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Great American Rail-Trail Aims to Link Both Coasts


Rail lines offer a unique opportunity for building trail networks since they bridge urban, rural, and wilderness landscapes in ways other infrastructures don’t. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been converting disused and abandoned rail lines in the United States into footpaths and bicycle trails since 1986. There is likely a Rails-to-Trails project near you as they have converted over 24,000 miles of train tracks across the country, from huge metropolitan areas on the East Coast to some of the most remote corners of the American West. Some 8,000 miles of trail are also in the planning and construction phase.

Rails-to-Trails’ most ambitious project yet is the Great American Rail-Trail. The scheme aims to connect Washington, D.C., with Washington State via 3,700 miles of proposed rail-trail. Approximately 50% of the route is complete, with some long stretches in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana yet to be planned or funded. Of the Great American Rail-Trail, David Burwell, the co-founder of RTC, says, “One day, you could go across this entire country…on flat, wide, off-road paths. I want rail-trails to be ‘America’s Main Street.’” The organization especially highlights the many economic and social benefits for rural communities through wich the trail passes.

One of the challenges to completing the project is financialthe organization often needs to purchase railbeds outright, and converting old tracks to groomed, bicycle-friendly trails is both time and labor-intensive. But the outcomes are often outstanding. One of my favorite rail-trails is just west of my home in Montana. The Route of the Hiawatha is a stunning and historic section of the Great American Rail-Trail near the Idaho border that includes a nearly two-mile-long tunnel bored through solid rock (bring a headlamp). Find out more about the project and how to support it at railstotrails.org/greatamericanrailtrail/

Images: Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Photo of a tunnel along the trail

Stephan Edwards is the Associate Editor of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. He and his wife, Julie, once bought an old Land Rover sight unseen from strangers on the internet in a country they'd never been to and drove it through half of Africa. After living in Botswana for two years, Stephan now makes camp at the foot of a round mountain in Missoula, Montana. He still drives that Land Rover every day. An anthropologist in his former life and a lover of all things automotive, Stephan is a staunch advocate for public lands and his writing and photography have appeared in Road & Track, Overland Journal, and Adventure Journal. Find him at @venturesomeoverland on Instagram.