Looking for adventure? Rail Explorers railbike tour opens in Kentucky. Here's what to know (2024)

Kirby AdamsLouisville Courier Journal

Not knowing what to expect, passengers onboard a new Kentucky experience known as railbikes, let out hollers of delight as the heavy steel carts began rolling down a private use railroad track in Woodford County, about an hour east of Louisville.

Those delighted riders onboard the unique bright red contraptions included this reporter and Courier Journal photographer Sam Upshaw.

"I had no idea it would be this exciting," I called out to Mary Joy Lu, the woman seated to my left on the four-person railbike. Lu is the CEO of Rail Explorers, which operates similar tours in places such as Boone, Iowa, The Catskills and Cooperstown, New York, Las Vegas, and Rhode Island.

With the clickity-clack of the railbike's steel wheels accelerating down the seldom-used railroad track, we zipped through woods, passed limestone cliffs, and alongside lush green farmland with thoroughbreds grazing in pastures.

Although pedaling the railbike feels nearly effortless I could sense we were picking up speed as my hair whipped in the breeze.

"How fast are we going?" I asked as I glanced at the seatbelt fastened around my waist.

Lu explained our railbike was moving downhill for the first half of the 10-mile round trip and would soon hit a speed of 18 miles per hour. She also mentioned we were perfectly safe, as long as I didn't slam on the brake.

Heeding her words of caution, I did not slam on the brake, not even once. Instead, I gently feathered the handheld brake 30 minutes later when I was told it was time to come to a stop.

But I didn't want to stop. I'll just say that scooting down a railroad track in an open-air vehicle at 15-18 miles per hour is a truly breathtaking experience. And one you should try.

Curious about my recent Rail Explorer adventure? Here's what to know about how it got started, Lu's inspiration for the company, and why it's a "fabulous" thing for Kentucky tourism.

Kentucky is the first southern state to get a Rail Explorer experience

The beauty of Woodford County drew Lu to open a Rail Explorer fleet in the Bluegrass State. All rides begin and end at the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad and Museum in Versailles. The stretch of track used by Rail Explorer is coordinated with the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad, which is the only other vehicle using the track.

After a five-mile ride west from the Bluegrass Scenic Railboard Museum, riders disembark and spend about 30 minutes enjoying the Kentucky River view from about 100 feet up while guides use hydraulic lifts to turn around the railbikes. The turnaround point also offers a view of the Wild Turkey Distillery as well as Young's High Bridge built in 1889.

While Sam Upshaw and I mingled with other riders and took a few photos, we noticed Versailles resident and the former Kentucky State Attorney General and U.S. Congressman Ben Chandler taking in the spectacular view.

"This is one of the best things as far as recreation is concerned to happen to Kentucky in my lifetime," Chandler told us. "I just think it's absolutely fabulous and I am so happy it's in Woodford County. We are very lucky to have it, it aligns so well with bourbon tours and the horse industry. I think it's going to be a smashing success."

How a TV soap opera inspired the creation of Rail Explorer

Pedal-powered rail vehicles date back to at least the 1850s when maintenance workers used hand cars to travel along the tracks. They were used to transport crew and materials for track inspection and repairs and weren't nearly as sophisticated as the "Rolls Royce" of railbikes used by Rail Explorers.

Lu designed her first railbike adventure after noticing two actors riding a railbike in a Korean soap opera.

"I have to admit I am kind of addicted to K-Dramas," she laughed. "I was so intrigued by the railbike that I flew to South Korea to meet with the designer of the contraption I saw in the show. They were offering rides in a South Korean mining town and the tourism which resulted from the railbikes brought the town back to life."

Lu and her husband Alex Catchpoole were living in Brooklyn at the time and opened their first fleet of Rail Explorer trips in the Adirondacks in 2015. It was the first time railbikes for recreation had been operated outside of South Korea.

How does the railbike work?

These specific mechanical railbikes are custom designed by Catchpoole. They have four steel wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, pedals for each comfortable seat and Catchpoole's REX Propulsion System- a custom-built electric assist motor that makes the experience effortless, even when climbing steep inclines.

"We designed this to be very accessible to anyone," said Lu. "Couples young and old, groups of friends, and families of all ages and abilities can enjoy this unique experience.Our technology leads the world in safety and ease of operation so our riders can include those who are visually or hearing impaired or differently abled. We want everyone to have the opportunity of this unique experience."

The ease of operation is legit. For most of the trip, I forgot I was pedaling until Lu would lean over and whisper, "If you don't want to go this fast, stop pedaling so hard."

Guests on our two-hour trip included a family of four with two young kids. We noticed the kids pedaled when they "felt like it" and lounged in their seats looking at the scenery for a good portion of the ride.

No one was stressed or worn out or cranky at the end of the adventure, which we count as a win.

Although the railbike requires at least one person to pedal in order to move forward, the magic of steel wheels on steel rails makes the experience very different from riding a regular bicycle. There is no need to carefully watch the road ahead or steer and riding is hands-free.

What to know about Rail Explorers in Kentucky

The headquarters for Bluegrass Rail Explorers is located at the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad and Museum, 175 Beasley Road in Versailles. We parked and walked around to the back of the museum and found the Rail Explorers headquarters in a sparkly silver Airstream RV near the tracks.

You sign up for a trip — either a Tandem, with two seats, a Quad with four seats, or any combination of the two. Each trip includes a guide, who rides along in the first railbike at the front of the fleet and takes care of turning the bikes at the turnaround point for the ride back to the Bluegrass Scenic Railroad and Museum. This means you have plenty of time to enjoy the incredible view in an otherwise hard to get to scenic overlook.

The five-mile return trip is a bit slower since you are going uphill and that's the time for photos and video.

How much does it cost to book a Rail Explorer?

Tickets for a two-person Tandem Rail Explorer are $90 ($45 per person) and a Quad Rail Explorer is $160 ($40 per person.)

If you are a parent thinking you'll save money by holding your child on your lap, sorry that is not allowed. Everyone must have their own seat with the expectation of infants, who must be strapped to a carrier attached to the adult's chest.

Pets are welcome and ride for free. The rule is one pet per bike and is limited to 40 pounds or less.

Limited seats are available and reservations are highly recommended. Visit RailExplorers.net or call 877-833-8588.

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Reach features reporter Kirby Adams at kadams@courier-journal.com.

Looking for adventure? Rail Explorers railbike tour opens in Kentucky. Here's what to know (2024)

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