Great American Rail-Trail

America's First Coast-To-Coast Bike Path Is Over Halfway Finished

There are many ways to get across the country, but few that allow you to really savor it. Obviously the great American road trip is a classic, and a tradition for many families since the national highway network was constructed.

But folks are working on a new way to really get in touch with the great outdoors: a cross-country, coast-to-coast bike path.

It's hard to believe, but it's already halfway done.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy | Milo Bateman

The people behind the project, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, have a grand vision for the nearly 4,000 mile path. "Picture yourself … pedaling across the entire country on a safe, seamless and scenic pathway—or walking a local trail that connects along historic routes," their website reads. "Imagine the incomparable experience of exploring America’s heritage by trail—its potential, its beauty and bounty, its people and places."

The clever part is to use existing trails wherever possible.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy | Hung Tran

And, at the same time, they'll try to link those trails with out of use, abandoned rail lines that will obviously take some sprucing up. The result will be a dedicated route, separated from vehicle traffic, that spans 12 states and the District of Columbia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and serves 50 million people living within 50 miles of the trail.

Relying on what's already is how the trail is already halfway done.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

There are already 1,900 miles of multiuse trails along the proposed route, and the whole thing, when complete, will cross 3,700 miles. "This trail is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide—together—an enduring gift to the nation that will bring joy for generations to come," said RTC's president, Ryan Chao, in a press release.

But there's still a lot of work to be done.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy | meo

A 12-month assessment of route options showed 90 gaps between 125 existing trails that will have to be filled, which means that, along with improving those rail lines to make them cycling-friendly, the project might take another two decades to finish.

However, there's good reason for optimism anyway.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy | Liz Zabel

The will to get it done is there, especially given the realization that so much of the route is ready to go. "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," said RTC's Keith Laughlin. "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."

RTC has identified 12 "gateway" trails along the proposed route.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy | Gary Toriello

The longest stretch is the 270-mile Ohio-to-Erie trail that connects Lake Erie in Cleveland with the Ohio River in Cincinnati. There are a couple of other 200+ mile trails as well, the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail in Nebraska, and the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail in Washington, which will be the western end of the finished continental trail.

Other noteworthy routes traverse some particularly scenic and historical areas.

Facebook | Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

The 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail in Washington, DC begins near historical landmarks in Georgetown, and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park runs for 185 miles, connecting the nation's capital with Maryland via a trail featuring canal locks, aqueducts, and lock houses.

It all sounds quite promising, even if there's still a lot of work to be done.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy | Lisa James

"We know that it will take a significant investment of time, resources and energy to complete the Great American Rail-Trail—but it will be worth it," said RTC's vice president of policy, Kevin Mills.

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