Rail Trails: Bike Riding on Abandoned Railroad Lines

A flat and easy ride – so hard to find in hilly N.H.More than a century ago they were ruled by locomotives. Today it’s common to see people bicycle, walk and enjoy other recreational pursuits on the long-abandoned railroad lines. Called “rail trails,” they are built and maintained by municipalities and volunteer groups. They pass along rivers, over bridges, through cool forests, by farms and in and out of cities across the state.”There has been a growing awareness about them,” says rail trail advocate Dick Mackay, chairman of Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Grafton County. “Trails get used in a number of ways, so there is support from so many different people.”According to the N.H. Bureau of Trails, users may include bikers, hikers, equestrians, off-highway recreational vehicles, cross-country skiers, sled dogs and snowshoers.The trails – 493 miles of them – have various personalities. The Northern Rail Trail connects Grafton and Merrimack counties and features an impressive collection of bridges. Cycling in view of the northern Presidential Range with chances of seeing wildlife make the Presidential Range Trail a top destination. Wolfeboro’s Cotton Valley Trail contains outstanding stretches along the water, while the paved Windham Rail Trail is a showcase for what can be done in areas of solid populations. Keene’s Ashuelot Rail Trail leaves the pleasant college city beyond for small-town charm and a handful of covered bridges. Though the behind-the-scenes work is often long, the results make it worth it. “There is a sense of personal safety,” he says about the rail trails. “That is often why people want to ride.”Gear BoxCharles F. Martin’s “New Hampshire Rail Trails” ($19.95) is an essential piece of equipment to have while riding the rails. Combination guide book and historical tome, Martin details the Granite State’s rich assortment of trails and includes quality maps plus old photos.Support rail trails with a membership in the non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The organization’s magazine features trails to visit and frequently includes New England locations (memberships begin at $18).Since rail trails harken back to a simpler time, why not ride one on a Schwinn? The 21-speed Midmoor ($250) hybrid won’t be under any Tour de France winners but it’s a decent bike for those pedaling maybe a few hundred miles a year on paved trails.Expert AdviceHanover’s Dick Mackay is a cycling and walking advocate. He is chairman of the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Grafton County and is the author of “Adventures in Paradise: Exploring the Upper Connecticut Valley of Vermont & New Hampshire (on a Bicycle!).”What type of person bicycles on a rail trail? All ages – everybody – because rail trails are seen entirely differently than either road or mountain biking. Number one is perception of safety. Number two is they’re flat, anybody can do it. This is not just another kind of biking. Rail trails have created another kind of recreation with a whole new set of participants, many of whom never biked before.What about people out for a walk? There is very heavy pedestrian use of rail trails. The railroads joined towns, or created them, and that’s where the people are. In built-up areas there is probably as much pedestrian use as bike. Dog walking, stroller pushing, jogging – rail trails are sidewalks, and often very scenic ones as the railroads followed the paths of least resistance, the rivers.What kind of surfaces do they have? Typically paved in urban areas like Derry, Salem, Manchester and Nashua but more often “hardpack.” Some corridors that were never ballasted with broken stone, such as the Presidential (along Route 2 between Gorham and Whitefield), remain in cinders, as was common before 1950. Makes for great bike riding.What kind of bicycle do I need? Hybrid is best, but it varies. We see some road bike use on the Northern by tour groups, but rail trails that have not been resurfaced may require fat tires.What is allowed on a rail trail and what isn’t? That is trail specific. Trails purchased with Federal Transportation Enhancement funds like the Northern do not allow “ground contact vehicles” like four-wheelers, etc. Both the Ammonoosuc (near Littleton) and Sugar River between Claremont/Newport permit motorized use, the latter because it was bought by the state many years ago. How does a rail line become a trail? After abandonment – a formal process through the Federal Railroad Administration – rail corridors are usually transferred to public ownership, usually by sale. New Hampshire is somewhat different as the state began purchasing railroads before rails-to-trails was even thought of, to continue to provide service to industry. Some of those state-owned lines continue to operate on a lease basis; others have become rails-to-trails. New Hampshire owns more rail mileage per capita than any state, both in and out of use.

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