With the rapid growth of outdoor sports, including mountain biking, trail running and more, comes a demand for more and better trails to host these events. That’s why a recent announcement from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC, the largest trails organization in the U.S.) about its plans for a Great American Rail-Trail, designed to connect nearly 4,000 miles of rail-trail and other multi-use trails from Washington, DC, to Washington State, was received so well.
The concept, which RTC is calling “an unprecedented commitment to creating an iconic piece of American infrastructure,” was 18 months in the making as organizers analyzed possible routes and existing trails and came up with one overall route that would link together many of them.
While the full route for the trail won’t be made public until spring 2019 (and even then, tweaks are expected), RTC has announced the 12 gateway trails that make up the Great American Rail-Trail. They are as follows:
- Capital Crescent Trail, Washington, D.C., and Maryland: This 11-mile trail—and the Great American Rail-Trail—begins in Georgetown, near the historic landmarks of the nation’s capital.
- Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Washington, D.C., and Maryland: The nearly 185-mile trail connects Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, featuring canal locks, lock houses, aqueducts and their canal structures.
- Panhandle Trail, Pennsylvania and West Virginia: The 29-mile trail heads west from the Pittsburgh suburbs into northern West Virginia, serving as a literal gateway between the states.
- Ohio to Erie Trail, Ohio: The 270-mile trail cuts diagonally across the state, connecting two major waterways, the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Lake Erie in Cleveland.
- Cardinal Greenway, Indiana: RTC’s 2018 Rail-Trail Hall of Fame inductee stretches northwest for 61-miles through rural Indiana, making it the longest rail-trail in the state.
- Hennepin Canal Parkway, Illinois: The 100-mile-plus trail parallels the early-20th-century canal and runs west from the Illinois River to the Rock River.
- Cedar Valley Nature Trail, Iowa: This 52-mile pathway, one of the first rail-trail conversions in the state, follows the Cedar River and connects Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids.
- Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, Nebraska: One of the longest rail-trails in the country, this 219-mile trail traverses rural Nebraska, connecting small towns and offering views of the High Plains.
- Casper Rail Trail, Wyoming: This 6-mile trail is an important connector in one of the largest cities in Wyoming.
- Headwaters Trail System, Montana: The nearly 12-mile trail connects to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where three rivers meet to form the Missouri River: the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin.
- Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, Idaho: This nearly 72-mile trail runs through Idaho’s panhandle, delivering breathtaking vistas through the state’s forests.
- Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, Washington: Another of the nation’s longest rail-trail conversions, this trail spans more than 200 miles across Washington and marks the terminus of the Great American Rail-Trail.
Many details remain to be decided. We know this will be a traffic-free trail, separated from mainstream roads. What we don’t know is whether it is a completely paved trail (such as with asphalt or concrete) or whether it will be gravel, crusher run or simply dirt. A paved trail, however, would create more opportunities for builders and would make for a more user-friendly trail in terms of beginners who simply wanted to ride bicycles or run a few miles.
Don’t count on it happening tomorrow. Organizers have noted it is “a bold vision — one that will take years to complete.” It would also be the single largest trail project in the history of the U.S. and will likely take years (perhaps decades) to leverage the funding necessary.
More information about the project, including a more specific route, is to be announced in the spring.
More information about the Great American Rail-Trail is expected to be available on greatamericanrailtrail.org as the project progresses.