The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has announced some big news for their 4,000-mile multi-use trail that will span the United States from coast to coast. Here’s what you need to know about the project, plus a few photos from along the trail…

Posted by Miles Arbour

The Rail-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is no stranger to seeking out and developing rail and multi-use trails across the United States. The RTC is responsible for over 31,000 miles of trail, plus another 8,000 miles waiting to be built. For over 30 years, the Conservancy has been a key player in all facets of trail development, including community growth, legal work, mapping, and of course, trail building. Earlier this week, the RTC announced an important step forward in the development of The Great American Rail-Trail, which will span across the United States from Washington, D.C., to Washington State.

Although The Great American Rail-Trail likely won’t be packed full of technical singletrack riding, the tentative route does cross paths with several of our published routes, including the Cross Washington Mountain Bike Route, Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the High Plains Byway, and the less documented areas in the central United States. Linking together the preexisting trails that are listed below, and gaining the support of the various states involved, was a massive step in the right direction for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and we look forward to seeing how the route develops. This looks like it will be a great opportunity for entry-level overnighters and cross-country bikepacking journeys alike.

The Great American Rail Trail

MD – C&O Towpath Trail

“At RTC, we’ve known the potential of a coast-to-coast rail-trail for decades,” said Keith Laughlin, RTC president. “But before we committed to bringing this vision to life, we wanted to be certain it was viable. With open trails comprising more than 50 percent of the potential route, combined with strong local and state enthusiasm, we are now confident that the Great American Rail-Trail can be completed. RTC is ready to lead the effort to connect the trail across communities, counties and state lines to create a seamless off-road biking and walking journey for the country.”

Great American Rail Trail

The proposed route, which traverses 12 states, would link several preexisting trails together, that range from six miles long all the way to 270 miles. Check out these trails below:

  • 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 six-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.

Stay tuned for more details on the full route, which is expected to be announced spring 2019. For now, you can check out all the details at

All photos courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Feature photo: NE The Cowboy Trail crosses the Elkhorn River just west of Norfolk. Photo by Scott Bohaty

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