This article, posted here in an edited format, was originally published in the February/March 2020 issue of Outdoors Unlimited, a publication of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
In the heyday of trains, thousands of miles of railway crisscrossed the country, an arterial network of timber and steel nourishing rural communities and urban powerhouses alike. When rail started losing prominence with the rise of motor vehicles, many railway corridors fell into disuse. Flashforward many decades and these abandoned lines were given new life as rail-trails—multipurpose public paths for walkers, bicyclists, equestrians and others. These corridors of industry were transformed into public lands and pathways to the outdoors.
Since the late 1980s, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has envisioned a cross-country trail built upon the foundations of these magnificent railway corridors. The Great American Rail-TrailTM spans more than 3,700 miles between Washington, D.C., and Washington State, traversing some of America’s most iconic and scenic natural wonders. While still in progress, it already connects us to our shared heritage, nature and each other in unforgettable ways. More than half the route is already complete and open as the Great American knits together existing trails. For the remaining gaps, RTC is providing the national leadership and on-the-ground support to bring together the people, plans and partnerships necessary for completing the Great American Rail-Trail.
Here are just a handful of the nearly boundless outdoor adventures to be found along this emerging national pathway.
“Recreation and Nature”—it’s right there in the name, and this rail-trail offers both in spades. With more than 200 miles of rugged biking adventure, the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail takes the Great American through a large swath of northern Nebraska. The trail also holds a special place in the rail-trail movement as one of the longest such conversions in the nation. The railroad was built here in the 1870s to fuel the Black Hills Gold Rush. When the line was abandoned in 1992, RTC purchased the corridor and donated it to the state for trail development.
The eastern end of the trail begins in Norfolk, where Ta-Ha-Zouka Park provides a prime place for camping (including RVs) and fishing. From there, the trail traverses the lush Elkhorn River Valley as it heads northwest. Toward the western end of the trail, near Long Pine, an eponymous crystal-clear creek is a local favorite for trout fishing and tubing.
Approaching Valentine, travelers will experience a ‘wow’ moment: a dramatic quarter mile-long bridge rising 150 feet above the Niobrara River, a National Scenic River that can be explored by canoe, tube, kayak or raft. And throughout the route, a backdrop of native prairie, wooded riverbanks and grass-covered dunes (the largest in the western hemisphere) offers a haven for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, quail and more. Several state-owned wildlife management areas near the trail are open for public hunting and primitive camping.
A Midwestern gem, the Hennepin Canal Parkway, provides a never-dull mixture of northwestern Illinois terrain, including forest, prairie, wetlands and farm fields. Spanning more than 100 miles, the trail hosts the Great American route from the Illinois River in the east to the Rock River in the west; plus, a spur extends north to Sterling at its midpoint. This serene natural escape follows an early 20th-century canal listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and along the way, travelers will see numerous lift bridges, aqueducts, locks and other relics of a bygone era.
In addition to the trail’s own biking, hiking and equestrian options, the canal adds to the all-around adventure with canoeing, kayaking, boating and fishing. And if birding is your passion, know that bald eagles, wild turkeys, waterfowl, woodpeckers and many other types of birds are frequently seen in this rural setting.
The Hennepin Canal Parkway is administered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a state park and includes several campsites. Bow hunting of deer, as well as dove hunting, are also available in the park.
A visit to Idaho has to be on any outdoor enthusiast’s bucket list. Crossing the state’s Panhandle, the 73-mile Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes takes Great American travelers through the rolling foothills of the Palouse prairie and forested mountain valleys. Skirting the Coeur d’Alene River and journeying through Idaho’s chain-of-lakes region, adventurers might spot elk, moose, black bears, eagles and other wildlife among the trees. The trail’s proximity to the river also offers options for fishing and paddle sports.
Approaching its west end in Plummer, the trail crosses the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene on the stunning Chatcolet Bridge. In its waters, anglers will find bass, trout and even chinook salmon. Nestled against the lake, Heyburn State Park offers a wealth of recreational fun, including boating, swimming, hiking and camping. More camping options are also available in the nearby Coeur d’Alene National Forest.