Old railroad routes are being transformed into a seamless cross-country bike path
For the first time in history, a coast-to-coast bike trail will connect nearly 4,000 miles of the country from Washington, D.C. to Washington State.
The Great American Rail-Trail was announced last month by the non-profit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which has been working with state and local governments to transform former railroad corridors into multi-purpose public paths for the last year and a half.
Stretching “sea to shining sea,” the trail will give cyclists and hikers the opportunity to intimately experience every landscape the country has to offer, “from purple mountains majesty to amber fields of grain,” the organization says.
“Picture yourself pedaling across the entire country on a safe, seamless and scenic pathway—or walking a local trail that connects along historic routes. The experience of exploring America’s heritage … it’s beauty and bounty … from the most personal vantage point: the trail,” says a press release by the Conservancy.
More than 50% of the trail is already in place using pre-existing trails developed along the same course charted by the railroad a century ago.
“We view our role at Rails-to-Trails as a way of filling in the gaps between the existing trails, celebrating the work that people have already done on the ground to build the trails and keep them maintained and do all the hard work,” trail planner Kevin Belanger told Bicycling Magazine. “We want to elevate that work and fill in all the gaps.”
The connectors will take several more years to construct.
The organization will reveal a map of the exact route May 8.
In the meantime, here’s a list of the pre-existing trails chosen to provide the framework:
The Capital Crescent Trail (Washington DC)
The 11-mile trail begins in Georgetown, near the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Travelers roll out of the city and into Maryland under the cover of a pleasant tree canopy with beautiful glimpses of the Potomac River.
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park (Maryland)
Nearly 185 miles, the trail offers a peaceful ride to Cumberland, Maryland, with hundreds of original features to see along the way, including canal locks, lock houses, and aqueducts.
Panhandle Trail (Pensylvania and West Virginia)
From just outside of Pittsburgh to the northern tip of West Virginia, the panhandle runs adjacent to creeks for much of its 29 miles, carrying walkers and bicyclists over many small bridges as it cuts through the rolling and rocky hillside.
Ohio to Erie Trail (Ohio)
The almost-complete 270-mile trail connects the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Lake Erie in Cleveland. It includes the beautiful Holmes County Trail, used by one of the largest communities of Amish in the country.
Cardinal Greenway (Indiana)
A 61-mile traile beginning near the Ohio border and heading northwest, is an adventure not to be missed with picturesque rural landscapes, fields of wildflowers, a gorgeously restored depot, several bridges and charming small towns to visit.
Hennepin Canal Parkway (Illinois)
This 100-mile trail parallels the early-20th-century canal along with many of the old locks and aqueducts. From the Illinois River to the Rock River, the pathway offers passage through forests, grasslands, marshes and farmland.
Cedar Valley Nature Trail (Iowa)
Experience America’s Heartland up close on this 52-mile pathway along the beautiful Cedar River through agricultural fields and scenic swaths of prairie and wildflowers.
Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail (Nebraska)
This 219-mile trail offers an authentic Old West experience with friendly small towns and sweeping views of the High Plains and pristine prairie. 100 more miles are under construction. With the stunning bridge over the Niobrara River and a wildlife- rich backdrop—including roaming bison, wild turkeys, elk and prairie dogs—this is a bucket-list trail for true adventurers.
Casper Rail Trail (Wyoming)
This 6-mile trail is an important connector in one of the largest cities in Wyoming. Cutting east-west across the community, the paved pathway provides access to cultural attractions such as a science center, contemporary art museum, the county library and a park honoring war veterans.
Headwaters Trail System (Montana)
The trail connects to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where three rivers meet to form the Missouri River. This is Big Sky country, a place where the pioneering expedition of Lewis and Clark trekked during their journey across the country. Offering nearly 12 miles of trail, travelers can take in the scenery of open grasslands, distant mountains, marshlands and river valleys as they follow along portions of the old Milwaukee Road rail corridor.
Trail of the Coeur D’Alenes (Idaho)
Managed in partnership with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, this paved 72-mile trail offers one breathtaking vista after another. It crosses Lake Coeur d’Alene on the stunning Chatcolet Bridge, traverses the rolling foothills of the Palouse prairie and traces the shoreline of the Coeur d’Alene River.
Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail
This 200-mile trail begins at the Idaho border and ends in Seattle. Traversing rugged and pristine countryside, travelers will find dense forests, bridges with sweeping vistas and passage through a century-old tunnel at Snoqualmie Pass on a journey to trail’s end in the Cascade foothills.