Rails to Trail Conservancy cycle across America on trails

rails to trails

Back in the 1960s, outdoor enthusiasts in Washington, DC, began planning ways to convert unused rail lines into trail systems. They advocated with state and municipal planners to figure out how to turn the unsightly lines into public pathways for bikes, hikers, and runners. By 1986, these advocates had coalesced into the Rails to Trail Conservancy (RTC), a nonprofit that has ever since worked to transform abandoned rail lines into multi-use paths around the country.

They manage or are otherwise responsible for a staggering 36,000 miles of trail networks, some through stunning mountain passes, some through wide-open prairies, others that connect urban centers with bike routes or running paths. They’re still based in Washington, DC, where they can help shape policy and be on the ground floor advocating for bike and foot travel when it comes to competing for federal transportation funds. Their most ambitious network is the biggest and most exciting for the group, and, potentially, for the country.

What is a Rail-Trail?

Rail-trails are multipurpose public paths created from former railroad corridors. These paths are flat or gently sloping, making them easily accessible and a great way to enjoy the outdoors. Rail-trails are ideal for many types of activities–depending on the rules established by the local community–including walking, bicycling, wheelchair use, inline skating, cross-country skiing and horseback riding.

The RTC is currently in the midst of planning the Great American Rail-Trail (GART), a trail system they’re calling the “single greatest trail project in the history of the United States.”

The trail is slated to cover some 4,000 miles from Washington State to Washington, DC. RTC worked with state agencies and biking and hiking groups to link together 12 existing trail networks that will act as the foundation of the GART. In addition, just over 50 percent of the proposed route covers already existing trails. It’s taken decades for the RTC to visualize, plan, and begin the connection of this trail network, and the group long ago decided that once they’d hit the 50 percent threshold for trail planning and permission, the route would be viable. They hit that mark last month.

The planned interstate path. Photo: RTC

The RTC points out that 50 million people live near enough the proposed route to use the trail, even just in short portions, connecting nearby towns for trips by bike or allowing ambitious cyclists to travel across their state by bike, exploring far more of their backyard than they ever could by car.

TrailLink by RTC and Google Maps

Interactive maps on the website, TrailLink.com. TrailLink is RTC’s trail-finder website and companion TrailLink mobile apps, mapping over 36,000+ miles of multiuse trails.

The GART will run through portions of 12 states and the route is expected to be a mix of paved pathways and off-road trail sections. At several points, the proposed trail intersects several long-distance bikepacking routes, like the Great Western Divide Route, the brand new Wild West Route, the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route, and the High Plains Byway. Serious backcountry cyclists could presumably spend entire seasons connecting multiple bikepacking sections with the GART to see the country by bike.

A bike tourer with enough time on their hands could conceivably stuff a few frame bags full of gear and pedal off through the National Mall in DC then follow the Potomac before striking out into nearly the entirety of the US, from Appalachia to the rolling prairies of the Midwest, before cresting the Rockies and winding through the Cascades, finishing in the PNW’s lush pine forests. How many other trail networks offer that blend of urban and wild, historic and geologically diverse? Oh, and without sharing any roads with cars.

Of course, the ultimate completion of the GART is years away. With the RTC just reaching the 50 percent threshold of completion, there’s much work to be done. But a 4,000-mile coast-to-coast bike trail seems worth the wait.

Trail of the Coeur d’ Alenes. Photo: David Taylor

“At RTC, we’ve known the potential of a coast-to-coast rail-trail for decades,” said Keith Laughlin, RTC president. “But before we committed to bringing this vision to life, we wanted to be certain it was viable. With open trails comprising more than 50 percent of the potential route, combined with strong local and state enthusiasm, we are now confident that the Great American Rail-Trail can be completed. RTC is ready to lead the effort to connect the trail across communities, counties and state lines to create a seamless off-road biking and walking journey for the country.”

These are some of the existing trail networks that will be linked to form the GART. Stay tuned for more updates.

Capital Crescent Trail, Washington, D.C., and Maryland: An 11-mile trail from Georgetown to Maryland along the Potomac.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Washington, D.C., and Maryland: A 185-mile trail connecting Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, tracing the Chesapeake’s canal and lock system.

Panhandle Trail, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia: 29 rolling and rocky miles from the Pittsburgh suburbs into northern West Virginia.

Ohio to Erie Trail, Ohio: A 270-mile trail connecting the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Lake Erie in Cleveland, with heavy Amish usage.

Cardinal Greenway, Indiana: 61 miles of rural Indiana, for flat-land lovers.

Hennepin Canal Parkway, Illinois: 100 miles of forests and grasslands through Illinois.

Cedar Valley Nature Trail, Iowa: 52 miles following the Cedar River connecting Waterloo, Cedar Falls, and Cedar Rapids.

Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, Nebraska: Nearly 220 miles of high plains riding through a bunch of small towns.

Casper Rail Trail, Wyoming: A paved six-mile trail through some of Wyoming’s cultural attractions.

Headwaters Trail System, Montana: Pack a fly rod. The Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers all meet here.

Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, Idaho: 72 miles through some of Idaho’s most beautiful forests.

Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, Washington: 200 miles from arid eastern Washington to the lush Cascades.