You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Appalachian Trail and perhaps the Pacific Crest Trail. You may have even hiked the Colorado Trail or the Teton Crest Trail. But did you know that there’s another trail—an amazing trail that will eventually connect our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C., to the far western coast of Washington state? Yes, this is the Great American Rail Trail.
The Rails-to-Trails program dates back to the 1960s when the railroad industry in the United States was in decline. Many railway lines were being abandoned and the idea of converting these railways into trails gained momentum.
By the 1970s, some local communities began to experiment with converting abandoned railways into trails for recreational purposes. In 1983, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) was founded as a national nonprofit organization to promote the conversion of abandoned rail corridors into trails. The RTC played a key role in advocating for the development of national policies and funding programs to support the creation of rail-trails across the country.
In 1987, Congress passed the National Trails System Act Amendments. It authorized the creation of a Rail-Trail Fund to provide financial assistance for the acquisition and development of rail-trails. Since that time, the Rails to Trails program has been successful in creating over 23,000 miles of rail-trails across the United States.
In 2019, the idea of a trail across America was proposed. Since that time, $54 million has been invested in projects that target existing gaps in the proposed Great American Rail-Trail route.
Great American Rail-Trail route
When completed, the Great American Rail-Trail will pass through twelve states plus the District of Columbia. The 3,700-mile route will overlap 150 existing trails with 90 gaps yet to be constructed for the final continuous trail.
Hopes and dreams
The RTC’s goal for the chosen route is that the trail will provide a connection between diverse communities and give millions of hikers and bikers across the country access to a completely bikeable and walkable route that is safely separated from vehicle traffic.
The RTC hopes that the trail will serve as a catalyst for economic growth and development, especially in the smaller communities along the route.
In addition, the RTC believes that the completed trail will preserve the historical and cultural importance of former U.S. railway corridors. RTC plans to post historical markers all along the trail which will include information about local history and its people who deserve to be remembered.
Currently, more than 50 percent of the trail is complete. RTC hopes that enthusiasm for this amazing project will spur national, state, and local governments to lend their financial support. The Great American Rail Trail will likely take several decades to complete, but hikers and bikers who already use parts of the trail feel the time and money are well worth it. Watch a video that highlights the trail route and views along the way.