Looking to bike out of your lane? Get on track with the latest trend to experience some of the country’s most scenic train routes.
You might have seen The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills riding the rails on some crazy looking contraptions during an episode this summer and wondered what the ladies were doing. The Housewives were pedaling rail bikes, a type of recumbent four-wheel vehicle specifically built to glide on railroad tracks. Unlike regular bicycles, they require neither balancing skills nor significant exertion.
The recent boom of recreational rail bikes in the United States can be traced to their appearance on another television show. Back in 2012, Mary-Joy Lu, President of Rail Explorers, was watching a favorite Korean soap opera at home when she saw a couple ride off into the sunset on a rail bike. Fascinated, she ran to tell her husband, exclaiming, “This is our new business!”
Soon afterwards, Lu and her husband, Alex Catchpoole, flew to Korea (where rail bikes are popular), and secured exclusivity with a manufacturer for the North American market, developing a customized model suited for the longer routes typical in the United States. Their company, Rail Explorers, launched in 2015 and has since expanded to four locations, including the Catskills and Las Vegas.
Rail Explorers works in partnership with heritage railways and local governments to secure concessions on their tracks, most of which see limited use. Many tourist railroad operators were quick to recognize the appeal, and several began developing rail bikes of their own.
The Skunk Train, which once hauled lumber through Northern California’s Mendocino County and has operated steam-powered passenger excursions since the 1960s, launched their rail bike trips in 2018, traveling through coastal redwood forests just a few hours north of San Francisco.
“We originally started the rail bike tours to attract a more millennial crowd, but we’ve discovered it has a much broader appeal,” explained Robert Jason Pinoli, President of Mendocino Railway. “They’re so easy to ride that 94-year-old riders are having as much fun as the 20-year-olds.”
All models of rail bikes use four wheels and can fit two or four people per bike, with no balancing required. Many of the routes are downhill, and several offer an electric assist as well. With guides at the front and the back of the line, there’s never any worry that you’ll be stranded halfway.
The bikes’ accessibility, in fact, has become one of their biggest assets. Lu says Rail Explorers has hosted sight-impaired and neurodiverse riders to great success and allowed people of all ages to participate. Lu described the experience of one elderly passenger: “She was woo-hooing the whole six miles! It’s amazing the confidence that people feel and it’s something they can do with their grandchildren.”
Being on tracks, rail bikes don’t need any steering, leaving riders free to focus on the scenery around them. Whether you’re riding in the early morning as the fog rolls over the Catskills along the Esopus River, pedaling through the lush fern-fringed redwood groves of Mendocino, or in the desert canyon of Carson City, rail bikes let you experience nature from a new perspective. “It’s a very visceral experience,” says Lu, “It’s a completely different way to explore the outdoors.”
Here is a list of select rail bikes experiences available across the country. Check the websites for the reservations and ticket information.
N E W Y O R K / N E W J E R S E Y
Rail Explorers: Catskill Division
70 Lower High Street, Phoenicia, NY
Ulster County recently scrapped 11 miles of rail into the Catskills, ending dreams of returning train service from Kingston into the mountains—but the scenic segment between Mt. Tremper and Phoenicia has been preserved by Rail Explorers, making it one of the closest places to New York City for a rail bike experience. The route follows the historic Ulster & Delaware Railroad tracks along the rushing waters of Esopus Creek and through the woods, terminating beside the Empire State Railway Museum in Phoenicia.
Revolution Rail: Cape May Run
609 Lafayette St, Cape May, NJ
Cape May Seashore Lines—still a very active freight and passenger hauler—now invites guests to pedal through four miles of coastal meadow along the southern Jersey Shore. The dual and quad rail bikes, operated by Revolution Rail, follow a flat and breezy route alongside the Garrett Family Preserve, coupling the experience with unparalleled wildlife viewing.
Essex Steam Train
1 Railroad Avenue, Essex, CT
Few New England rail lines are more storied and scenic than “The Valley,” which played a starring role in the 1959 Doris Day romcom It Happened to Jane (and a more recent Billy Joel video). Augmenting its steam engines and dinner trains, the heritage railroad now offers two rail bike journeys on its route along the Connecticut River, including an advanced uphill pedal with a crew-led pilot car. A bit easier is getting there: It’s just a two-hour drive from NYC and an even shorter boat ride from the North Fork or the Hamptons, with transient dockage available in Essex and Deep River.
Adirondack Railbike Adventures
2568 NY-28, Thendara, NY 13472
Retrace the rail trails of Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Huntingtons, who once traveled these same New York Central tracks to their wooded mountain estates. The Adirondack Railway Preservation Society runs one of the country’s better-known rail bike attractions from their Thendara, NY, station, shared by their diesel-powered passenger excursions and popular beer and wine train. A fleet of locally made rail bikes, built right in Utica, are available for wilderness journeys of up to two hours—rain or shine.
Rail Explorers: Cooperstown Division
136 E. Main Street, Milford, NY
The Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t the only home run attraction in Cooperstown. Head a few miles south to Milford and join Rail Explorers on the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad, where you can pedal along 12 miles of bucolic farms and painted countryside. The trip takes about two and a half hours to complete, crossing the Susequehanna River on a lattice truss bridge before reaching the turnaround point.
C O L O R A D O
Revolution Rail Co: Rio Grande Run
97 Ponderosa Drive, South Fork, CO
Rail bikes are bringing new life to six miles of the old Denver & Rio Grande tracks from South Fork to Creede, which lie about four hours south of Denver heading towards the old west ski town of Durango. The journey runs six miles through dramatic Rocky Mountain scenery, snaking along the rushing waters of the Rio Grande River through rugged, bouldered canyons.
C A L I F O R N I A / N E V A D A
100 West Laurel Street, Fort Bragg, CA
Built by timber interests in the 1880s, the California Western Railroad—better known by its provincial nickname (a nod to its gasoline-powered rail buses, which locals said “you could smell before you could see”)—was a North Coast lifeline for generations, linking coastal Fort Bragg with the inland city of Willits. Rail bikers can traverse two segments of the 40-mile route: A shorter journey along Pudding Creek, or a 25-mile run that snakes deep into the forest. The longer, more strenuous journey includes a picnic and refreshments at Camp Noyo.
4650 Eastgate Siding Road, Carson City, NV
Visitors to the Reno/Tahoe region now have even more reason to trek into Carson City. You can now pedal the High Sierra route of the Virginia & Truckee, the storied short line resurrected from the desert years after its abandonment and whose brassy 1870s locomotives were spared the scrap heap by Hollywood. The pedal-assisted bike journeys leave from Eastgate Station near Carson City, climbing a 2% grade through the Carson River Canyon to the site of the old Eureka Mill. Come on a weekend and you can ride the rest of the route, from Virginia City, via steam train.
Nevada Southern Railway
601 Yucca Street, Boulder City, NV
This excursion line at the southerly Nevada State Railroad Museum (the other, in Carson City, showcases those old V&T engines) doubles as the Rail Explorers: Las Vegas Division, offering three rail bike packages through the high desert. All feature hybrid passage, with the downhill journey by bike and the return, uphill leg by vintage passenger train—included in the ticket price. Best of all, Boulder City lies barely a half hour off The Strip, and conveniently along the journey to Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam.