From Dream to National Treasure: The Great American Rail-Trail

June 5, 2019, Feature, by Laura Stark and Brandi Horton

2019 June Feature Great American Rail Trail 410

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Rails to Trails magazine. It is published here in an edited format.

It was an idea that changed the world. The creation of Yellowstone National Park nearly 150 years ago established that a country’s iconic natural wonders could be preserved for all to enjoy.

Today, a new bold vision again presents itself: The Great American Rail-Trail™ aims to create a multiuse path across the country, separated from roads for its entirety — a remarkable feat at more than 3,700 miles and a lasting legacy for generations of Americans.

It’s fitting that in 2019 we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike, which marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Like that famed route, the expansive trail will chart a course to connect the country, spanning 12 states and the District of Columbia. This exceptional, uniquely American experience will directly serve approximately 50 million people within 50 miles of the route, as well as the millions of others from across the country and the world who will meet America’s diverse people and explore its diverse places — from parks and green space to historical sites and renowned landmarks — via the trail.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been working closely with local trail partners, state agencies, elected officials and other interested groups to develop the preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail, which will connect more than 125 existing trails — many of them built along former railroad corridors — between Washington, D.C., and Washington state. While the route is more than 52 percent complete today, RTC is providing the national vision, leadership and expertise to ensure connectivity across state lines and to bring the resources necessary to close approximately 1,700 miles of gaps in the trail.

Turning a Vision into a Movement

Founded in 1986, RTC has recognized the potential in America for a cross-country trail almost from its earliest beginnings.
“Since the late 1980s, RTC has been tracking the possibility of a trail that connects the country. At one point, we had a map of the United States on the wall where we literally tracked every new rail-trail project with a pin and began to see a coast-to-coast rail-trail emerge before our eyes,” says Marianne Fowler, RTC’s senior strategist for policy advocacy, and an employee of RTC for more than 30 years.

As new trails emerged across the country, RTC closely monitored the progress of trail development nationwide, advocating for federal policies that continue to provide the largest funding sources for trails, and for state and local policies that encourage and bolster the trails movement. The completion of the iconic route remained an internal drumbeat for the organization for decades.

Analyses of RTC’s GIS data in 2017 revealed several potential routes for the Great American Rail-Trail that were more than 50 percent complete, the threshold RTC had long set for measuring the trail’s viability. With that information in hand, RTC began formally assessing the route and publicly committed to the project in January 2019.

From the nation’s capital — just a stone’s throw away from the National Mall — the Great American Rail-Trail will head through Maryland, the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, continuing through the midwestern heartland of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois before reaching the Mississippi River. Across the majestic river and through central Iowa, the trail will travel westward as the pioneers once did, and through Nebraska and Wyoming, where the route will pivot northward through the Rocky Mountain states of Montana and Idaho before traversing Washington on its way to Seattle’s Puget Sound.

A Big Dream with Its Feet on the Trail

RTC’s goal is to create a national route using criteria that prioritize open trails and the user experience while bolstering state and local trail priorities. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Great American Rail-Trail route connects several trail-rich states.

For example, Washington State is known for many iconic trails, including the 200-miles-plus Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (formerly the John Wayne Pioneer Trail), a popular trail for horse riders. The group that spearheads it today, the Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition, is working on a project to bring even more people together on the trail: the restoration of the Beverly Bridge.

At its center, the Columbia River cleaves the trail in two with no safe way across, so the group’s top priority is opening up this historical railroad bridge over the river. The bridge’s rehabilitation, which will connect eastern and western Washington, will enhance the trail’s role as a tourism draw for the entire state.
But even states that did not have a large railroad infrastructure to build upon for their trail systems — like Wyoming, which has only 2 percent of the planned route completed in the state — have enthusiastically committed to the idea.

In early 2018, when momentum for the cross-country trail was just starting to build, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead appointed a task force to develop recommendations for active transportation and recreation infrastructure investments. The group’s report encouraged the state to invest $10 million annually and includes the Great American Rail-Trail as a high-priority project to be supported by state agencies.

Indiana is no stranger to dreaming big either when it comes to walking and bicycling projects. When the state created its first statewide trail plan in 2006, its goal was to have a trail within 7.5 miles of every Hoosier by 2016. Ten years later, as the state readied to revise its plan, it found that the goal was 98 percent achieved, so a new benchmark was set: to shorten the distance between trails and residents to just 5 miles. The original plan also established an interconnected web of arterial trails across Indiana.

“The Great American Rail-Trail experience will be one of diversity — in the settings, people and culture of the places it traverses — and unity, in that it is envisioned to be a safe, seamless and scenic pathway for all, for recreation, physical activity and transportation,” says Ryan Chao, president of RTC. “The coordinated effort to complete the trail is yet another element of what makes it so inspiring.”

Pathway to Opportunities

Nestled within the Great American Rail-Trail in Ohio is a developing 326-mile route crossing the state from the shores of one of the country’s Great Lakes to the Ohio River. The Ohio to Erie Trail is a must-see destination connecting Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, as well as some of the state’s unique natural and cultural treasures.

“We had new sections of the Camp Chase Trail open up on the west side of Columbus, and they are experiencing pockets of economic activity,” says Lisa Daris, executive coordinator for the Ohio to Erie Trail Fund. “In less than a quarter-mile off the trail, you can ride to a coffee shop, an art gallery and a few other businesses that have opened up in that area, and they are big supporters of the trail.”

Bicycle tourism is indeed a revenue generator for many communities along the Great American route, with trails drawing visitors to spend money at local businesses for meals, lodging and supplies. At the trail’s eastern tip, the National Park Service of the National Capital Region knows well the impact of these valuable recreational assets. Its Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, traversed by the 185-mile C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, sees some 5 million visitors annually who bring in an estimated $128 million to the economies of the surrounding canal towns.

Beyond the landmarks, landscapes and vistas, the cross-country route will also bring visitors to all types of communities — small and large, rural and urban — and the promise for entrepreneurs and economic development is powerful.

“Especially in rural towns, one thing that you’re seeing more and more of are bike camps that are free and municipally sponsored,” says Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association. “They create a comfortable camping environment, or they’ll use a city park. Typically, it’ll have showers or a municipal pool, a place to camp and cook, and a charging station. Communities can create these really inexpensive camps to entice cyclists to spend the night.”

The best part is that new trail amenities, like improved park facilities, bike racks and wayfinding signage used to attract visitors, are good for residents, too.

“The importance of our trails is that they are causing people to want to stay in our community for much longer,” says Donna Gaukler, director of parks and recreation for Missoula, Montana. “Equally important, though, is that we know how important these are to our local folks. Being part of the Great American Rail-Trail helps us all better understand the value of those linear greenways and transportation corridors where you move slowly and can really appreciate the people, the culture and the environment all at once.”

Putting the (Bike) Pedal to the Metal

So, when will the Great American Rail-Trail be finished? Half the route is already open, with many long stretches able to be enjoyed by the public now (find open trails). For the remainder — which will likely take the next several decades to complete — RTC is working collaboratively with partners to close gaps that are in alignment with the trail priorities of the various localities along the route.

A first step in that process was RTC’s work in partnership with states and trail groups to analyze and develop the trail’s preferred routing. The subsequent report was published in May and will serve as a guiding document for completing the Great American Rail-Trail. RTC will also continue to focus on securing public funding for trails, which has been one of the organization’s priorities since its founding in 1986.

“Public money is central to how you get public amenities like trails built, and there are federal, state and local roles in that,” says Kevin Mills, RTC’s vice president of policy, who points to the Transportation Alternatives Program and the Recreational Trails Program as important core trail-funding programs for trails since the early 1990s.

In addition, RTC will directly support trail projects that can catalyze the completion of the Great American Rail-Trail. RTC has identified a series of projects that will most benefit from the organization’s resources and expertise and are critical to closing gaps and securing trail funding — with the potential to hasten the timeline for completing the cross-country route.

The Great American Rail-Trail has been a dream of RTC for a long time, particularly for its late cofounder David Burwell, who envisioned this cross-country trail as a gift to the nation.

“This has been an internal drumbeat for the organization for all these years, and our eye was always on it,” says Fowler. “We knew that it was almost inevitable this trail would happen, but it was going to take time before we were ready for it and it was ready for us. Now that time has come!”

Special acknowledgements to Liz Thorstensen, Kevin Belanger, Amy Kapp and the Great American Rail-Trail Working Group.

Laura Stark is a Lead Writer and Editor for Rails to Trails magazine at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Brandi Horton is the Vice President of Communications for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (@railstotrails).


Tips for Creating Community Bicycle Camps and Hostels

By Saara Snow

Bicycle camps and hostels are becoming more common as communities, particularly in rural areas, see the economic development benefits of accommodating touring cyclists. Bike camps can take many forms but are typically community-oriented accommodations with bicycle amenities that are available exclusively for people traveling by bike. Here are a few tips to get started on developing a bike camp in your community.

  1. Build community support for the project before you start. Make sure you engage key stakeholders and partners and get their buy-in. Communicate the benefits of bike tourism, including the significant economic development opportunities and direct spending generated by bicycle travelers.
  2. Keep it simple if you have limited resources. Touring cyclists don’t need a lot — at minimum a place to sleep or set up camp, bike parking, restroom facilities and potable water. But, definitely go all out if you can! Check out Adventure Cycling’s “How to Be Bicycle Travel Friendly” tips for more ideas.
  3. Consider the location. Your bike camp will be most successful along known touring routes, like the Adventure Cycling Route Network or long-distance trails like the Great American Rail-Trail. The location should be within a mile or two of town and in a safe area. Bike camps can be implemented anywhere that makes sense for your community, including parks, community centers, churches, ranches, historical buildings, fairgrounds, etc.
  4. Show off what makes your community special. Promote the bike camp on the local tourism website and social media, and provide information at the camp to let visiting cyclists know what businesses and attractions to check out and where to find them. If the bike camp is along an Adventure Cycling route, request to list it on our maps.

For more information, go to Adventure Cycling’s website, or contact Saara Snow.

Saara Snow is the Travel Initiatives Coordinator for the Adventure Cycling Association.