An insider's guide to the region's woodsy rail trails.
The wind whistles past your ears. The leaves rustle as you cruise by a startled critter. The trees and streams fall away as you crank the gears of your bike one more mile. Away from all the usual distractions, you can unwind.
A century ago, trains crisscrossed Southern Indiana on these trails, hauling lumber, limestone, coal and travelers. But the dawn of truck and air transportation led railroad companies to consolidate or close their doors. But they left behind a legacy in those railbeds.
About 50 years ago, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy began reclaiming the tracks. Because they were built on grades that couldn’t exceed 3 percent, the paths are perfect for recreational cycling. The conservancy hauled up rails, laid down pavement or crushed gravel and brought new life to abandoned corridors.
In Southern Indiana, the rail-trail potential is just being tapped. With seven projects underway from Nashville to New Albany, according to the conservancy, towns in the 812 region are just beginning to realize the economic and cultural benefits a trail can provide. Columbus real estate agent Janet Brinkman mentions proximity to a trail is a selling point on her listings. “It definitely gives added value,” she says.
To bring you an insider’s guide to Southern Indiana biking, we cycled over 40 miles of rail-trails, cruising along forested creeks, through Victorian river towns and across 70-year-old levees. We’ll tell you where you can grab a burger on a steamboat, how to patch a tire blowout with a dollar bill and even how to glide along the corridors when snow blankets the ground. So grab your camera and air-up those bicycle tires, 812 is taking you for a spin on our top rail trails.
Our Top Trails
Trail: B-Line Trail + Bloomington Rail Trail + Clear Creek Trail
Distance: 3.1 miles + 2 miles + 2.4 miles
Difficulty: Beginner and family-friendly
Trail type: Paved asphalt and crushed gravel
Former Line: The Monon Railroad
Gear up: Salt Creek Cycles on 235 W Dodds St rents out a range of bikes from roadsters to recreational.
Former Bloomington mayor Mark Kruzan calls the B-line trail, located just west of the square, a "monumental" crown jewel in the city’s economic development projects. It connects the bustling downtown to the serene quiet of nature. The popular trail is a great place to spend an afternoon with family or friends or on your own. You can even ride early in the morning or at dusk with 166 lampposts lighting the way.
The northernmost section of the trail begins on Adams Street near Rev. Ernest D. Butler Park, an ideal place to leave your car and begin your ride. After passing the park’s baseball fields, community garden and picnic area, cross through a short wooded section to enter onto the B-Line. From there, take the trail at your leisure as the woods thin and colorful sculptures replace the trees.
Most days, the downtown section of the trail buzzes with life. Families walk by joggers and bikers. From April into November, the Bloomington Farmer’s Market sets up shop each Saturday morning at City Hall. You can browse through dozens of stalls selling seasonal fruits, vegetables, eggs and plants.
Le Petit Café, a small, green-and-white-sided French restaurant tucked just off the trail, opens its walk-up crepe window when the market is open.Continue south and you’ll come to the Wonderlab science museum, a favorite spot for children. If coffee is more your style, visit Hopscotch Café, a few blocks farther south. The coffee roasts its own beans and sells local bakery treats.
Is everyone in your party over 21? If so, swing by Cardinal Sprits to take a 30-minute tour of the distillery for $5 and sample some locally made spirits, like their Bramble Black Raspberry Vodka featured in the Bramble Mule cocktail.
As the trail crosses over Grimes Lane, the landscape takes on a prairie-like feel with grasses and wildflowers. Continue on to the Country Club Road trailhead. There you can turn around and head back or continue on toward the Bloomington Rail Trail.
Selfie Stop: Snap a photo of yourself on the arched bridge over Grimes Lane with the trail behind you.
Trail: Bloomington Rail Trail
Distance: 2 miles
Trail type: Crushed gravel
Former Line: The Monon Railroad
This extension of the B-Line is easily accessible from a parking lot located at the north end on Country Club Road (across the road from where the B-Line Trail ends), or a lot on Church Lane to the south. Where the B-Line is wide open and bustling, the Bloomington Rail Trail is quiet and narrow, running through a wooded corridor. Make sure you pack plenty of water, because you won’t find any drinking fountains along the trail. Since lampposts are also scarce, start your journey early to ensure you have enough light to get back to your car.
Head south from Country Club Road into the cool shade of the trail. Your tires crunch as you navigate the gravel path. Light filters through the sycamores and sugar maples, and chipmunks scurry across the path, startled by your presence. The relatively few passersby move to the side with a smile. You can just make out Clear Creek to your left, and several benches offer a place to sit to hydrate or have a snack.
Don’t want to head back just yet? The paved asphalt Clear Creek Trail adds an additional 2.4 miles through both wooded and open spaces. You can find the trail at the southern end of the Bloomington Rail Trail just before it ends at Church Lane.
Selfie Stop: Snag an Instagram-worthy photo with your new horse pals as you pass by the Ellington Stables.
The Milwaukee Road Trail
Distance: 10.1 miles
Trail type: Limestone cinders
Former Line: The Milwaukee Railroad
The White River winds its way through the trees on my left while mourning doves peck seeds from the limestone gravel. That gravel takes the Milwaukee Road Trail, or MRT, up a notch in difficulty from the other paths on our list, but don’t let that stop you. Quiet wooded corridors, verdant farm fields and trickling brooks earn this rail-trail the “most natural” title on our list.
The MRT sprouts from the old Milwaukee Railroad line in Bedford, and there’s ample parking at the U Street trailhead. Make sure you fill up your water bottle before you head out. You won’t find any faucets from here until the terminus at the Williams Creek dam.
Through mile three, 14 bridges span 14 separate, chuckling creeks. Near the middle of the trail, an abandoned railroad tie is green with moss. It’s a great beam that once helped transport the limestone blocks now used to mark the trail miles. But not every beam was left to rot. When you look closely at those bridges, you can see new 2x4 planks bolted along the bottom of the older railroad ties.
I’m a heavy drinker - of water that is. If you’re an H2O fiend like me, this could be a problem. My 42-oz Nalgene carried me through, but my bottle was much lighter by the time I returned to my car. Make sure you use the bathroom beforehand because only one port-o-john sits along the trail about halfway through.
Selfie Stop: Speaking of water, at mile five, you’ll cross a long bridge spanning the White River. Take a second to snap a shot as the water flows toward the Wabash.
The creeks give way to an airier corridor that’s bright and serene. Calls of robins rebound off limestone bluffs scored by industrial-age machinery. It’s a great time to stop, water up and munch on some trail mix.
Mile six is cows and flowers. The trail opens to rolling agricultural fields overgrown with purple asters.
A few feet from the path, cattle gnaw their cud behind wire fencing.
My wheels sink into looser rocks at the path’s edge. I overcorrect. My front tire slides. An embarrassing number of bovines watch a cyclist spill at their feet. They just gnaw more cud.
Take it from me - stick to the middle of the road.
The last three miles are speckled with rural homes. A covered bridge marks mile 9, and my tires rattle over the bottom boards. I’m just over a mile from the end when I hear the roar of crashing waters. The White River spills over the Williams Dam here, and the banks are outfitted with picnic tables and two pit toilets. There’s little shade here, so it’s wise to pack a pair of sunglasses.
If you brought a picnic lunch, there’s no better time than now. The sound of the water relaxes the mind and meshes perfectly with the birdcalls. As an inscription on a stone bench reads, “I had many fond memories of this old river.”
The Ice Cream Connection: Be sure to stop by Jiffy Treet on your way out. Just a seven-minute ride from the trailhead down Highway 56. Take care to watch for cars. The mom-and-pop shop is a Bedford staple.
The Dearborn Trail
Distance: 5.4 miles
Trail type: Paved asphalt
Former/Active line: The CSX Railroad
The Dearborn Trails span the three southern Indiana towns of Aurora, Lawrenceburg and Greendale. They wind through cattail marshes, across windy prairies and along the lazy Ohio River, where barges chug up and down the waterway. The shift from Victorian to industrial architecture and forest to prairie landscape makes this trail the most diverse of the rail trails on our list.
You can park at the Aurora trailhead in Lesko Park. Here, the trail follows the Ohio for the entire two-mile segment. Every 300 feet or so, a couple sits on one of the many benches, eating sandwiches or watching speedboats zip up and down the river. Take a breather to watch the floatplanes kiss the water.
Covered pavilions are great spots for a packed lunch by the water. They’re sprinkled in between the benches about every quarter-mile. The first water-station and bathroom are a half-mile in. You won’t get another for two to three miles.
Halfway through the Aurora segment, you’ll find yourself biking on roads as the trail takes an unceremonious turn through town. If you keep following the river, you’ll cross an old ironwork bridge, and the trail picks up again on the right. Think of it as an excuse to sightsee the Victorian-styled homes or grab a riverside burger at Aurora Landing. Once a former steamboat, it’s now become the town’s floating restaurant.
Bear with the trail through the next bit of industrial zone. The old train lines all ran through factories or work yards to load their freight, so every rail-trail will pass through a portion of industry.
Once you hit the dog park and towering geometric pavilion, you’re in for a treat. Here the woods take over. The trail runs alongside a functioning CSX rail line that peeks through the trees on the left. The bridges traversing Wilson and Tanner’s Creek are built of iron and boards that rumble like a locomotive when biked across.
Selfie Stop: You’ll start to notice marshes. Lots of marshes. This is a great chance to take a break, water up and scan the reeds for herons.
Farther along, the marshes dry and become rolling prairies for two miles. You’ll cross a few country roads, the second of which welcomes you to Lawrenceburg in faded gray lettering.
The next section is much the same: flat stretches, a whirring powerplant and more grassy prairies. At the end, the trail banks left to right like a motocross track.
You’ve reached the levee.
Here, you can find the second water station and bathroom along with your first taste of the town’s industrial aesthetic. The railings and pavilions are built with vibrant blue metalwork, and the height of the levee provides a sweeping view of the town. Aurora’s Victorian homes are replaced by the brick and iron architecture of Lawrenceburg.
Once you hit Riverwatch Restaurant and Bar, the trail breaks again through town and picks up on the north side. The last mile whisks you along the levee through more wooded corridors until you’re in Greendale. Both Lawrenceburg and Greendale are pleasant enough to drive through, though most establishments are closed on Sundays. Plan your trip for Friday or Saturday to see the towns in full swing.
The Ice Cream Connection: Flavors Ice Cream Deli in Aurora is soothing on the palate and easy on the wallet. A medium cone is under $3.
Down the hatch
It’s not all woods and water on the rail-trails. These paths are important to local businesses, too. “The B-line is Bloomington’s best sidewalk,” says Jeff Wuslich, co-founder of Cardinal Spirits.
Cardinal Spirits lies on the southern B-line, with custom bicycle racks that are always full, according to Wuslich. During the warmer months you’ll find a water stand for hikers and their pets, as well as a complimentary bike pump for cyclists. “When you’re a business in a residential area, you want to be a good citizen and part of the community,” Wuslich says.
Sample their spirits with a small flight or join them for a cocktail class and learn to craft their tasty concoctions at home. Architecture and landscaping were key elements in the design of their trail-side façade. So kick back and relax on a patio built to accommodate groups of all sizes. And remember, sip responsibly.
Bramble Mule Recipe
1.5 ounces Cardinal Spirits Bramble
1/2 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
Ginger beer, to taste
Lime wedge, for garnish
Substitute the Bramble for a shot of hibiscus berry grenadine or blackberry juice for a non-alcoholic version.
Veteran biker Joan Gilley of the Southern Indiana Wheelmen Association dishes the need-to-know before you suit up and ride.
A couple bucks – “There always seems to be ice cream,” Joan says.
Ride to the right
Holler “On your left!” when you’re passing
When you’re cycling with a group call out “Rider up!” when another biker is passing
Ride in single file when the trail is crowded
Watch out for angled roads that cross the trail
Avoid larger pebbles that can send a wheel skidding
Dodge potholes or divots in the turf
Be wary of muddy roads and slick bridges
No Time Like Snow Time
The snow’s too deep to cycle, but you hate to see those trails go to waste. Grab your packs, layer up and top off your water bottles: We’re going cross-country skiing.
If you’re a first timer, rail-trails are a great way to break into the XC ski world. Flat paths and quiet corridors provide ample room to hone your glide. And the startup cost is relatively cheap. For about $200, you can nab a pair of intro-level runners, though Eric Klabunde of XCSki Indiana recommends visiting a pro to size you up. “Ski sizing can be very tricky, especially for first timers,” he says.
What’re you wearing?
Do as the onions do and layer up. When Eric heads out, he prefers zippers and a cap for the easiest heat regulation. But don’t overdo it. “It’s easy to overdress and underdress all at the same time,” he says. If you fill your coat with sweat, the cold weather will chill the moisture, making you feel much colder.
Speaking of perspiration, pick the right materials. The outdoorsman’s adage “cotton kills” holds up for XC skiing. When cotton absorbs moisture, it holds onto that dampness and loses its ability to insulate. Go for the wool or synthetic apparel for maximum insulation and breathability.
The Goldilocks Zone
You need the right amount of snow pack before you jump on the trail. "Four inches is considered just enough snow for skiing," Eric says. Old snow can form “the clumps” slowing you down. With a day of steady snowfall and low nightly temperatures, you’re going to have a great time.
But before you head out, check those degrees. The ground needs to be cold enough so the powder doesn’t evaporate beneath you. Too warm and the snow begins to melt, becoming "sticky." "You might as well be walking in a big pair of shoes and dragging a weight behind you," Eric says. Thermometer readings in the teens are your ticket.
Tis the season?
Eagles, wild turkey and white-tailed deer can all be seen in the chillier months of the year. But hunters may be there, too.
"Beaware of hunting season," Eric says. Wearing white can mimic feathers or the tail of a deer. Bright, vibrant colors are your best bet. Fluorescents or hunter orange stand out against the snow.
And you’re off!
When assembling your pack, go light. "It's not convenient to pack a whole lot," Eric says. Bring about a quart of water for every couple of hours and keep a granola bar in a pocket close to your body. That way it won't freeze up, making it hard to eat.
Play it safe
Crime can happen on the trail just as it does off it. “These are urban trails and they have urban problems,” says Steve Kellams, Bloomington Police Department administrative captain.
Officer Kellams offers tips to keep you safe.
Trust Your Gut
If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, move to where you feel safe, Kellams says. Turn around and head the other way. You can put a lot of distance between you and them on a bike.
On a sparsely populated trail, fewer people are around to help if something goes wrong. Kellams says to check a map beforehand and mark a few areas with crossroads or houses.
Lock it Up
With all the attractions off trail, you’ll want to hop off your bike and look around. Always look for a bike rack Kellams says. Benches and trees aren’t designed to hold bikes and can be damaged by lock-ups. Also, invest in a high quality lock like a Kryptonite to assure a thief can’t make off with your two-wheeler.
On your radar
Thunderstorms can cover a lot of distance. Fast. With the right winds, storm clouds can move 50 mph or faster. The National Weather service doles out advice for nature’s uglier moments.
The Tall. We all know size matters where lightning is concerned. Those sycamores are just asking for a kiss of electricity. Cozy up under a pack of short, unassuming dogwoods or hawthornes to wait out the storm. If you find yourself in an open field, hunker down in a ditch and wait for the lightning to subside.
The Wet. In slow-moving storms, thunderclouds dump rain into a relatively small area. This surge of water can swell rivers and create flash floods. Steer clear of water features or dry creek beds when looking for a low spot to wait out the storm.
And the Windy. When storm gusts reach 50 or more mph, even wildlife will take shelter. Before you duck under a tree, though, peek at its branches. You’re looking for “widow-makers,” cracked or broken limbs just barely hanging on. If that hawthorne has splintered branches, it’s a deal breaker, baby.
Food for thought
As you’re riding your bike along a forested trail, your stomach growls loudly and your mouth feels parched. You realize you forgot to pack snacks and a water bottle. What do you do?
Kathy Finley, an IU nutrition expert, answers your questions on how to stay energized and hydrated on your next biking adventure.
1. What’s the ideal breakfast before a long bike ride?
“Eat complex carbs, such as oatmeal with some fruit or maybe some whole grain toast with peanut butter. Protein takes longer to break down, and it stays with you longer. For biking, you need some sugar on board, and glucose takes a while to break down, so it gives you energy.”
2. What kind of snacks should I bring along to maintain my energy?
“Nuts take a while to break down, and they have that healthy fat that helps maintain energy. The best and easiest snacks are granola bars because their complex carbs are the best help with energy.”
3. How much water should I pack?
“It’s super important to get fluids inside you before the longer rides. Men should have 13 eight-ounce cups of non-alcohol, non-energy fluids per day, and women need about nine cups. If you feel thirsty, it’s a good sign you need more water. “
Which rail-trail is best for you?
Southern Indiana boasts an abundance of rail trails, each with its own characteristic scenery, atmosphere and side trips. Take the quiz below to find the right trail for you.
Be prepared: what to do when things go wrong
Tom Mangia, general manager of Bloomington’s Revolution Bike and Bean, is a seasoned rider who knows that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, especially when you’re out alone on a wooded bike trail.
“Lots of times when things happen on the trail, it’s not about being able to fix what’s broken, it’s about being able to manage the situation in order to get you back home,” he says.
Mangia tells you what to bring along and what to do when you face some common scenarios.
1. An inner tube.
2. A flat repair kit that includes tire levers and an inflation device, such as a mini tube of compressed air. You can find these kits at most bike repair shops.
3. A dollar bill. (Read on to see why.)
What to do if:
1. You’re biking down a gravel path in Southern Indiana, noticing the striking limestone buildings in the distance. But did you also take note that the limestone gravel underneath you has sharper edges than other rocks? Pop! A rock cuts your tire, causing a flat.
What you might do: Keep going, thinking, Tires are sturdy and are probably designed to withstand a few small cuts.
What you should do: Wrap a dollar bill around the inner tube where the tire cut is. “Whenever you get a flat tire on the trail, inspect the tire first before putting a new inner tube in,” Mangia says. “If the tire has a cut, a new inner tube would just seep through the cut and you’ll have another flat in a matter of minutes.” (For a demonstration on how to do this, check out the video at the bottom of the page.)
2. As you continue riding down the gravel path, you hear metal grinding on metal, and suddenly your gears are not shifting properly.
What you might do: Pedal harder to compensate for the damaged gears.
What you should do: Shift down into lower gears until it feels right to pedal, then stay in that low gear until you get home. “This is not something you can fix on the trail, but it’s but something you can definitely manage,” Mangia says.
3. It’s 4 p.m. – just enough time for a short trail ride before the sun sets.
What you might do: Pack lightly and head out. It’s only a short ride!
What you should do: If you are going out in the evening, always put lights on the front and back of your bike or wear reflective clothing. “Things do happen and odds are, you’ll come back later than you planned. Be prepared to make yourself visible so you can get home safely. You’re out in Mother Nature and there’s sticks and critters and people out on the trail, and you want to be as proactively safe as possible.”
Making a weekend of the Milwaukee Trail
With the right attitude and a comfortable bike seat, our 812 rail-trails can turn an afternoon bike ride into a weekend of adventure and good eats. Ever tried kayaking down the White River? Does eating ribs smoked in a locomotive sound like an addition to your bucket list? Here’s your inside guide to turning a bike ride into a fun-filled weekend. Grab your bike, your favorite people, some road trip snacks and go.
Where to eat:
1. The Limestone Café. 1015 16th St., Bedford
A local favorite, it has everything you’re looking for after a long bike ride: a cozy atmosphere, friendly staff and a menu full of home-cooked food that changes every week. Check the Facebook page for that day’s meals and hours. Five-course dinners are served every Thursday.
2. Magic Morning Bakery. 2513 16th St., Bedford
From specialty doughnuts such as Reese’s Cup and coconut cream to rave-worthy apple fritters, this Bedford staple is great for a pick-me-up after a long day of biking. Indulge yourself. You’ve earned it.
3. Smokin’ Jim’s BBQ. 414 Bundy Lane, Bedford
Since you’re following an old railbed, it seems fitting to have lunch prepared in a locomotive smoker. Smokin’ Jim’s smokes their meat right outside the restaurant in a steam engine-shaped smoker that might be the secret to their tender pulled pork and brisket.
What to See:
1. Bluespring Caverns. 1459 Blue Springs Cavern Road, Bedford
A 15-minute drive or a 40-minute bike ride south will take you to this park where a network of river-filled caves await. For $12 for adults and $9 for children, you can take an hour-long boat tour. Bring a jacket: The cave is usually about 52 degrees.
2. Hoosier National Forest. 19 Fayetteville Owen Road, Bedford
Part of the sprawling 203,000-acre forest, the Hoosier National Forest is full of paths that take you through rolling hills and past cascading streams. The Fayetteville entrance is only a 15-minute drive from the trail.
3. White River Marina. 314 Main Street, Shoals
Located about half an hour from Bedford, the White River Marina not only sells and repairs fishing boats, but they also offer kayak and canoe rentals for those looking to explore the White River.
Which rail-trail is best for you?
Southern Indiana boasts an abundance of rail trails, each with its own characteristic scenery, atmosphere and side trips. Take the quiz below to find the right trail for you.
1. When you picture yourself biking down a trail, do you imagine:
a. A wide open, well-lit path that goes through a town, with dining options nearby.
b. A narrow path through natural areas with wildlife.
c. A path along a river and though a town that eventually meanders through an airy forest
d. A corridor that stretches through woods and crosses creeks.
2. When biking, would you rather be riding on:
a. A smooth, paved path with few hills.
b. A winding, gravel path.
c. A mix of gravel and pavement with hills and bridges.
d. A packed-cinder and paved path that cuts through the countryside.
3. It’s noon and your stomach starts to grumble. Your ideal lunch is:
a. A sit-down restaurant near the trail.
b. A picnic lunch on a bench in the forest.
c. Sandwiches from a local shop at a picnic area with water views.
d. Snacking on trail mix near the sounds of falling water.
4. How long would your ideal bike path be?
a. Three miles.
b. Four-an-a-half miles.
c. Just under seven miles.
d. 10 miles.
If you answered:
Mostly A’s: B-Line Trail
Mostly B’s: Bloomington Rail Trail
Mostly C’s: Dearborn County Trails
Mostly D’s: Milwaukee Road Trail
Tom Mangia gives a how-to for two of the most common bike mishaps