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A coast-to-coast bike trail is coming to the U.S.

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The just-announced route travels 3,700 miles across 12 different states

The Iowa Cedar Valley Nature Trail will become part of the Great American Rail-Trail network.
Photo by Liz Zabel, courtesy of GO Cedar Rapids

Today, the Rails-to-Trails Conversancy (RTC), the nation’s largest trails organization, unveiled its preferred route for the Great American Rail-Trail. In the past, we’ve catalogued everything from awesome bike rides to city bike share programs, but never before has there been a trail that lets you ride across the United States.

The Great American Rail-Trail is a mega bike trail that would connect nearly 3,700 miles of rail-trail and other multi-use trails to form a path across the country from Washington, D.C. to Washington State. The preferred route of the nation’s first cross-country multi-use trail is detailed in a comprehensive report released by RTC today, and you can explore the route in an interactive map, here.

Twelve gateway trails make the route possible (you can see those, below). The route travels through 12 states and uses 1,900 miles of existing trails with more than 1,700 miles of “trail gaps”—trails that need to be developed to fully connect the route.

Fifty two percent of the path is already complete and available for public use. The largest challenge appears to be the lack of trails in Wyoming, where the preferred route crosses the state but there are few trails or planned segments. Other large sections that need to be built are in Nebraska and Montana. Building the full trail will likely take at least a decade or two, but some sections could come online fairly quickly.

RTC has spent the past 18 months forming coalitions between local trail partners and state agencies to create the plan, including analyzing which of the more than 34,000 miles of nationwide trails would be best.

“When defining the preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail, we sought a cross-country route that would provide the highest-quality experience while delivering significant economic and social benefits to the communities it connects,” said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at RTC.

RTC specified that the the Great American be one contiguous route that is initially 80 percent off street and separated from vehicle traffic, using as many existing trails as possible. Eventually, the entire trail will be separated from vehicle traffic.

“The Great American Rail-Trail is a bold vision—one that will take years to complete. The investment of time and resources necessary to complete this trail will be returned many times over as it takes its place among the country’s national treasures,” said Keith Laughlin, RTC president. “As we embark on the journey to complete the Great American Rail-Trail, we embark on the single greatest trail project in the history of the U.S.”

The first goal? Reach 1 million pledges in support of the cross-country trail, which supporters can do here.

The twelve gateway trails that make the route possible:

  • Capital Crescent Trail, Washington, D.C., and Maryland: 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, Washington, D.C., and Maryland: The nearly 185-mile trail connects Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, featuring canal locks, lock houses, aqueducts and their canal structures.
  • Panhandle Trail, Pennsylvania and West Virginia: The 29-mile trail heads west from the Pittsburgh suburbs into northern West Virginia, serving as a literal gateway between the states.
  • Ohio to Erie Trail, Ohio: The 270-mile trail cuts diagonally across the state, connecting two major waterways, the Ohio River in Cincinnati and Lake Erie in Cleveland.
  • Cardinal Greenway, Indiana: 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.
  • Hennepin Canal Parkway, Illinois: The 100-mile-plus trail parallels the early-20th-century canal and runs west from the Illinois River to the Rock River.
  • Cedar Valley Nature Trail, Iowa: 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.
  • Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, Nebraska: 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.
  • Casper Rail Trail, Wyoming: This 6-mile trail is an important connector in one of the largest cities in Wyoming.
  • Headwaters Trail System, Montana: The nearly 12-mile trail connects to Missouri Headwaters State Park, where three rivers meet to form the Missouri River: the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin.
  • Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, Idaho: This nearly 72-mile trail runs through Idaho’s panhandle, delivering breathtaking vistas through the state’s forests.
  • Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, Washington: Another of the nation’s longest rail-trail conversions, this trail spans more than 200 miles across Washington and marks the terminus of the Great American Rail-Trail.