Boundless horseback riding awaits on “rail trails,” a network of recreational pathways following abandoned railroad lines.
Cook yourself a pot of spaghetti noodles. Now, scoop a fork-full and drop them onto a plate. The resulting web of pasta is how a map of the United States would look if it showed only the network of railroads that traverse the landscape.
In the mid-1800s, overzealous railroad companies built thousands of miles of railroad lines to transport people and goods to every nook and cranny of the American West. By 1960s, many lines had become uneconomical and were abandoned. Thanks to the 1983 National Trails System Act, non-profit groups like Rails-to-Trails Conservancy have salvaged those roadbeds and converted them into nearly 20,000 miles of recreational pathways called “rail trails.”
The trails are neither frontcountry nor backcountry, but gray-area land where horsemen can ride for miles on the border between private and public land. It’s a unique way to see the American countryside from horseback.
“Rail trails have many benefits for horseback riders,” says Fred Wert, a trailrider and author of the guidebook Washington’s Rail-Trails. “Unlike singletrack trails in the mountains, they’re wide and you can ride side-by-side or in a wagon. The roadbeds have gentle grades, so they’re good for novice and young riders. I also like the fact that old railroads were built next to waterways, like rivers and lakes, so rail trails have incredible views.”
Rail trails exist in all 50 states, and you can find one near you by visiting traillink.com and searching the state-by-state trail archive.
However, rail trails aren’t your typical trail-riding experience, Wert warns. For one, old railroad beds were built with crushed granite whose sharp edges can cut and bruise horse hooves. Many rail-trail riding horsemen protect their horses with padded shoes. Also, the trails are multi-use, so expect run-ins with hikers and bikers. Fortunately, they don’t pose a problem on account of the ample trail width and long-range visibility afforded by the trail’s straightaways. Finally, know if your horse suffers from claustrophobia or vertigo, because rail trails travel through mountain tunnels and over high-spanning tressle bridges. And that’s just part of the fun.
Among horsemen, the crown jewel rail trail is the John Wayne Pioneer Trail in Washington state. The 200-plus mile route follows The Milwaukee Road from Seattle to the Idaho border, summiting formidable Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains, over the Colombia River Gorge and across rolling farmland with views of the volcano Mount Rainier along the way.
The trail inspires fanaticism among horsemen, like the members of the non-profit group John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association who are dedicated to preserving and promoting the rail trail. This year, May 18 – June 3, the group will host the 31st annual Cross State Ride, when a convoy of horsemen and teamsters will ride and drive their wagons over the entire length of the trail. The public is welcome to ride along – visit jwpwr.org for more information.
More than just a great ride, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail is representative of the interesting way that a rail trail is born. In 1906, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad – a tongue-twister of a name, commonly abbreviated as the “Milwaukee Railroad” – broke ground on an extension through the Pacific northwest in order to compete with the famed Northern Pacific Railroad. The Milwaukee route closely mirrored the Northern Pacific, but passed through more remote country and no-name towns with barely any population. In effect, it was a redundant railroad doomed to obsolescence from birth. In 1977, the Milwaukee Railroad filed for bankruptcy.
To abandon the line, the Milwaukee Railroad had to get permission from the U.S. government to decommission the land before pulling up their tracks. In a commendable example of forward thinking, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board decided it wasn’t smart to sell off the railroads’ lands and do-away with the route entirely. So they devised a system called “Rail Banks” in which the railroad’s land grants, leases and right-of-ways were held in trust by the state government, with the proviso that if a railroad ever needed rebuilt again, Washington could take whatever steps necessary to reinstate the railroad. So the Milwaukee Railroad filed a quit-claim deed and the State of Washington allowed the railroad to be developed into the John Wayne Pioneer Trail during the 1980s.
My favorite aspect of rail trails is the historical irony of horses replacing trains on the American landscape. My how the tables have turned over the past 200 years. The steam locomotive was invented in Europe during the era of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) when a spike in hay costs, due to the massive amounts of fodder consumed by cavalry units, led British inventors to create an alternative form of transportation. The scenario was similar to today’s high gas prices driving automobile innovation towards fuel-efficient car design.
One early attempt, by the Scotsman William Brunton, resembled a horse with two large mechanical legs that propelled the gizmo forward. It was a dud. In 1808, English inventor Richard Trevithick created the prototypical modern steam engine, complete with smoke stack and four large wheels traveling on a pair of iron rails. The engine was faster than the average horse carriage and Trevithick mockingly named it the “Catch Me Who Can.”
Europe’s steam locomotive innovations caught the attention of American businessman and like-minded horse hater Peter Cooper (he made his fortune owning a glue factory next to slaughterhouse in New York City). Cooper built the first American-made steam locomotive, the “Tom Thumb,” that chugged along at a maddening speed of 18 m.p.h.
On the Tom Thumb’s maiden journey, the train encountered a horse carriage and Cooper challenged it to an impromptu race. The Tom Thumb slipped a drive belt and the horse carriage sped off to victory, offering a brief moment of horse-drawn glory.
The Tom Thumb marked the start of the railroad age and the dominance of the iron horse, beginning with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line built in 1830. But, proving that history has a keen sense of humor, the B&O was made obsolete by the automobile and sections of the railroad have been torn up and converted into rail trail — where horses now travel again.
“I think it’s great that today horses walk on the ground of the old railroads that once took away their livelihood,” Wert says.
So how do you like them horse apples?