Explore North Carolina’s Rail Trails
Old rail lines become recreational, scenic pathways
American Tobacco Trail
Photo courtesy of Dave Connelly
Over the last century, more than 100,000 miles of railway tracks have closed. Many of these forgotten rail lines are enjoying a new life as rail trails.
Old rail lines are ideal for recreational trails. These already-cleared paths are wide, flat and continuous for miles — running through cities, historic districts and rural areas. The trails are perfect for biking, hiking, walking, running or horseback riding, and — when paved — are wheelchair- and stroller-accessible.
These trails are great for family use, as their width allows speedier hikers to pass by, and the flatter terrain makes riding or walking on them easier for younger children. Many trails also offer amenities, such as restrooms, local business establishments, and creeks or other natural wonders to explore.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has supported rail trail development across the country for more than 30 years. The group estimates there are 200 rail trails in the U.S. — 32 of which are in North Carolina totaling 188 miles. Plus, 17 North Carolina rail trail projects are currently in development.
Rail trails are added regularly to North Carolina’s various systems of trails, and existing trails are being enhanced. One great benefit is the economic boon created by trail users frequenting nearby restaurants and stores, or visiting historic or recreational sites.
Fall is a wonderful time to get out and walk, run or ride the rails. The trails listed here represent just a few of those that are easily accessible across the state.
American Tobacco Trail
The American Tobacco Trail system, located in Durham, Chatham and Wake counties, covers 22.6 miles and is the longest rail trail in North Carolina. The trail is paved from its northern entrance in Durham County, to New Hope Church Road in Wake County — about 7.7 miles — and this portion is good for cycling, hiking, running and Rollerblading, and is wheelchair accessible.
The southern portion of the trail is covered with stone dust and accommodates equestrians as well. Hunters may also use the southern section to get from one field to another, but are not permitted to carry loaded weapons on the trail.
The American Tobacco Trail ambles through city scenes, pine groves and open rural areas. Hikers frequently spot wildlife such as beavers, hawks, owls, turtles and deer while walking the trail.
Dave Connelly, a member of the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission and frequent user of the American Tobacco Trail, says the trail is popular with families. Citizens trail watch and police regularly patrol the trails to keep them safe. Car break-ins at parking areas are the most often-reported crimes. Connelly suggests parking in places offering built-in security, such as Renaissance Village located at 8200 Renaissance Parkway in Durham.
“It includes a Rise Biscuits Donuts (to carb-load before a ride), a Bruster’s Real Ice Cream parlor (to treat yourself afterwards) and a Pedego Electric Bikes Triangle rental store,” he says.
Visit triangletrails.org/american-tobacco-trail to locate additional parking options along the trail.
Photo courtesy of Katie Lloyd/Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department
Irwin Creek and Stewart Creek Greenways
The Irwin Creek and Stewart Creek Greenways in Charlotte run 2.2 miles along Irwin Creek and Stewart Creek in Charlotte’s city center. A portion of each trail runs along an old railbed. Both are paved and good for biking, walking, running and inline skating. They’re also wheelchair accessible.
The Irwin Creek Greenway begins at Ray’s Splash Planet and continues through Frazier Park and the Wesley Heights neighborhood. After crossing under Interstate 77, the trail becomes Stewart Creek Greenway and continues to the Phillip O. Berry Recreation Center.
Gwen Cook, a Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department planner, says the greenway is well-used and surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and is a safe option for families.
Both greenways are part of the Carolina Thread Trail, a regional network of greenways and trails that traverses 15 counties across the Carolinas. Learn more at mecknc.gov/parkandrec.
Charlotte Rail Trail
The Charlotte Rail Trail is a 4.5-mile pathway that runs parallel to Charlotte’s light rail, the LYNX Blue Line, from 7th Street Station in Uptown to New Bern Station in Sedgefield. It connects the neighborhoods of Sedgefield, Southside Park, Brookhill, Dilworth, Wilmore and South End. This paved trail is good for biking, inline skating and walking, and is wheelchair accessible. Parking is available on the street and at businesses along the path. Learn more at charlotterailtrail.org.
The Brevard Bike Path
The Brevard Bike Path is a 5-mile paved trail in Brevard, a mile of which follows the old Carr Lumber Company railway corridor and extends into the Pisgah National Forest up to the Davidson River Campground. Learn more at traillink.com/trail/brevard-bike-path.
The Winston-Salem Strollway
This popular 1.2-mile rail trail links Winston-Salem’s modern business district with historic Old Salem. The first section is paved and runs through several downtown blocks and crosses under Interstate 40. Just past this point, the trail surface changes to crushed stone and opens up to green spaces, abundant flora and historic residential neighborhoods. Street parking is available at the north end of the trail along Fourth Street or at the south end of the trail at Old Salem Museum & Gardens Visitor Center. Learn more at traillink.com/trail/winston-salem-strollway.
River to Sea Bikeway
This 11-mile paved, on- and off-road bicycle route that follows the Historic Beach Car Line in Wilmington was once a rail line that originally carried vacationers from downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach by trolley. The bikeway includes neighborhood residential streets, off-road multi-use paths and a few busy arterial roadways. This route is probably better for older children, as some portions are located alongside traffic. Learn more at traillink.com/trail/river-to-the-sea-bikeway.
Learn more about rail trail projects in the U.S. at railstotrails.org.
Jan Wharton is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Winston-Salem with her husband, three sons, two dogs and three cats. Never a dull moment. Visit janwharton.com to learn more about her writing.