A View From … The Great American Rail-Trail

Posted 01/23/19 by Laura Stark in America's Trails, Building Trails

Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail in Washington | Photo by TrailLink user biggerdawg
This article was originally published in the Rails to Trails magazine. It has been posted here in an edited format.

Imagine what’s possible with a trail that connects the country. 

Imagine ... pedaling across the entire country on a safe, seamless and scenic pathway—or walking a local trail that connects along historic routes. That vision will become a reality thanks to the Great American Rail-Trail, a signature project of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and the organization’s most ambitious TrailNation™ project yet.

The possibility of a coast-to-coast rail-trail 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. RTC’s late co-founder David Burwell once hoped that “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.’” Now, that dream—and the potential of the Great American Rail-Trail—is ready to be realized.

The route is more than 50 percent complete—the milestone RTC has long-identified as the threshold for committing to making this trail a reality. 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.

Great American Rail-Trail Map

Like the railroad charted a course to connect the East and the West more than a century ago, rail-trails can do the same. The potential of a cross-country rail-trail has been known for decades. The time to build the Great American Rail-Trail is now.

Learn More

Here’s a first look at some of the iconic American landscapes that will be connected by the route. These trails are the gateways to the Great American Rail-Trail.

Capital Crescent Trail located in Maryland and Washington, DC | Photo by Milo Bateman
Capital Crescent Trail in Maryland and Washington, D.C. | Photo by Milo Bateman
Washington, D.C. and Maryland

CAPITAL CRESCENT TRAIL

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.

C&O Towpath Trail in Maryland and Washington, DC | Photo by TrailLink user dpg47
C&O Towpath Trail in Maryland and D.C. | Photo by TrailLink user dpg47
Washington, D.C. and Maryland

CHESAPEAKE & OHIO CANAL NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK

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.

Panhandle Trail in West Virginia | Photo by TrailLink user jdubohio
Panhandle Trail in West Virginia | Photo by TrailLink user jdubohio
Pennsylvania and West Virginia

PANHANDLE TRAIL

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.

Ohio to Erie Trail in Ohio | Photo by TrailLink user meo
Ohio to Erie Trail in Ohio | Photo by TrailLink user meo
Ohio

OHIO TO ERIE TRAIL

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.

Cardinal Greenway in Indiana | Photo by Tony Valainis
Cardinal Greenway in Indiana | Photo by Tony Valainis
Indiana

CARDINAL GREENWAY

Beginning near the Ohio border and heading northwest, the 61-mile Cardinal Greenway 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!

Hennepin Canal Parkway in Illinois | Photo by Greg Krogman, Lunafish Photography
Hennepin Canal Parkway in Illinois | Photo by Greg Krogman, Lunafish Photography
Illinois

HENNEPIN CANAL PARKWAY

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.

Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa | Photo by Liz Zabel, courtesy GO Cedar Rapids
Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa | Photo by Liz Zabel, courtesy GO Cedar Rapids
Iowa

CEDAR VALLEY NATURE TRAIL

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.

The Cowboy Trail in Nebraska crosses the Elkhorn River just west of Norfolk. | Photo by Scott Bohaty
The Cowboy Trail in Nebraska | Photo by Scott Bohaty
Nebraska

COWBOY RECREATION AND NATURE TRAIL

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.

Casper Rail Trail in Wyoming | Photo courtesy Platte River Trails Trust
Casper Rail Trail in Wyoming | Photo courtesy Platte River Trails Trust
Wyoming

CASPER RAIL TRAIL

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.

Headwaters Trail System in Montana | Photo by Scott Stark
Headwaters Trail System in Montana | Photo by Scott Stark
Montana

HEADWATERS TRAIL SYSTEM

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.

Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Idaho | Photo by Lisa James
Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Idaho | Photo by Lisa James
Idaho

TRAIL OF THE COEUR D’ALENES

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.

Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail in Washington | Courtesy Washington State Parks
Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail | Courtesy Washington State Parks
Washington

PALOUSE TO CASCADES STATE PARK TRAIL

Spanning more than 200 miles across Washington, the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail 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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