Photo: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Riding America’s Rail Trail

Explore the sprawling, new Great American Rail-Trail that connects 3,700 miles of converted railroad-to-recreation corridors from coast to coast.

Call it retrofitting our nation’s industrial past and converting it into a recreational future.

That renewal is the premise behind the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s heralded Great American Rail-Trail. Billed as the nation’s first cross-country, multi-use trail, it will stretch more than 3,700 miles from coast to coast across the U.S., providing options for thru-hikers and cyclists alike. Leading from Washington, D.C., to Washington state and taking advantage of converted railroad lines wherever possible, the route is a multi-use trail that fosters human-powered transit of individual sections, linked segments, or the whole bikepacking enchilada. 

The rail-trail movement began in the 1980s to support continued public use of the abandoned network of railroad corridors around the country. Project Manager Kevin Belanger sees the Great American Rail-Trail as the logical next step in this movement by linking thousands of miles of these vital pieces of community infrastructure together, “to make a fully connected, multi-use trail that will have outsized economic and health benefits.” One of those key benefits—access to a healthy outlet—also address a growing need. Belanger adds that trail use has experienced a substantial increase since the 2020 start of pandemic, where linking these corridors of public land, “increases opportunities to get outside safely and conveniently to support this sustained need for trails.” 

In 2019, RTC unveiled the trail’s planned route, under the criteria that it would provide safe, non-motorized travel on one contiguous route. In all, the pedaling pathway traverses 12 states and the District of Columbia. It will be separated from vehicular traffic (a minimum of 80% initially and entirely once completed), joining existing trails when possible, and serving as a catalyst for local economies. RTC, which has already developed more than 31,000 miles of trails over the last 30 years, isn’t the only believer in the route’s benefits (economic and otherwise); it’s raised $34 million for the project, with eight of the 12 states introducing new trail segments for the route.  

While it won’t be packed full of technical singletrack riding, the route crosses paths with several existing bike trail routes, including the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and the High Plains Byway. Already more than 53% complete with more than 2,000 miles of completed trail, it’s expected to be a go-to pick for journeys of any length, from day-trips and entry-level overnighters to cross-country bikepacking journeys. Belanger adds that the conservancy is working with trail partners across the country to complete the remaining gaps in the network, and new trail miles are coming online every year.  

“The Great American Rail-Trail will be a national treasure and we look forward to seeing how the route develops,” adds RTC president Ryan Chao. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create—together—an enduring gift to the nation that will bring joy for generations to come.” 

Photo: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

State-by-State Rundown

The route will traverse 12 states, linking pre-existing trails in the following states, ranging from a few miles long up to 270 miles.  

Washington, D.C., and Maryland (207 miles - 100% complete) 

The easternmost endpoint for the Great American Rail-Trail begins in Washington, D.C., at the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Highlights include the following segments. 

Capital Crescent Trail: This 11-mile trail—and the Great American Rail-Trail—begins in Georgetown, near the historic landmarks of the nation’s capital. 

Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park: This nearly 185-mile trail connects Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland (and beyond), featuring canal locks, lock houses, aqueducts and canal structures. 

The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP Trail): This iconic rail-trail runs 150 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh. 

Pennsylvania (172 miles - 94% complete) 

Beginning at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border on the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, the route travels to Pittsburgh and through downtown on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. 

Three Rivers Heritage Trail: The 21-mile Three Rivers Heritage Trail evolved from five separate trails; most segments are riverfront trails along both banks of the three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio) forming Pittsburgh’s famous point. 

Montour Trail: The 46-mile Montour Trail follows a portion of the old Montour Railroad, finished in 1914 to link the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad with the region’s coal mines. Forming a semi-circle around Pittsburgh, the Montour Railroad also connected other railroads, including the Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh & West Virginia, the Baltimore & Ohio, and the Union. The trail, which now follows this route, is primarily crushed limestone.

West Virginia (8.7 miles - 53% complete) 

Though traveling less than 10 miles through West Virginia, it will dovetail the scenic, 29-mile Panhandle Trail, which heads west from the Pittsburgh suburbs into northern West Virginia, serving as a gateway between the states. 

Ohio (334 miles - 67% complete) 

The Great American Rail-Trail will be hosted by more than two dozen existing trails through Ohio, including the 270-mile Ohio to Erie Trail, which cuts diagonally across the state, connecting two major waterways: the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Lake Erie in Cleveland.

Indiana (225 miles/50% complete) 

The Great American Rail-Trail will be hosted by a dozen existing trails through Indiana, including: 

Cardinal Greenway: RTC’s 2018 Rail-Trail Hall of Fame inductee stretches northwest for 61 miles through rural Indiana, making it the longest rail-trail in the state. 

The Nickel Plate Trail: This 46-mile trail traverses rural Indiana from Rochester south to the outskirts of Kokomo, with a short gap in the middle in Peru. The rail-trail runs along the former corridor of the Peru and Indianapolis Railroad chartered in 1846. 

Illinois (195-miles - 86% complete) 

The Great American will be hosted by eight existing trails through Illinois, including: 

Hennepin Canal Parkway: The 100-mile-plus trail parallels the early 20th-century canal and runs west from the Illinois River to the Rock River.

The Great River Trail: The Great River Trail spans over 60 miles of Illinois terrain alongside the Mississippi River, taking riders past various historical sites, including two Native American landmarks, on its way from Savanna to Rock Island. 

Iowa (195 miles - 86% complete) 

The Great American will be hosted by 38 existing trails through Iowa, including: 

Cedar Valley Nature Trail: This 52-mile pathway, one of the first rail-trail conversions in the state, follows the Cedar River and connects Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids. 

High Trestle Trail: This is one of the most pristine and highly trafficked trails in Iowa, due largely to its famous 130-foot-tall High Trestle Bridge, which boasts one of the most well-known rail-trail art installations in the country, From Here to There. 

Nebraska (594 miles - 51% complete) 

The GART crosses from Iowa into Nebraska on the iconic Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge—a 3,000-foot cable-suspension structure over the Missouri River. It will be hosted by 22 existing trails through the state, including: 

Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail: One of the longest rail-trails in the country, this 219-mile trail traverses rural Nebraska, connecting small towns and offering views of the High Plains. 

Wyoming (508 miles - 8% complete) 

While only 8.1 miles of the route are complete, the state’s recent report on active transportation—including trails—recommended a minimum investment of $10 million annually. Highlights, so far, include the 6-mile Casper Rail Trail, an important connector in one of Wyoming’s largest cities. 

Montana (427 miles - 20% complete) 

The route through Montana will connect communities already well-known for their outdoor recreation assets—including Livingston, Bozeman, Three Forks, Butte and Missoula—linking the Headwaters Trail System: This nearly 12-mile trail connects to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where three rivers (the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin) meet to form the Mighty Missouri.

Idaho (90 miles - 88% complete) 

Idaho is nearly complete with the Great American Rail-Trail crossing the state and the majority of the route already existing. Highlights include the nearly 72-mile trail Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, which runs through Idaho’s panhandle, delivering breathtaking vistas through the state’s forests. 

Washington (518 miles - 71% complete) 

The Great American Rail-Trail route through Washington is a whopping 518 miles, including the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail: One of the nation’s longest rail-trail conversions, which spans more than 200 miles across Washington and marks the terminus of the Great American Rail-Trail. 

 

More Info

GreatAmericanRailTrail.org

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

MORE STORIES