Travel

Pedal These Rustic Rail-Trails to Scope Dramatic Fall Foliage

Just grab your helmet and go.

Rio Grande Trail
Rio Grande Trail
Rio Grande Trail

Sometimes, cycling can be enchanting. Pedalling on a car-free path beside a lily pad-coated pond where blue herons hunt for fish, cruising along a sun-drenched expanse that suddenly plunges into near darkness under a thick tree canopy, or navigating to a small town offering scrumptious baked goods. But no matter what path you choose, the curious truth is that these and other magical cycling experiences are fundamentally interwoven with the rise and fall of the railroad industry in the US.

A vast network of active rails criss-crossed this country in the late 1800s, when train travel was at its zenith. But as cars and planes emerged as transportation kings, thousands of miles of tracks were abandoned, ultimately strewn with garbage and choked with weeds. Thanks to the efforts of the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy alongside numerous trail advocates, more than 25,000 miles of formerly derelict tracks have now been resurrected as multi-use trails-AKA rail-trails-that have revitalized communities, reinvigorated small businesses, and become a cyclist’s paradise, while another 9,000-plus miles remain in development. Most of these routes have a gentle grade, and many offer insights into the culture and history of the region as well as opportunities for the whole family to commune with nature, whether its via bird watching, fishing, or leaf peeping.

This fall, instead of joining the crowds hitting the road to gape at Mother Nature’s magnificent colour show, hop on any of these nine designated rail-trails for a truly intimate autumnal experience. You’ll find the crisp air energizing, and cycling at a casual pace will allow you to be mindful of the cornucopia of brilliant hues enveloping you. Just don’t forget a helmet-equipped with a Go-Pro if bringing home bragging rights tops your agenda.

Flickr/JR P
Flickr/JR P
Flickr/JR P

Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail

Virginia
Length: 34 miles
Coursing from the 3,500-foot-high Whitetop Station near the North Carolina border to Abingdon, Virginia, this rail-trail crosses more than 40 wooden trestles, offering cyclists a year-round bucolic ride alongside splashing streams, dense forests, and fertile farmland. But autumn is especially dramatic, thanks to the fiery colours of the beech, ash, and oaks lining this route that follows the corridor of several former railroad companies, including the Norfolk & Western Railway. Keep an eye out for the native Virginia Creeper vine that turns scarlet in the fall. Especially popular is the 17-mile, gentle downhill ride from Whitetop Station to Damascus, a vibrant town that’s bisected by the Appalachian Trail.

Mavo Media 360/Shutterstock
Mavo Media 360/Shutterstock
Mavo Media 360/Shutterstock

Nashua River Rail Trail

Massachusetts
Length: 12 miles
Barely dipping into New Hampshire, this trail spends most of its time in Massachusetts, terminating in the town of Ayer. Following a branch of the Boston and Maine Railroad, it cuts through thick woodlands that offer a spectacular display of colours each fall. Given the wetlands and ponds along the way, it’s likely you’ll see numerous bird species, such as Canada geese or Great Blue herons. (And don’t be surprised if a wild turkey crosses your path.) At the town of Pepperell, you may want to detour and explore reminders of the Revolutionary War, including a memorial to one of their own, Prudence Wright, a “Minutewoman” and American Patriot.

Hop River Trail Alliance
Hop River Trail Alliance
Hop River Trail Alliance

Hop River State Park Trail

Connecticut
Length: 20 miles
Winding from Manchester to Willimantic through swaths of eastern Connecticut forests, this path passes by several lovely New England towns dating back to the late 1600s. (A nearby attraction requiring a short detour is the homestead of Connecticut’s hero, Nathan Hale.) Pedal through narrow rock cuts, created when the hillside was blasted to make way for the former Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad. A dense canopy of maples and oaks accompanies your ride as you cycle through several tunnels, including a particularly impressive one built in 1849. Fans of geology will enjoy Bolton Notch State Park for its interesting rock formations, including garnets on exposed outcrops.

Flickr/moarplease
Flickr/moarplease
Flickr/moarplease

East Bay Bike Path

Rhode Island
Length: 14 miles
As you ride between Providence and Bristol, take in views of Narragansett Bay as the route meanders through eight green spaces. (The path follows the railway bed that numerous companies ran, including the Providence, Warren and Bristol Railroad.) One of the most scenic stops edging the bay is Colt State Park, while a nice side trip leads to the historic circa-1895 carousel in Crescent Park, remarkable for its dozens of hand-carved figures. The historic waterfront town of Bristol-established 1680-is worth exploring, especially for architecture fans who will delight in the proliferation of Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and other period styles.

Lamoille Valley Rail Trail
Lamoille Valley Rail Trail
Lamoille Valley Rail Trail

Lamoille Valley Rail Trail

Vermont
Length: 44 miles (expanding to 94 miles in 2023)
Traversing northern Vermont along the site where trains from the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad once ran, this rail-trail will soon offer a much longer journey. It’ll be New England’s longest rail-trail when it’s completed in 2023, extending to a 94-mile path from St. Johnsbury to Swanton. For a charming downhill cruise, hit the 16-mile portion from West Danville to St. Johnsbury. You’ll roll through old railroad tunnels, shaded woodlands that alternate with agricultural fields, and impressive outcrops of bedrock. An especially scenic spot is Joe’s Pond in West Danville, rimmed by fiery-hued aboreals in the fall.

Flickr/Mark Nenadov
Flickr/Mark Nenadov
Flickr/Mark Nenadov

Presidential Rail Trail

New Hampshire
Length: 19 miles
This route mostly follows the corridor of the former Boston and Maine Railroad, coursing along the foot of the Presidential Range (so named for the peaks, such as Mount Washington, that honour US presidents). A perfect vantage point is the observation platform in the wetland-laden Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge, a birdwatcher’s Eden rife with belted kingfishers, where your journey begins. The surrounding landscape is rich in beaver ponds, bubbling rivers and streams, expansive meadows, and dark forests. The remote feeling is enhanced by possible sightings of moose and other wildlife. Rail enthusiasts should check Gorham’s early 20th century remodelled train station, now home to the Railroad Museum.

Illinois Prairie Path
Illinois Prairie Path
Illinois Prairie Path

Illinois Prairie Path

Illinois
Length: 61 miles
Named for the numerous sweeping prairie tracts that once covered the region, this rail-trail runs along the route of the old Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad-AKA the “Roarin Elgin.” Three main branches comprise the trail with the town of Wheaton, just a half-hour from Chicago, serving as its nexus. For the leafiest experience, choose the 13-mile Aurora Branch that wanders through myriad forest preserves and the almost 600-acre St. James Farm, a former equestrian estate that’s a picture perfect spot for picnicking, whether near a black walnut allee or a cattail pond. Don’t miss the many sculptures dotting the property, including a lifesize bronze rendering of a champion horse.

Flickr/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Flickr/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Flickr/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Paul Bunyan State Trail

Minnesota
Length: 115 miles
Set along the Burlington Northern’s former right-of-way, this trail passes by almost two dozen lakes enroute from Bemidji to Brainerd. Named for the mythical lumberjack who’s gigantic footprints reportedly created the state’s multitude of lakes, this route encounters a town every 10 to 20 miles-especially on the section spanning Walker to Brainerd. Weaving through a mix of conifer and hardwood forests, you’ll find curiosities aplenty, such as the huge statue of Paul’s girlfriend, Lucette, in Hackensack, and a giant carved corn-on-the cob in Backus.

Rio Grande Trail
Rio Grande Trail
Rio Grande Trail

Rio Grande Trail

Colorado
Length: 42 miles
This rail-trail offers a quintessential Western mountain experience-lined with aspen groves, dry sagebrush, evergreen woods, and ranches, and, of course, offering stellar views of soaring peaks. Coursing from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, a town famed for its hot springs, the route follows the former Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s path, providing access to several charming villages. Contemporary art aficionados will be thrilled with Carbondale, where the Rio Grande ARTway promotes the area’s creativity and cultural diversity. (Look out for a steel archway built from bicycle parts curving over the trail.) Later, soak up the calming vibes at Carbondale’s True Nature Healing Arts, complete with Peace Garden showcasing a reflexology path and a Zen garden.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Jeanine Barone is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.