Skip to content
Using Trails

Trail Moments | Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream on the Great American Rail-Trail

By: David Berrigan
November 3, 2022

Arriving home at the end of the Great American Rail-Trail journey | Photo courtesy David Berrigan
Arriving home at the end of the Great American Rail-Trail journey | Photo courtesy David Berrigan

In 1976, when I was 13 years old, my cousin David visited us in California and recounted his recent bike trip from New Jersey to Wyoming. Such a trip has been in the back of my mind ever since. Although I am not an avid cyclist, I have been an intermittent commuter, weekend rider and occasional multiday bike tourer. The stars aligned a few years ago when family, work and life combined with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s announcement of their Great American Rail-Trail® project—an effort to connect trails across the country between Washington, D.C., and Washington State—to push me toward a serious commitment to a long-distance bike trip. Plans for the summers of 2020 and 2021 were stymied by the pandemic and a large work commitment, but in the summer of 2022, I turned 59 and felt it was now or never.

Camping outside of the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, Montana | Photo by David Berrigan
Camping outside of the Stoneville Saloon in Alzada, Montana | Photo by David Berrigan

I set out to have a leisurely trip, stopping every four or five days for a couple-night hotel stay and a full rest day between. I brought my laptop so I could work on my rest days, staying a little caught up and reducing the burden on my office. I camped most of the remaining nights or stayed with friends and family a few times. I packed a large tent, folding chair, sleeping bag and pad, camping stove, pot, food, spare tires, bike lights, a phone, a couple books and some basic bike repair tools.

Related: What’s It Like to Ride the Great American Rail-Trail? Just Ask These Trail Trekkers.

Riding With Friends

Beginning the Great American Rail-Trail ride with friends Gene and Andy from Seattle to Idaho | Photo by David Berrigan
Beginning the Great American Rail-Trail ride with friends Gene and Andy from Seattle to Idaho | Photo by David Berrigan

A highlight of the trip was joining friends along the way. Andy Dannenberg and Gene Duvernoy rode with me from Seattle to Idaho. It was fantastic to kick off the trip with two lifelong cyclists who were incredibly knowledgeable about the Northwest and delighted in experiencing an amazing set of trails. I especially enjoyed riding on Washington’s East Lake Sammamish Trail and hearing Gene’s stories about its origins and the decades-long legal battle to establish it.

In Iowa, Greg Welk showered me with hospitality as we pedaled some lovely stretches of country on the Raccoon River Valley Trail. Participants in RAGBRAI, an annual bicycle ride across the state, were out in force, and we were inspired to try to organize a group to join the 50th anniversary of RAGBRAI in 2023.

Indiana Dunes National Park | Photo by David Berrigan
Indiana Dunes National Park | Photo by David Berrigan

My nephew joined me for an urban safari from Chicago to Gary, Indiana, including a visit to Indiana Dunes National Park on the shores of Lake Michigan and the park’s Century of Progress District, which features homes built for the 1933 World’s Fair.

I joined up with my good friend and physical activity researcher, Chuck Matthews, in Pittsburgh for the homestretch of the Great Allegheny Passage ( and C&O Trail Canal Towpath, which were absolute jewels to ride. Chuck elevated my routine by bringing fresh ground coffee and a filter system. So much better than instant!

Memorable Moments

Ohio's Amish Country | Photo by David Berrigan
Ohio’s Amish Country | Photo by David Berrigan

Many people have asked me about the route through the Midwest. From the sandhills of Nebraska and the fields of Iowa, to the fantastic canal trails between Davenport and Chicago —I found the region to be full of hidden treasures. I enjoyed the tremendous spectacle of American agriculture, the myriad regional specialties, and the kind and generous people throughout.

Ohio in particular had an incredible network of bike trails. Of the 87 days I was gone—62 of them spent riding through 12 states, covering 3,200+ miles—some of the most memorable few hours occurred as I left the Buckeye State’s Holmes County Trail. The rail-trail was wide enough to accommodate horse-drawn buggies and traveled through a large Amish community. Their well-kept farms were notable in their lack of the many trucks, tractors and other internal-combustion engines so prevalent on other farms across the country. It was late afternoon, and the country lanes were full of buggies of all sizes: pony-drawn for a kid or two, family-sized featuring six or more seats, and fast-looking ones pulled by lovely horses and carrying young couples. Weaving around the buggies were young men and women on electric bicycles, a growing trend in some Amish congregations. The men—on their way home from farm or lumberyard work—who paused and chatted with me were bike lovers to a man. It was an extraordinary glimpse into a lower-carbon way of life.

Related: Trail Moments | Recapturing Life on a Great American Journey

Acts of Generosity

Ohio's Holmes County Trail | Photo by TrailLink user vicki196
Ohio’s Holmes County Trail | Photo by TrailLink user vicki196

One of the reasons for this trip was to get a chance to connect with people and see places that I wouldn’t normally. I was bowled over by the kindness of people all across the country. People bought me lunch, helped with bike repairs, gave me a water bottle when I looked beat, let me camp next to their RV when the campground was full, and loaned me bear spray. It was a real blessing to experience this kindness and to learn that it’s ok to ask for help, something you will undoubtedly need on a cycling tour.

The “Nothing to Prove” Tour

At the onset of the trip, I told myself I didn’t have to break any records or prove anything. But this sentiment did not really sink in until we left Seattle in late spring and realized that the Snoqualmie tunnel was still closed due to snow. Gene’s son graciously drove up and shuttled us over the mountain pass. I was a bit demoralized, thinking I could no longer say I cycled across the country. However, I gradually came to embrace the idea that I was in it for the experiences, camaraderie and cycling—not as a purist. This proved a very relaxing attitude adjustment since I shuttled over two more passes, one snow-covered and one where I just ran out of steam.

Lessons Learned

Nebraska's Cowboy Trail | Photo by TrailLink user lisa.jarnigan
Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail | Photo by TrailLink user lisa.jarnigan

A few tips for making a trip like this happen emerged from this experience. First, if you have a partner who can’t join you, engage them. My wife and I spoke every day, and she buoyed me up when I was tired. She met me for a week of touring with a camper van in South Dakota’s Black Hills and joined me for a long weekend in Chicago and that helped give us a feeling of crossing the country together.

Secondly, when it got really hot in Nebraska, I started riding early in the morning and would stop at towns with municipal pools. With just a few bucks, I could take a shower, hang out by the pool reading a novel and soak up scenes of smalltown life. Plus, electrolyte-restoring dill pickles were often on sale for just a dollar!

Related: Best Of: Great American Rail-Trail Adventures With the Traverses

Looking Ahead

Crossing the Youghiogheny River on the Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by David Berrigan
Crossing the Youghiogheny River on the Great Allegheny Passage | Photo by David Berrigan

I thought I might be tired of cycling after this, but it has only whetted my appetite for more tours and for more work to promote cycling and trails in the United States. My work at the National Institutes of Health involves research on the health benefits of physical activity and on environmental factors encouraging such activity. A car-free bike route across the country is a grand ambition that would provide incredible infrastructure for bicycle touring, local health benefits of trail access and economic opportunity. My next tours might include New York’s Empire State Trail from Buffalo to Manhattan, cycling along Europe’s Danube River, or pedaling the length of New Zealand, but I know I will always return to cycling portions of the Great American Rail-Trail, an aspirational gem for the whole country.

This article is part of Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails impact the lives of Americans. Learn more at and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.

David Berrigan
David Berrigan

David Berrigan lives along Maryland’s Rock Creek Regional Park trail system. He works at the National Cancer Institute, supporting and carrying out research on the health benefits of physical activity and on how good infrastructure for walking and bicycling can promote healthy lifestyles. He still loves cycling, even after this trip.

Donate today!


Everyone deserves access to safe ways to walk, bike, and be active outdoors.