High Trestle Trail

Types of Multi-Use Trails

Types of multi-use trails

Any trail open to more than one kind of user (eg. runners, walkers, cyclists, inline skaters, etc.) can be referred to as a multi-use trail. The distinctions in this guide, rail-trail as compared to non-rail-trail, refer to how the trail is created.


A rail-trail is a former rail line that has been converted into a multi-use trail. In 1915, at the height of railroad development in Iowa, there were more than 10,000 miles of track. Today, less than half remain active and less than 15% have become rail-trails.

Rail corridors make ideal trails because they were designed as a transportation network, resulting in subtle gradients, solid foundations and community connections. Additionally, corridors generally span one-hundred feet in width while the track itself occupies about 10-feet width, conveniently preserving natural scenery on both sides. Rail lines created the settlement patterns of Iowa, connecting populations to commerce and trade. This made the rail lines a focal point when organizing the city.

In an effort to protect rail networks, the National Trail System Act was amended in 1983 to include a process called railbanking that preserves discontinued rail corridors and allows them to be converted into multi-use trails. This system keeps portions of America’s rail network intact, enables trail organizers to purchase land at an often reduced rate, and gives rail roads the opportunity to buy back their route at fair market value should they have use of it in the future.


The popularity of rail trails has sparked demand for trails in many communities. However, a discontinued rail corridor is not always available. In that case, local leaders and trail advocates can work to establish alternative corridors in their area. It’s possible to acquire an appropriately sized property all at once, but most often these trails have to be pieced together bit by bit. Non-rail trails add an extra layer of complexity to the process and require detailed route planning. However, they are vital links in the overall system ensuring connectivity and accessibility for as many Iowans as possible.

  • Evaluate local options
  • Consider pros & cons
  • Determine trail type