Imagine what’s possible with a trail that connects the country …
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, its potential, its beauty and bounty, its people and places. The intimacy of taking in all the country has to offer from the most personal vantage point: the trail.
This vision and these experiences will become a reality thanks to the Great American Rail-Trail, a signature project of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and our most ambitious project yet. Since RTC Co-Founder David Burwell first dreamed of the Great American Rail-Trail more than 30 years ago, we’ve known the potential of building a trail for the nation.
Today, that vision is ready to be realized.
“One day, you could go across this entire country … on flat, wide, off-road paths. I want rail-trails to be ‘America’s Main Street."
– David Burwell, RTC Co-Founder
A Trail for America
The Great American Rail-Trail will be the single greatest trail project in the history of the United States. Separated from vehicle traffic, travelers will be able to truly enjoy, embrace and experience those amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties that make up the American landscape from Washington, D.C., to Washington State.
The possibility of a rail-trail that spans the country has been known for decades as RTC tracked rail-trails being developed east to west along the same course charted by the railroad a century ago. Now, the route is more than 50 percent complete—the milestone RTC has long identified as the threshold for committing to make this trail a reality.
The Great American Rail-Trail is a legacy. A national treasure. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create—together—an enduring gift to the nation that will bring joy for generations to come.
“There is an inherent legacy in trails. One that honors the past, enriches the present and provides a gift to the future.”
– Keith Laughlin, RTC President
Be a Part of the Movement to Complete the Great American Rail-Trail
The Great American Rail-Trail won’t be completed overnight, and it won’t be completed without the help of trail lovers across the country. This is America’s trail, and it will take all of us to make it a reality. Join RTC as we work to connect these trails and complete this vision.
Discovering America: Reconnecting People and Places
The Great American Rail-Trail promises an all-new American experience. Through the 12 states and the District of Columbia, the trail will serve more than 50 million people within 50 miles of the route. Across the nation—and the world, only the limits of imagination will limit its use.
When RTC was founded in 1986, just a handful of rail-trails dotted the landscape. Today, there are more than 23,000 miles of rail-trails crisscrossing the countryside and another 8,000 miles of rail-trails ready to be built—making the Great American Rail-Trail viable for the first time. Analyses implemented in the past few years of open rail-trails and out-of-service rail corridors show the potential to build a rail-trail that spans from Washington to Washington. Hundreds of conversations with state agencies and local trail managers confirm that this is a realistic pursuit.
The potential of a rail-trail spanning the country has been known for decades. The time to build the Great American Rail-Trail is now.
Meet the Great American Rail-Trail Gateway Trails
The Great American Rail-Trail will connect rail-trails, greenways and other multiuse paths spanning nearly 4,000 miles, connecting communities and bringing untold benefits to all who meet the trail.
In every state along the Great American Rail-Trail route, iconic trails make possible this grand vision of a nation connected by trails. These iconic trails have been built through the hardwork and ingenuity of the trails community—nonprofit partners, state agencies and volunteers who have rolled up their sleeves to protect and preserve these priceless corridors.
Here is a first look at the gateways to the Great American Rail-Trail.
Washington, D.C. and Maryland
A start in the nation’s capital offers an exciting kickoff for such an epic and patriotic undertaking. The 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail begins in Georgetown, just a couple of miles from the National Mall with such American treasures as the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Travelers roll out of the city and into Maryland largely under the cover of a pleasant tree canopy with beautiful glimpses of the Potomac River.
Washington, D.C. and Maryland
Better known as the C&O Canal Towpath, this pathway parallels the Capital Crescent Trail coming out of D.C., tucked between the Potomac River and the historical canal. Totaling 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, aqueducts and their canal structures.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia
From just outside of Pittsburgh, the Panhandle Trail heads west, slipping over the border into the northern tip of West Virginia, serving as a literal gateway between the two states. Running adjacent to creeks for much of its 29 miles, the Panhandle carries walkers and bicyclists over many small bridges as it cuts through the rolling and, by turns, rocky hillside.
While not quite stretching sea to shining sea, the Ohio to Erie Trail will connect two major waterways: the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Lake Erie in Cleveland. Cutting a diagonal across Ohio, the developing project offers more than 270 miles of trail on the ground already. The Holmes County Trail, one of many gems in the route, is a bucolic beauty known for its use by one of the largest communities of Amish in the country.
Beginning near the Ohio border and heading northwest, the 61-mile pathway is the longest rail-trail in the state and 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. The trail is also the most recent to join RTC’s Hall of Fame as of summer 2018!
Boasting more than 100 miles of trail, the Hennepin Canal Parkway parallels the early-20th-century canal along which visitors will see many of the old locks and aqueducts. From the Illinois River in the east to the Rock River (and almost the Iowa border) in the west, the pathway offers passage through the varied terrain of northwestern Illinois, including forests, grasslands, marshes and farmland.
Experience America’s Heartland up close on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail through eastern Iowa. The 52-mile pathway, one of the first rail-trail conversions in the state, follows the beautiful Cedar River through agricultural fields and scenic swaths of prairie and wildflowers, while also connecting the urban centers of Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids.
Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail offers an authentic Old West experience with friendly small towns and sweeping views of the High Plains and pristine prairie. At a whopping 219 miles, it’s already the third longest rail-trail in the country and yet has 100 more miles awaiting future development. 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.
Spanning 6 miles, the Casper Rail 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.
The trail connects to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where three rivers meet to form the Missouri River: the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin. 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 in and adjacent to the City of Three Forks, 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.
The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, managed by the state of Idaho in partnership with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, offers one breathtaking vista after another on a nearly 72-mile route across Idaho’s Panhandle. The paved pathway earns its Hall of Fame Rail-Trail reputation as 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.
Spanning more than 200 miles across Washington, this pathway is one of the longest rail-trail conversions in the United States. Its eastern end begins at the Idaho border, about an hour south of Spokane, and from there the trail traverses rugged and pristine countryside as it makes its way to the Columbia River. West of the river, 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, just 35 miles from downtown Seattle.
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