People bike and run on the Arizona Avenue Trestle bridge, now part of the Capital Crescent trail. (Photo by Milo Bateman for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)

What happens to unused railroad tracks? Many become key links in a growing nationwide network of recreational trails for people of all ages and abilities.

Whether on foot, bicycle, inline skates or using other nonmotorized modes of transportation, people enjoy these car-free trails to explore cities, savor rural landscapes, connect with historical sites or catch glimpses of wildlife, all while exercising.

You might wonder what happened to the trains. Between 1900 and 1950, passenger trains were the primary links between communities throughout the United States. As the government built highways and airline routes increased, train service declined.

Fifty years ago, Virginia’s Washington and Old Dominion Railroad saw its last train. The local power company bought the land, but Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority was able to purchase pieces of it in the 1970s and ’80s. Today, the “W&OD” — extending from Shirlington to Purcellville — is a popular 45-mile paved example of a rails-to-trails transformation. Instead of conductors shouting “All aboard!” you hear cyclists calling out, “On your left!” as they pass other trail users.

In the Washington area, 40 organizations have joined the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), forming the Capital Trails Coalition. This group’s goal is to create hundreds of miles of connected trails in the area, encouraging active, healthy living.

Cardin Babcock, 9, of Alexandria bicycles along the W&OD in Arlington.

“It’s flat and doesn’t have a lot of hills. It’s easy for kids of any age,” she said.

Cardin said she loves seeing turtles, ducks and birds along her way. Historical signs highlight the trail’s railroad history.

Amy Kapp of RTC said, “The W&OD is an amazing trail for families, particularly along parts of the trail through Herndon and Vienna, where there are playgrounds, restaurants and pit stops for water [and] parks.”

Lake Artemesia provides a place to fish for RJ Winston, center, and cousins Darrius Morris, front, and Mike Garret. (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal)

The seven-mile Capital Crescent Trail, formerly part of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, is a scenic paved path from Georgetown’s waterfront to Bethesda.

At Lake Artemesia near College Park, the paved 1.4-mile trail circling the lake led RJ Winston, 8, and his dad to places where he and his cousins could fish for trout.

“Be sure to bring lots of food, water and bait!” RJ advised.

Nearby trails connect to College Park’s aviation museum.

Layla Stark, 8, of Alexandria takes time out from bicycling to enjoy one of her favorite scenes along the Holmes Run Trail. (Photo by Ann Cameron Siegal)

Layla Stark, 8, whose mom works for RTC, loves bicycling with her family along the five-mile Holmes Run Trail next to Alexandria’s Ben Brenman Park. Turn left and they pass several playgrounds and her favorite doughnut shop within a mile. Turn right and they can ride to Cameron Run Regional Park, which has a mini-golf course and a water park.

“There’s so much nature,” Layla said. “In the winter, when the creek was frozen and covered with snow, we identified fox and rabbit footprints.”

These trails can be accessed from several points, so you can choose how far you want to go. Some require road crossings — usually well-marked — such as in downtown Vienna. Some trails, such as the Mount Vernon Trail between Alexandria and George Washington’s estate, can be crowded on weekends. Know your capabilities when choosing a trail.

Whether close to home or on your summer travels, there is a trail beckoning to be explored.

Stay safe on the trails

If you go

Choose your trail by name or location using RTC’s trail finder at Find locations, trail maps, restroom and parking information, read reviews, and learn about special features of each trail. Registration is free. There is also an iPhone or Android app to take with you