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'Rails to Trails' Near You: 6 Beautiful Paths That Used to Be Railroad Tracks

By Jeanine Barone
May 31, 2019
A view of the New River Trail, in Virginia
Cynthia Mccrary/Dreamstime
Get fit, learn some history, birdwatch, or simply commute along these peaceful, traffic-free former rail corridors.

Gone are the days when the U.S. was latticed with an extensive railroad network that connected communities big and small, and spurred their vitality. As air and car travel largely replaced the train, thousands of miles of tracks laid derelict and weed-choked. Yet, the demise of train travel brought an opportunity to convert some of these disused railroad corridors to scenic, multi-use paths (rails-trails) for human-powered activities, especially cycling. These paths not only reinvigorate communities and local businesses, but they also protect wetlands, forests, and other natural resources; and provide a safe path for commuting, fitness, communing with nature, and learning about the region’s culture and history. These six rails-trails are among the best in the U.S., each with a different personality, providing you with anything from a short jaunt to a long-distance adventure.

1. Withlacoochee State Trail, Florida

Just an hour or so from either Tampa or Orlando, the midpoint of this 46-mile paved trail, historic Floral City, is where the Seminole Tribe established a village in the early 1800s. This path, part of Florida's extensive state park system, feels worlds apart from the state’s theme and water parks. The more serene southern section wends to the wee community of Trilby, winding through Withlacoochee State Forest with its grand cypress trees dripping with epiphytes. Wildlife sightings, from gopher tortoises to opossums, are abundant along the entire route, and the foliage is diverse, including magnolia and sweet gum. Pack your rod and try angling for largemouth bass or bluegill in either the Withlacoochee River or Lake Townsen. (floridastateparks.org)

2. George S. Mickelson Trail, South Dakota

Wandering through the Black Hills from Deadwood to Edgemont, this 109-mile trail is named for the South Dakota governor who supported the conversion of the scenic railroad corridor to a rail-trail. Along the dirt and crushed stone path, cyclists find abandoned gold mines and other reminders of the area’s boom-and-bust period. With woodlands of spruce and ponderosa pines blanketing the slopes, and mountain meadows sprinkled with lavender, black-eyed Susans and other blooms, the 32-mile portion from Hill City to Dumont is especially picturesque. Stop in Rochford, a once-thriving mining town, where the Moonshine Gulch Saloon is a popular stop for beer and burgers. (gfpo.sd.gov/parks)

3. Paul Bunyan State Trail, Minnesota

As you pedal past almost two dozen lakes on the 123-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail, Minnesota’s moniker, “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” seems apt. Running from Lake Bemidji State Park in Bemidji to Crow Wing State Park in Brainerd, a former railroad town, this paved rail-trail is named for the mythical lumberjack whose giant footprints and those of Babe, his blue ox, created Minnesota’s lakes. (Their statues are on display in Bemidji.) With various towns popping up every five to nine miles or so, you can ride almost anywhere and find a quirky vibe. The town of Nisswa holds turtle races each summer. (paulbunyantrail.com)

4. New River Trail State Park, Virginia

Huddled in southwest Virginia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this almost 58-mile crushed stone rail-trail mostly follows the New River through a bucolic landscape of woodland, farm fields, narrow valleys, and rounded peaks. Many cyclists start mid-trail at the park’s headquarters in Foster Falls, a town that grew during the iron industry. (A 19th century iron furnace bears testament to that era.). Music buffs may, instead, want to start in Galax that’s nicknamed the “World Capital of Old Time Mountain Music.” Birdwatchers should keep their binoculars at the ready. Dozens of species, such as red-bellied woodpeckers and eastern kingbirds, have been spotted along the route. (dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks)

5. Rio Grande Trail, Colorado

Paralleling the Roaring Fork River, Colorado’s longest rail-trail meanders from Aspen through Carbondale to Glenwood Springs, famed for its geothermal waters. The 42-mile-long, mostly paved stretch features the best of the state’s scenery: soaring peaks, stands of aspen, ranch lands, dry sagebrush, and conifer forests. You’ll have opportunities to spot deer, elk, and even black bear. Great blue herons, belted kingfishers and other birds are attracted to this corridor for its proximity to the river. Popular stops include the Woody Creek Tavern, the former hangout of journalist Hunter S. Thompson; Basalt that’s noted for its trout fishing; and the serene Rock Bottom Ranch, an ideal spot for picnicking and bird watching. (rfta.com/trail-information)

6. Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, California

Taking its name from former Congressman Harold T. “Bizz” Johnson, who was instrumental in this rail-trail conversion, the 25-mile route from Mason Station near Westwood to Susanville is mostly dominated by the dramatic landscape of the Susan River Canyon. Cycling on packed gravel, you’ll crisscross the river numerous times on trestles and bridges, veering into evergreen-dense Lassen National Forest. In Susanville, stop at the circa 1927 railroad depot that serves as a visitor’s center with historical information on the railroad and the area’s logging industry. This is also the site of the annual Rails to Trails Festival where -- on October 12, 2019 -- you can enjoy the salsa competition and chili cook-off. (blm.gov/visit/bizz-johnson)

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7 Best Ways to Save Money on a Camping Trip

Planning a camping trip? Be prepared to open your wallet. Adult campers spent an average of $546 on camping gear alone in 2016, according to the 2017 American Camper Report from Coleman Company, Inc. and The Outdoor Foundation. And when you factor in expenses for food, permits, and transportation, your camping budget could quickly go up in flames. The upshot? There are ways to cut costs without putting a damper on your camping trip. Here’s how. 1. AVOID EXPENSIVE CAMPGROUNDS Many campsites and parks require campers to pay a nightly rate. These costs can range significantly. There are high-end campgrounds like Camp Gulf in Miramar Beach, FL, where a beachfront camping pass costs $219 per night during the summer. In general though, a camping permit costs around $12 to $25 per night. However, there are also a number of free campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park an RV without coughing up dough, including an array of federal lands such as those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). To find one near you, use Freecampsites.net or Campendium.com. Pro tip: Many campgrounds charge less for night passes in the middle of the week. It’s also generally easier to get a reservation than camping on a weekend. If you’re planning on taking several camping trips during the year, consider buying the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands annual pass. It’s $80 and it covers entrance fees at more than 2,000 national parks and national wildlife refuges, as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands. Current U.S. Military and their dependents can get a free annual pass; seniors age 62 or older can get a $20 pass. Camping Deals: For great camping deals be sure to check out our partner Campspot. Campspot is the only online booking platform that lets you research, discover, and instantly reserve the best camping stays at the lowest prices from premiere campgrounds across North America. They give campers more control of their trips by offering more options to choose from and an easier way to book. They are experts in the outdoor industry, so they know what campers and campgrounds care about and use technology to better serve them both. 2. STAY CLOSE TO HOME Getting to and from your camping destination matters—the further the drive, the more you’ll have to spend on gas. A simple solution: find a campsite that’s within short driving distance from your home. 3. BORROW OR RENT CAMPING EQUIPMENT High-quality camping gear and equipment can be expensive, but you don’t want to cheap out either. (Picture this nightmare: you buy a cheap tent, but it blows over during a storm.) Instead of purchasing your own equipment, consider borrowing from a friend or renting from a shop like REI Co-op, which lets you rent gear in 12 states (rei.com). Have your heart set on buying your own gear? Purchase lightly used gear from a resale shop or website like Switchback Gear Exchange (goswitchback.com), which sells used sleeping bags, tents, water filters, and camping accessories. 4. SKIP PREPACKAGED MEALS A lot of prepackaged meals are expensive—and they’re not always tasty. Cooking your own food while camping out requires some extra effort, but it can be a great way to save money. Another cost saving measure? Instead of buying a portable grill or burner, bring food that you can prepare over a campfire. All you need is a little aluminum foil. (Do a simple Google search for “Foil-Wrapped Camping Recipes.”) 5. DITCH BOTTLED WATER & OTHER DISPOSABLES This one might seem obvious, but a lot of campers still make the mistake of buying and lugging a case of bottled water with them. To save money and protect the environment, bring a reusable water bottle. If you won’t have access to fountains, make sure you buy a bottle with a filter. (Brita sells one for $8.88 on Amazon.) Forget about bringing disposable products like paper plates, cups, and silverware as well. Real dishes and flatware are easier to eat with and only take a few minutes to wash off—and they’ll save you money over time. Taking a family trip? Consider a four-person dinner kit. 6. EXPLORE FREE CAMPING ACTIVITIES Waterfront campsites often offer kayak and boat rentals but they can be expensive. Look for free ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Explore walking trails, fishing, hiking, and biking paths. Bring board games to pass the time on rainy days. And after the sun sets, lie down and enjoy stargazing. 7. STAY FOR FREE BY VOLUNTEERING Willing to trade a little labor for a free camping pass? A number of campsites and RV parks offer volunteer, or even paid “workamping” positions, in exchange for free access to the grounds. Not all of these jobs are glamorous, though. Janitor positions are often in demand. Still, these jobs can help you save a ton of money, and maybe even make a little extra cash. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet other outdoor enthusiasts and make friends for your next camping trip.

Adventure

California Glamping From $92/Night

With such an incredible variety of landscapes, California is the perfect place to reconnect with nature. But what if you just don't like to tough out chilly nights in a sleeping bag on the ground? We've rounded up five of the best glamping sites for the perfect combination of the great outdoors and a good night's sleep. 1. Caravan Outpost, Ojai The hip little oasis of Ojai, just a two-hour drive from Los Angeles and nestled amid lush, green hills, has a fittingly cool, chilled out glampsite. The 11 vintage airstreams at Caravan Outpost sit in a lovely garden space and are fully decked out – they even include their own record players. A community fire pit beckons friendly gatherings where you can exchange stories of your favorite cycling trail or surf spot and enjoy the famous pink-hour where the sunset adds a magical hue to the atmosphere. Best for: City break Cost: $179/night 2. Costanoa, Pescadero The family-friendly Costanoa resort in Pescadero has everything from luxury suites to camp sites for your own tent. However, glamping in the tent bungalows provides the perfect combination of outdoorsy and comfort. The fire pits are the perfect place to roast marshmallows after a day of hiking, sea kayaking, biking, or horseback riding, and the lush beds are exactly what your body needs to rest up for the next day's adventures. Best for: Families Cost: From $92/night 3. Ventana, Big Sur The epitome of luxury camping is a fully decked-out safari tent nestled on the forest floor beneath towering redwoods – this is glamping at its finest. The babbling stream and gently rustling leaves lull you to relaxation as you dose under your heated blanket. The tents have hot and cold running water, which is amazing while camping, but there is also a tap that spits out tea-ready water, perfect to brew a cup to wrap your hands around while you sit back in your Adirondack chair around a fire. The rest of the Ventana resort has a luxury spa, swimming pools and a fabulous restaurant to enjoy up on the cliff overlooking Big Sur's stunning coastline. Best for: Romantic getaway Cost: From $225/night 4. Dome in the Desert, Joshua Tree While this isn't a tent, we think a tiny wood dome in the desert counts as glamping. And if stargazing in Joshua Tree isn't on your bucket list yet, it should be. Staying in this bohemian geo-dome just a short drive from town takes contemplating the cosmos to a whole new level. The dome is equipped with personal telescopes to get up close and personal with the solar system from the comfort of your two-room abode – there's even a glass panel in the roof. Go in the spring when the wildflowers carpet the area in brilliant violet and yellow. Pro-tip: do the 20-minute drive to Joshua Tree National Park at sunset for the best views and to avoid the crowds. Best for: Stargazing Cost: $406/two nights 5. Half Dome Village, Yosemite National Park It's unlikely you will find a view to wake up to that is more spectacular than being greeted with Yosemite's impossibly huge sheets of rock face. It's nothing short of life changing. While these tents are a bit more rustic than the other glamping sites on our list (there is just a simple camp bed inside), the jaw-dropping location more than makes up for the lack of creature comforts. These well-appointed tents in Half-Dome Village, right at the heart of Yosemite National Park, are the perfect landing spot for exploring the many wonders of the park. Best For: Adventure Cost: $133/night Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with Lonely Planet's weekly newsletter.

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The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Cycling the National Parks

America’s national parkland is certainly no secret - more than 330 million people visited National Park Service sites last year, typically entering the park in a car, SUV, or camper, and spending their days driving to marquee attractions like Old Faithful, the giant redwoods, and the Continental Divide, and hiking the glorious trails. But there is another way to navigate a national park: Cycling. The benefits include a healthy workout each time you hit the road, no worries about parking your car at, say, a tourist-packed waterfall or hot spring, and virtually 360 views everywhere you go. Sure, cycling always requires a little prep and know-how, and for that we turned to Grace Heimsness, a bike tour guide for Trek Travel with some important questions. BT: What should cyclists know before traveling to a national park? Grace Heimsness: Definitely study up on the typical weather for the time of year in which you'll be traveling so that you can pack and dress accordingly. Layers are a must in almost all parks, as is good footwear! Keep in mind that many parks close certain areas and trails seasonally. You can look these up on the park website in advance. This will give you an idea of where you'll be hiking ahead of time, and make sure you pack enough food, water, sunscreen, and clothing for the adventure. Don’t forget to study up on park rules! Three important ones are to pack out what you packed in, leave no trace, and keep your Clif bars to yourself (and let the wildlife take care of its own lunch!).READ: 11 Safety Essentials for a National Park Trip BT: When is the best time for cyclists to travel to national parks? GH: It depends on the park, but summer is a great time. Early spring and late fall tend are also great, as the parks tend to be less busy. Keep in mind, however, that some areas of the park might be closed in the colder months. April-May and late October-November are my favorite times to visit. BT: What is a good national park for a cycling beginner? GH: The west side of Zion National Park is a great place for those who are just getting into cycling. While the road on the east side of the park--with tight corners, lots of traffic, and more punchy climbs--might be better for more seasoned cyclists, Zion Canyon Road is ideal for beginners and veterans alike. The road is closed to all traffic except park shuttles, and the gentle climb up to the Narrows is approachable for most fitness levels. Cycling in the shadows of stone giants like the Court of the Patriarchs and Angel's Landing provides an incredible opportunity to connect with the park on a profound level. BT: What is a great national park for a more advanced cyclist? GH: Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is an excellent choice. Going around the rim provides an excellent 360-degree experience of the park, and the frequent climbs and descents make for a challenging and rewarding conquest. Keep in mind that early in the season, half of Rim Road is typically closed due to snow. BT: Any other favorite national parks for cyclists? GH: Grand Tetons National Park has a fantastic bike path system, and the views of the Tetons from the valley are unbeatable. BT: What essentials should cyclists pack with them in order to make the most of their ride through a national park? GH: Make sure to bring your cell phone, layers, snacks, plenty of water, tools and parts for minor repairs, and a map of the park. Bring a pair of walking shoes if you plan to take a hike mid-ride. And always ride with both front and rear lights - the more visible you are to other vehicles, the better. BT: Do you have any tips on how to stay hydrated and fueled for a bike ride through a national park? GH: As a bike tour guide, my mantra is: Eat before you're hungry; drink before you're thirsty. A good rule of thumb is to drink one bottle of water per hour and one snack every 90 minutes or so. BT: Are there any other important tips or advice that you want to share with cyclists? GH: Wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Smile, wave, and play nice with other visitors. Lastly, respect your public land! We are fortunate to be surrounded by so much beauty, and it's our responsibility to take care of the planet that provides for us.

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This Baby Bison Video Is a Dose of Travel Spring-spiration!

Sometimes just the right image, or moving image, is worth well over the fabled “thousand words.” OUR FAVORITE VIDEO OF THE WEEK When it comes to delivering spring-spiration to travelers weary of the cold weather (and as I’m typing this, a cold rain is falling outside my window here in New York), our contacts at one of America’s favorite parks have come through for us today. This video of the first baby bison born this year at Custer State Park, SD (travelsouthdakota.com), will steal your heart - and possibly inspire you to book a trip this spring or summer to South Dakota. SOUTH DAKOTA MAY BE CALLING YOUR NAME We love Custer State Park’s 1,300 free-roaming bison, and the fact that visitors to the park can see animals in their natural habitat along the park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop. And we’re not just talking cute little cinnamon-furred baby bison but also herds of fully grown bison, majestic elk, stately bighorn sheep, and lots of deer. Any visit to this region of South Dakota should also include stops in Rapid City, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2018. WHAT’S YOUR BEST-EVER WILDLIFE-SPOTTING STORY? Tell us in the comments below what your favorite wildlife-viewing experience has been. Or post your pics to Instagram and tag them #MyBudgetTravel.

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