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The Great American Rail-Trail: The Long Walk of a Lifetime

This is a guest post by America Walks board co-vice president Kevin Mills. Kevin Mills is Senior Vice President of Policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. He has served on the America Walks Board of Directors since 2010.

Earlier this month, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the golden spike marking completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) revealed the preferred route for the Great American Rail-Trail, a walkable and bikeable cross-country multi-use trail spanning more than 3,700 miles between Washington, DC and Washington state. The Great American promises to become “America’s Trail”, an iconic landmark connecting urban, suburban and rural areas; a veritable 21st century, human-powered Route 66.

DC – Capital Crescent Trail – Hung Tran – Photo Courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

The route connects and is hosted by more than 125 existing rail-trails, greenways and other multi-use paths that together make up more than 52% of the preferred route. That leaves more than 1,700 miles of gaps to fill and maintenance challenges along the way. The big vision for the trail, which dates back to RTC’s founders, provides motivation to move past historic barriers to particular connections to serve the broader purpose. With the Great American as a cross-country spine, trail and active transportation systems taking shape within many metropolitan areas will now connect to each other across communities and states to begin to form a nationwide network for walking and biking. Just as roads and rails must connect to meet their full potential, connectivity will increase the use and usefulness of trails.

MT Headwaters Trails – Scott Stark – Photo Courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

RTC worked with states and trail partners to confirm a route across the country that would provide the highest-quality experience for all types of trail users—from long-distance hikers and cyclists to casual daily explorers and everyone in between. Trail criteria were developed to ensure the Great American Rail-Trail would provide safe, nonmotorized travel on a route that is entirely walkable and bikeable. These criteria specify that the Great America Rail-Trail be one contiguous route that is reasonably direct. It will be separated from vehicle traffic—a minimum of 80 percent initially and ultimately entirely separated when the trail is complete. It will comprise existing trails to the extent possible and will represent trail priorities of the states and local jurisdictions that will host it. And, it will serve as a catalyst for local economic development, including providing services for long-distance travelers.

The Great American Rail-Trail promises an all-new American experience. Through 12 states and the District of Columbia, the trail will directly serve nearly 50 million people within 50 miles of the route. Across the nation—and the world—only the limits of imagination will limit its use.

Though the project will take decades to fully complete, there are already many miles on the ground to explore. Next steps to accelerate completion of critical gaps include an array of catalyst initiatives covering every state along the route and ranging from planning sections of the trail to securing public funding to fill the gaps.

How can you help? Please start by signing the Great American Rail-Trail pledge here!