it means to be a serious rider, as I have friends who are. I am not. But it was a chance to push myself, and an excuse to visit family.

Richmond is in central Indiana along the Ohio state line, and we started at the historic Gennett Studios there. It’s the spot where some of the earliest recordings of American jazz were made by the likes of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and Hoagy Carmichael. It’s also a few blocks from the church where I got married, so I was feeling both inspired and nostalgic.

We headed north and were quickly out of downtown, alternating between wooded areas and working farms. This also made for a pleasing mixture of warming sun and the cooling canopy of trees. I inherited a love of trains from my late father, and I thought of him as I enjoyed simple beauty of small-town railroad depots that still dot the route.

The real beauty of these trails is cruising hassle-free, without having to worry about cars and traffic. It’s easy to find a steady, almost meditative rhythm. Some people like to ride with ear pods or headphones, but I don’t think that’s safe. I like to hear what’s around me, from the gentle chirping of birds, to the barking of dogs, to a friendly car horn’s beep beep! at any of the many spots where the trail crosses a road.

Since most of these trails are used by locals for shorter rides, and supported by local volunteers and park districts, there are plenty of small parks where one can stop for water or bathroom breaks. Oddly, I found these rests helpful to my confidence. I’d roll to a stop and offer an almost anticipatory groan, expecting my muscles to be complaining. I could feel them, of course. But it was a good feeling — a level of pain that says, “Well done,” rather than, “Please, stop!”

And because these trails move from town to town, it’s easy to find lodging and places to eat. We spent one night in Muncie, Indiana, and another about 65 miles northwest in Peru, Indiana, both at national chain hotels for what I consider reasonable rates — just over $100 per night.

Both the Indiana and Illinois sections of the national trail are almost fully complete. The Illinois trail crosses the state between Interstate 80 and the Illinois River. Trails along the route include the Hennepin Canal Parkway, the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Park, and the Great River Trail, along the Mississippi.

Illinois — and the Chicago Tribune — can claim some history when it comes to rail trails. When the old Chicago, Aurora and Elgin rail line was abandoned in the late 1950s, it was a letter to the editor that led to the conversion of the line to today’s more-than-50-mile path. According to TrailLink, a site maintained by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, noted naturalist May Theilgaard Watts wrote to the Tribune in 1963, proposing that the line be turned into a walking path. This led to the nation’s first conversion of a railroad to a public trail.

Another notable rail trail is the Bloomingdale Trail, running through Bucktown, Wicker Park and Logan Square. You can find more options at the TrailLink website.

The right equipment is important on a ride of any distance, of course. But that doesn’t mean one has to break the bank on a super-light road bike. My hybrid around-towner is somewhere between the thin-tired racers and the fat-wheeled mountain bikes. It is sturdy and relatively light, and worked fine for me. Helmets are, of course, a must. Even on dedicated bike trails, falls can happen.

Bike shorts are also highly recommended on long rides. Mine were built into the lining of more conventional shorts, which I found more comfortable than the skin-tight suits. Many riders prefer cycling shoes with pedal clips, anchoring their feet to the bike. I understand the benefit of these — they keep the balls of the feet on the pedal, and allow both pulling and pushing action — but my bike didn’t have them, and I did fine. I do recommend riding gloves.

It’s easy to see the packs of tricked-out cycling clubs churning through the countryside and think it’s an activity reserved for serious fitness buffs. But rail trails make even distance riding accessible to regular folks. Translation: If I can do it, you probably can too.


bottom of page