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Great American Rail-Trail: Coast-to-Coast Bike Route Takes Shape

Panhandle Trail bike path sunsetThe Panhandle Trail in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: daveynin
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Top image: Panhandle Trail in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: daveynin

Twelve states, 4,000 miles, and zero cars: The Great American Rail-Trail took a big step toward becoming a reality this month.

Get on your bike by the Space Needle and get off at the White House. Every cyclist’s grand dream of a safe, accessible, transcontinental bike trail started to materialize last week when the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) offered a first glimpse at the most feasible route.

Best of all, RTC said more than 50 percent of the 4,000-mile route already comprises open, off-road trails. In its announcement on Jan. 23, the nonprofit trail advocacy group outlined a dozen existing trails that will serve as the backbone of the Great American Rail-Trail.

“We are now confident that the Great American Rail-Trail can be completed,” said RTC president Keith Laughlin.

Great American Rail-Trail

Washington's Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail bike path passes over a bridge
Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail in Washington. Photo courtesy Washington State Parks

RTC’s unveiling stirs excitement among all hikers, bikers, and joggers. But the organization acknowledged a fully connected route will take “years” to complete. We reached out to RTC, and a spokesperson told us they believe the full route will be complete “within the next few decades.” But RTC added that more segments will come online every year.

Still, RTC spent the last 18 months poring over its database of more than 34,000 miles of open trails nationwide. The result is the current Washington-to-Washington proposal.

The organization said it also worked with hundreds of state agencies and trail partners to identify the dozen existing trail networks that will create the basis of the Great American Rail-Trail. And, it noted, those trails make up the bulk of the coast-to-coast, off-road trail.

As for the remaining “gaps,” RTC said it will reveal the full route this spring.

Great American Rail-Trail Map, Route

Great American Rail-Trail map
The Great American Rail-Trail passes through 12 Gateway Trails already in existence. Image courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Here are the 12 mixed-use trails that will connect America.

Capital Crescent Trail (Washington, D.C., Maryland): This 11-mile trail begins in Georgetown, near the historic landmarks of the nation’s capital.

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (Washington, D.C., Maryland): The nearly 185-mile trail connects Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Md., featuring canal locks, lock houses, aqueducts, and their canal structures.

Panhandle Trail (Pennsylvania, West Virginia): The 29-mile trail heads west from the Pittsburgh suburbs into northern West Virginia. It serves 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. It’s the longest rail-trail in the state.

Hennepin Canal Parkway (Illinois): The 100-plus-mile 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 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. It connects small towns and offers 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. There, 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): This trail is another of the nation’s longest rail-trail conversions. It spans more than 200 miles across Washington and marks the terminus of the Great American Rail-Trail.

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