THE GREAT AMERICAN RAIL-TRAIL VISION
Imagine pedaling across the entire country on a safe, seamless and scenic pathway—or walking a local trail that connects you to historic routes from coast to coast. You’re enthralled in the experience of exploring America’s heritage—its potential, its beauty and bounty, its people and places. Consider the intimacy of taking in all the country has to offer from the most personal vantage point: the trail.
Spanning more than 3,700 miles, the Great American Rail-Trail promises an all-new American experience. The trail travels through 12 states and the District of Columbia, connecting trail users and communities from Washington to Washington, and possibly someday from the Atlantic to the Pacific. As the first cross-country trail of its kind, the “Great American” will be hosted primarily by rail-trails—public paths created from former railroad corridors—as well as other multiuse trails, offering a route across the nation that is completely separated from vehicle traffic. Upon its completion, the Great American will serve more than 50 million people within 50 miles of its route, as well as the millions from across the country and the world who will explore America’s diverse places via the trail.
The potential for a trail of this magnitude has been on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) radar since the early days of RTC, some three decades ago, when co-founder David Burwell first dreamed of a trail for the nation. It would not be long before this dream would transform into vision, as RTC began to track rail-trail development in the 1980s, and the skeleton for a cross-country trail began to take shape. While the team at RTC “always knew” the potential for this trail, it also knew the significant undertaking and commitment required to get it done, thus setting two criteria for determining the trail’s potential: a viable route that was more than 50% complete, and a pathway across the west.
Washington, D.C.—as the nation’s capital and the home to RTC’s national headquarters—had always been earmarked as the eastern terminus for a cross-country trail. In 2016, RTC staff traveled to Wyoming and Montana to explore route solutions in the west, as traversing the rugged mountains presented the same challenges to trail development as to the railroads that came before. In 2017, preliminary GIS analyses revealed multiple potential cross-country route options between Washington, D.C., and Washington State that were more than 50% complete. It was then that RTC knew the Great American Rail-Trail had the potential to become reality. Since then, the team at RTC has met with hundreds of trail partners along the preferred route for the trail as well as state agencies to align this vision with state and local trail priorities.
The Great American Rail-Trail marks RTC’s most ambitious trail project to date and the single greatest trail project in the history of the country; its future is possible thanks to the hard work of the local trails community and countless volunteers, as well as the support and enthusiasm of each of the states it crosses.
THE “GREAT AMERICAN” IMPACT
Now—and at an even grander scale when complete—the Great American Rail-Trail will magnify the economic, social and community benefits that trails have delivered to people and places for decades. For example, a study conducted by RTC in 2014 found that Pennsylvania’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail—a trail along the route of the Great American—generates an estimated $8.3 million annually as a result of outdoor tourism and local business patronage. As a large-scale, cross-country trail network, the Great American has the potential to generate billions of dollars a year for communities along its route by increasing trail connectivity between places, catalyzing new investment in trailside businesses and commercial opportunities, and enhancing tourism as well as outdoor recreation, which, according to a report by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country.
As new trails and connecting corridors are developed, communities along the Great American route will also gain safer walking and biking access to the places they want to go—like jobs, public transportation and shopping centers. All who enjoy the Great American will have better access to the outdoors as the trail intersects with green space within communities and connects to public lands along the route.
THE PREFERRED ROUTE OF THE “GREAT AMERICAN”
With RTC’s commitment to complete the Great American Rail-Trail, efforts have focused on working with trail partners and states to confirm a route across the country that would provide the highest-quality experience for all types of trail users—from bicyclists to hikers and everyone in between.
To this end, RTC embarked on a 12-month assessment of route options using its GIS database of more than 34,000 miles of existing, multiuse trails nationwide, and analyzing more than 300 state and local trail plans to identify planned future trails. RTC also met and worked with more than 200 local trail partners and more than 50 state agencies representing the trails along the route, shaping criteria to ensure safe, non-motorized travel on a route that is entirely walkable and bikeable. These trail criteria specify that the Great American Rail-Trail be one contiguous route that is preliminarily more than 80%, and ultimately entirely, off-road and separated from vehicle traffic; comprise existing trails to the extent possible; be reasonably direct from Washington to Washington; be amenable to the state and local jurisdictions through which it will cross; and serve as a catalyst for local economic development, including providing services for long-distance travelers.
Through the assessment, RTC and its partners have defined the preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail as more than 3,700 miles—with approximately 2,009 miles of existing trails (trails along the route that are built and maintained by dedicated teams of local staff and volunteers) and 1,752 miles of identified trail gaps (sections of trail that still need to be developed).
While there are more than 1,700 miles of trails to complete along the route of the Great American Rail-Trail, each trail gap has one or more future trail options identified as possible trail connections. Many of these gaps and proposed future trails are already identified in public plans that have been adopted at the state and local levels. Insight from local trail partners and states has helped to identify the preferred alignment that best corresponds with their priorities, with the intention of maximizing existing trail momentum as the Great American Rail-Trail is connected across the country.
WASHINGTON, D.C., AND MARYLAND
The trail route through Washington, D.C., and Maryland is the only section of the Great American Rail-Trail that is currently 100% complete. The route begins at the steps of the U.S. Capitol and picks up at the Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown, which flows into the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park. With the C&O stretching from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, the route then meets up with the Great Allegheny Passage (gaptrail.org).
The route through Pennsylvania connects several existing trails and includes a gap of fewer than 10 miles between Pittsburgh and Coraopolis. By connecting the trail through Pittsburgh, the Great American Rail-Trail also connects to the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition (IHTC), a 1,500-mile network of trails that is part of RTC’s TrailNationTM portfolio. The IHTC network will stretch across 51 counties in four states—Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York—from the shores of Lake Erie to the confluence of the three rivers in Pittsburgh and on to the Ohio River and Appalachian foothills.
Traveling through the Northern Panhandle and along the Ohio River, the Great American Rail-Trail’s path through West Virginia contains the least number of miles of any state across the route. As such, West Virginia has the smallest portion of trail to develop, with a 4.1-mile trail gap located at the end of the Panhandle Trail in Weirton to the Market Street Bridge, and crossing the Ohio River into Steubenville, Ohio. Like Pennsylvania, the route through West Virginia is also along the Cleveland to Pittsburgh corridor of the proposed 1,500-mile IHTC trail network.
Several iconic trails make up the route across Ohio, which is already more than two-thirds complete. The Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail connects New Philadelphia to Cleveland, providing a rich history and unique experience along the way. Instead of following the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail all the way north to Cleveland, however, the Great American Rail-Trail will branch off at Clinton and head southwest on the Ohio to Erie Trail, which travels to Cincinnati through Columbus.
RTC met with Indiana state officials early in the Great American Rail-Trail process, recognizing that the route through Indiana would have a significant impact on the potential routes through its neighboring states. After analysis, two routes were presented: a shorter one across the north of the state and a longer diagonal one from Richmond, Indiana, toward the Chicago metropolitan area. State officials were excited about the potential of the Great American and asked RTC to consider including as many miles as possible in Indiana by using the longer diagonal route. To complete the preferred route through Indiana, just over 98 miles of trail gaps will need to be addressed. With the state’s commitment to its Next Level Connections program—a $1 billion investment in infrastructure projects, including at least $95 million for trails—there is great optimism for the necessary development to be completed.
The route through Illinois incorporates the majority of the northern leg of the Great Illinois Trail between Lansing, Illinois, and the Quad Cities. The iconic Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail and Hennepin Canal Parkway make up almost 75% of the existing miles that the Great American Rail-Trail will use to cross the state. Strategic investments will be required to develop just over 28 miles of trail gaps and fully connect the Great American across Illinois.
The Great American Rail-Trail travels through Iowa from Davenport to Council Bluffs at the western end of the state. Iowa has a rich network of trails, and on-the-ground trail partners are critical to its thriving trail culture and the development of the Great American in the state. While there are currently more than 217 miles of trail gaps to develop, support for the Great American was mentioned in the 2018 Iowa Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, showing statewide support for the completion of the route through Iowa.
The Great American Rail-Trail crosses into Nebraska on the iconic Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge before weaving through the urban areas of Omaha and Lincoln. The Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail (the “Cowboy Trail”) takes trail users almost 40% of the way across Nebraska, with more miles set for construction in the near future. With over 283 miles of trail gaps to develop along the preferred route through Nebraska, completing the Cowboy Trail will go a long way toward making the Great American a reality.
Wyoming has the potential to be an incredible section of the Great American Rail-Trail, with its unique landscapes and outdoor recreation assets. However, because of Wyoming’s topography, any route through the state will require sizable grade increases at several locations, and currently, there are not significant miles of multiuse trail available to route a trail across the state. As a result, Wyoming has more trail gaps to develop—at just over 495 miles—than any other state along the Great American route. RTC reviewed mapping data, as well as various plans in Wyoming, identifying potential routes through Yellowstone National Park that could present opportunities for the Great American. In addition, the Wyoming Bicycle and Pedestrian System Task Force Report suggests that the Wyoming Legislature consider providing funding for the Great American as part of a recommended initiative to enhance the safety and function of long-distance bicycle tourism routes.
The Great American Rail-Trail route through Montana will connect many of the state’s communities known for outdoor recreation assets—including Livingston, Bozeman, Three Forks, Butte and Missoula—which are all along the preferred Great American route. There are currently 321 miles of trail gaps to be developed in Montana, including an off-road 50-miles-plus multiuse trail option connecting Gardiner to Livingston in Park County.
The Great American Rail-Trail travels through the northern Panhandle of Idaho, primarily along developed rail-trails. Idaho has just one trail gap to complete, a connection from the city of Plummer to the Idaho–Washington state line. The state of Idaho and local officials will need to continue to work with landowners through the Lovell Valley to find an opportunity to complete the 10.5-mile connection between the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail.
The Washington section of the Great American Rail-Trail begins with the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail (formerly known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail), which travels more than 220 miles, from the Idaho–Washington state line to the community of Cedar Falls. The largest gap in the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail is 37.8 miles between the city of Warden and the unincorporated community of Smyrna, ultimately traveling to the city of Othello. Creative solutions that include the rail line and highway rights-of-way between Warden and Othello should be considered to help fully close this large gap in the trail. The Great American Rail-Trail will continue west through King County and Seattle, crossing Puget Sound via ferry to Bainbridge Island. The burgeoning Sound to Olympics Trail and Olympic Discovery Trail will complete a trip to the Pacific Ocean at the town of La Push on the Quileute Reservation.
THE “GREAT AMERICAN” EXPERIENCE
The preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail will highlight the diverse communities, breathtaking landscapes, and rich cultural and historical treasures that—together—make America special. A few highlights include:
- National Mall and Rock Creek Park – In Washington, D.C., the trail will begin a stone’s throw from the National Mall, which boasts iconic landmarks such as the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The trail then heads north along the Rock Creek Park Trails, located in the oldest and largest urban park in the national park system.
- C&O Canal Towpath at Fletcher’s Cove Boathouse – Along the Great American Rail-Trail route in Maryland, trail users can take in the sites and relics of the historical C&O Canal, which operated for more than 100 years, and once transported ships carrying various goods down the waterway to market. Today, visitors can experience the rich history of the canal through many original features, including locks, lockhouses and aqueducts.
- Holmes County Amish Country – A portion of the Great American Rail-Trail picks up on the Ohio to Erie Trail in Fredericksburg, Ohio, and follows it for 145 miles across the state. Along this route, trail users will encounter the Holmes County Trail (a part of the Ohio to Erie Trail), which is located in the heart of Amish Country and was the first recreational trail in the country designed to accommodate Amish buggies.
- High Trestle Trail Bridge – In Iowa, the Great American Rail- Trail will utilize 12.3 miles in the middle of the High Trestle Trail, famous for its 130-foot-tall High Trestle Bridge, which boasts an art installation along—and above—the trail, wrapped in 43 twisting, diamond-shaped steel ribs, some lined with LED lights.
- Fort Robinson State Park – Great American Rail-Trail users will experience the White River Trail in Nebraska, which runs along a former Chicago and North Western Transportation Company corridor for 2.8 miles, ending at Fort Robinson State Park. Fort Robinson encompasses the fort and military camp that was home to the Red Cloud Agency in the 1870s. The agency served as an issuing point for supplies to the Oglala Lakota tribe of the Great Sioux Nation, as well as the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, authorized in exchange for land ceded to the United States in 1868. It is also the site of Crazy Horse’s surrender and death in 1877, and visitors can find a historical plaque that marks the location.
- Coeur d’Alene Tribal History – Inducted by RTC into the Rail- Trail Hall of Fame in 2010, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes covers 71.3 miles of paved rail-trail along the Great American Rail-Trail, through Idaho’s scenic mountains and valleys. The area has a rich mining, railroad and Native American history, as the Coeur d’Alene Tribe was instrumental in the development of the trail. The trail originates in Mullan and terminates in the west in the city of Plummer in a public park with interpretive signage on the tribal history of the Schitsu’umsh people.
THE PATH TO THE GREAT AMERICAN RAIL-TRAIL
The Great American Rail-Trail marks an unprecedented commitment by RTC and its public and private partners to create an iconic piece of American infrastructure that will connect more than 3,700 miles of rail-trail and other multiuse trails from Washington, D.C., to Washington State. This ambitious project will provide ample benefits to the communities, people and places it touches, while creating new connections to the American landscape for all who use the trail. While the work to complete the Great American Rail-Trail is significant, RTC and its partners along the route have created a blueprint for the trail’s development; the route assessment provides important guidance to local planners, trail managers, state agencies and national partners that is based in the reality of existing plans and priorities. And while the ultimate completion of the Great American Rail-Trail is likely decades away, the 53% complete today is ready for the world to enjoy, and the momentum behind it will bring new segments onboard year after year.
ABOUT RAILS-TO-TRAILS CONSERVANCY
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is the nation’s largest trails organization—with a grassroots community more than 1 million strong—dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines. Founded in 1986, the organization currently serves as the national voice for the trails movement, advocating for the country’s 40,000+ miles of rail-trails and multiuse trails, and 8,000+ miles of potential rail-trails ready to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. Connect with RTC at railstotrails.org and @railstotrails on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Follow the Great American Rail-Trail at @greatamericanrailtrail on Facebook and Instagram.
This report, Great American Rail-Trail Route Assessment, was originally published by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) in May 2019. This updated version was published in May 2021.
• Kevin Belanger, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
• Leah Gerber, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Suggested citation: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Great American Rail-Trail Route Assessment. Washington, DC: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2021.
Other RTC staff and consultants provided expertise and skills necessary to the production of this report: Amy Ahn, Ken Bryan, Sharon Congdon, Andrea Holliday, Brandi Horton, Annie Hunt, Amy Kapp, Joe LaCroix, Kevin Mills, Yvonne Mwangi, Eric Oberg, Kelly Pack, Aishwarya Shrestha, Laura Stark, Derek Strout, Liz Thorstensen and Marianne Wesley Fowler.