A road trip may be the classic way to traverse the United States, but cyclists will eventually be able to make the cross-country bike trip a reality on a newly created trail system. Once it is completed, the Great American Rail-Trail will connect 4,000 miles of repurposed train routes and multi-use trails—all separate from vehicle traffic—across 12 states from Washington, D.C., to Washington State. Here’s everything we know about it so far.
Where will the route go?
The full route won’t be released until this spring, but in January 2019, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) revealed the 12 gateway trails that will form the backbone of the coast-to-coast route. Starting in Washington, D.C., cyclists will begin their cross-country journey on the Capital Crescent Trail that begins in Georgetown and crosses into Maryland. From there the trail will be connected to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, a 185-mile trail that goes from D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. Moving westward, the Great American Rail-Trail will then continue along the Panhandle Trail in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the Ohio to Erie Trail in Ohio, and the Cardinal Greenway in Indiana.
In the Midwest, cyclists can then ride along the Hennepin Canal Parkway in Illinois, the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa, and the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail in Nebraska. Eventually, the route will enter the Casper Rail Trail in Wyoming, before moving along the Headwaters Trail System in Montana, and the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes in Idaho, before finally ending along the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail in Washington.
We're proud to commit to the Great American Rail-Trail: a nearly 4,000-mile trail from Washington, DC, to Washington State! Explore the the iconic trails—"gateways"—that are making this bold vision possible + learn more about the #GRTAmerican: https://t.co/DWPE8N88ZE! pic.twitter.com/qDYEn475SR— Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (@railstotrails) January 23, 2019
When will it be completed?
By working with local trail organizations, the RTC aims to fill critical trail gaps in the cross-country route as efficiently as possible. Currently, the RTC says that the projected route is more than 50 percent complete and many of the trails that need to be built to connect the route from state to state are already in state and local trail plans.
However, the RTC says it will take at least another few decades to complete the full route, because it needs to work across state lines and jurisdictions to make sure the existing trail network is well-aligned across the country. But segments will open to the public each year, making it easier to travel throughout the country on bikes in the meantime.
How is this different from the U.S. Bicycle Route system?
The Great American Rail-Trail is similar to the U.S. Bicycle Route (USBR) system in that it allows for long-distance bicycle travel throughout the United States. But while the USBR system provides low-traffic routes for cyclists between 26 states and Washington, D.C., the Great American Rail-Trail—which will also be accessible to pedestrians—will be built along out-of-use train tracks and car-free pathways to alleviate the stress of sharing the road with cars. At the moment, the RTC says that the current route is about 90 percent off-street, but it is working toward being 100 percent off-street.