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Rails-to-Trails Conservancy launches campaign to build trail from Seattle to DC – UPDATED

Map from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

“The Great American Rail-Trail” could stretch from Seattle to Washington D.C., entirely off-road and with gentle grades. This is the dream the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (“RTC”) announced today, noting that about half the 4,000-mile route is already complete in some form thanks to decades of advocacy work in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Though the organization says it “will take years to complete,” they have spent a year and a half analyzing the possibilities before determining that it is “viable.”

“Analyses that were used to confirm the project’s viability included a thorough assessment of route options using RTC’s database of more than 34,000 miles of open trails nationwide; analyses of state and local trail plans; and discussions with hundreds of local trail partners and state agencies representing all of the trails along the potential route,” the organization wrote in a press release (posted in full below). A more developed route concept will be announced in the spring.

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The Washington State segment would, of course, follow the recently-renamed Palouse-to-Cascades State Park Trail (formerly known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail or the Iron Horse Trail). So in order for the Great American Rail-Trail to become reality, Washington State has some work to do. The PTC Trail (what are we calling this thing for short?) is fairly high quality from Rattlesnake Lake to the Columbia River, which is the most difficult stretch due to the mountain pass and all the tunnel repairs completed a few years ago. So we’ve already done the hardest part. But the Beverly Bridge across the Columbia River and the long stretch across the state to Tekoa and the Idaho border need a lot of infrastructure work and additional services (like better drinking water access, toilets, etc). You can make the trip today, but it’s pretty rugged and requires some significant detouring.

UPDATE: There is a funding proposal going through the state legislature right now to rehab and reopen the Beverly Bridge, one of the most important gaps in the cross-state trail. The Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition has a more details (PDF) and a call to action if you want to help make it and other improvements happen:

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has proposed $5,575,000 toward the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) in the 2019-2021 State Budget for rehabilitation of this significant structure. Opening the Beverly Bridge for non motorized use enjoys broad public support, including many statewide and national organizations interested
in recreation, historic preservation, and revitalization of rural communities. Rehabilitation of the Beverly Bridge represents a critical investment in Washington State tourism, continuing to enrich the lives of Washingtonians.

In order to connect to Seattle, work is needed to complete and connect the Mountains-to-Sound Trail to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, which connects to the PTC Trail at Rattlesnake Lake. Bellevue has work to do on a couple segments (especially in Eastgate), and the Preston-Snoqualmie Trail needs a connection to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail (in my experience, this is the worst gap). And, of course, Seattle still needs to connect the MTS Trail the last little stretch from Beacon Hill to Elliott Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

But all of this is doable. Sure, it’s going to take an enormous amount of organizing and collaboration across a dozen states, DC and probably the Federal government to make it happen. And as Washington Bikes learned from the effort to create USBR 10, organizing will need to happen in communities all along the trail corridor. This is an enormous lift, though this work has the added bonus of spreading the word about bike tourism and bike travel in general.

With regional trail projects like the Eastside Rail Corridor (or whatever we are going to start calling it soon) dramatically expanding the reach of the trail network locally, it’s a pretty cool idea to have a national trail run straight through it all. Maybe then we’ll all just start calling the PTC Trail and MTS Trail the “Great American Trail” instead.

From RTC:

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) today announced its vision for the Great American Rail-Trail, an unprecedented commitment to creating an iconic piece of American infrastructure that will connect nearly 4,000 miles of rail-trail and other multiuse trails from Washington, D.C., to Washington State.

RTC is committing to this project after more than 18 months of analysis and collaboration with local trail partners and state agencies whose work is critical to the success of this significant undertaking. Analyses that were used to confirm the project’s viability included a thorough assessment of route options using RTC’s database of more than 34,000 miles of open trails nationwide; analyses of state and local trail plans; and discussions with hundreds of local trail partners and state agencies representing all of the trails along the potential route.

“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.”

Separated from vehicle traffic, Great American Rail-Trail travelers will be able to experience the diversity of America’s landscape, its people and its places as the route traverses 12 states moving west from its start in Washington, D.C. While the full route for the trail won’t be released until spring 2019, RTC today revealed the 12 gateway trails that make the Great American Rail-Trail possible.

  • 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 6-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.

“The Great American Rail-Trail is a bold vision—one that will take years to complete. The investment of time and resources necessary to complete this trail will be returned many times over as it takes its place among the country’s national treasures,” said Laughlin. “As we embark on the journey to complete the Great American Rail-Trail, we embark on the single greatest trail project in the history of the U.S. One that comes with an important legacy of unity, ambition and access to the outdoors for the nation. One that represents an opportunity to do something big for America.”

The Great American Rail-Trail is a signature project of RTC and the most ambitious in its portfolio of TrailNation™ projects—the organization’s initiative to encourage the rapid replication of regional trail networks across the country. The trail was first envisioned in the late 1980s by RTC co-founder David Burwell, and for decades has been an underpinning of the organization’s strategy to create a nationwide network of public trails.

For more details about the Great American Rail-Trail, visit www.greatamericanrailtrail.org.

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25 responses to “Rails-to-Trails Conservancy launches campaign to build trail from Seattle to DC – UPDATED”

  1. Brock

    A single rail-trail across the entire U.S. would be amazing.

    For me, the worst segment between Seattle and North Bend is the MTS section between Bellevue and Issaquah. An alternative route to get to North Bend would be to connect the Snoqualmie Valley Trail to the Centennial Trail in Snohomish, and the Centennial Trail to the Burke-Gilman Trail / Sammamish River Trail in Woodinville. Or, create a 2-way PBL from Fall City to Redmond, where it could connect to the SRT.

    This advocacy approach of pushing for single seamless connections is exactly the approach we need to take in Seattle. Instead of advocacy focused on single segments, we need to push for trail-like experiences that span the entire distance of the city, such as a single route that connects the North & South Interurbans with the Green Lake PBLs, Westlake CycleTrack, 4th Ave PBL, and Airport Way PBL. And such as a Puget Sound Trail from the Fauntleroy Terminal to Alki to Downtown Waterfront PBL to Intervay Trail to Golden Gardens. And such as the Burke-Gilman to Arboretum to Lake Washington Blvd to Renton. And such as 15th Ave NE to U District to Eastlake to Boyer to Rainier Ave to Renton. And some east-west routes, like NW/N/NE 130th/125th St, ~ NW/N/NE 100th, and W//E Thomas/John St. And something connecting Fauntleroy, Delridge, White Center, South Park, Georgetown, South Beacon, and Rainier Beach. Let’s build a complete trail-like bikeways.

    1. This. Let’s do this!
      The number of times I’ve been riding a route and just dropped somewhere wondering where to go next. Connections are poor between some good routes.
      When I first started commuting it was scary, now it has a slight bit of fun because I can play explorer but there are still moments where it is terrible.
      My most recent favorite is Western Ave going toward the Market. From Broad street until SR 99 onramp (may it rest in peace) you are on the left side. After the bridge toward the Battery Street tunnel (may it rest in peace) you have to move over to the right side. Which consequently cars that don’t want to make a left turn up Blanchard are also doing.
      On the fun explorer side, I’ve had a few great rides through South Park after the Duwamish Trail ends and before the Green River Trail starts. West Marginal toward the Bulk Mail and Green River Trail is a bit sketchy but also doesn’t have much traffic.

    2. O

      Hm I’d say the road section between downtown Fall City and the Preston-Snoqualmie trail is much, much worse than any other part. At least there’s a shoulder between Bellevue and Issaquah

  2. Gordon

    It would be a lot easier to visualize what this is if they made a map of the existing trails and the gaps inbetween.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I think something like that is what they are planning to release in the spring.

  3. Michael

    Having something like the Trans Canada Trail would be pretty nice.

  4. YES! finally a vision that builds on the success of The Netherlands LF Routes. We couldn’t be more excited for what this means for North American bike tourism.

  5. Gary

    This would be major cool. And for rural communities it should provide an economic boost, at least during the spring/summer/fall.

    And yes, Seattle’s trail system would be so much better with a few connectors like the Centenial trail

  6. asdf2

    This is great news! I will be much more likely to consider a cross country bike ride if I can do it without having to mingle with the cars.

  7. […] to ride with cars in traffic… 4,000 miles of bliss if you ask me… still a long way off, but many good people are working on bringing this to reality using old rail routes. Very […]

  8. asdf2

    Just thinking…can this be built without taking land from private property? Even if it’s just one tiny section we’re talking about, the nearest road detour could be long and dangerous.

    I hope this won’t end up getting stalled for multiple generations by one or two recalcitrant landowners, like what happened to the Olympic Discovery Trail.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I’m sure there will be a lot of land disputes along the route, like many rail trails face. Especially when rail lines are dormant for a long time, nearby land owners sometimes think they own the land. Sometimes land is sold with the rail right of way included, so buyers are surprised when they find out they don’t own it. It gets complicated.

  9. If we can start from scratch and go to the moon and back a few times … we can do this one ✌

  10. JD

    Missouri has the Katy Trail, it crosses the state and I think is the longest in the nation. Why not connect to it?

  11. […] SEA to DCA: The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy wants to build a trail from Seattle to Washington, D.C. […]

  12. Dean

    Please publish a map showing us where the trail is existing and where there are gaps.
    Also, I would suggest a form letter that people can modify with their State or Municipality info so they can lobby locally for completion of the missing stretches.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Stay tuned. Sounds like RTC is working on more route specifics due out in the spring.

  13. I live in DC and have ridden the 185 mile C&O trail from Cumberland to DC. One thing that is great about it is that the popularity of the trail has stimulated some of the small towns along it to provide services. So there are B&B’s, bike shops, food, and other support right near the trail in places. I think it is an asset to these communities. And the locals of these towns don’t have to ride long distances to benefit by using the trail for recreation.

  14. a truly wonderful vision

  15. Alicia Brehe

    Im just curious why the KATY Trail of Missouri isnt included in this plan? It is a very well established rail to trail that runs across the majority of the state. If you need a “back-up” plan, that would require very little…consider adding this wonderful resource!

  16. Annqueue

    Call it the WA to Wash trail!

    1. Kathreen


  17. Olaf

    Add a link from Seattle to Raymond, Washington along the Chehalis Western Trail and Willapa Hills Trail and it could run from sea to sea.

  18. Edward Quentin

    There’s a rail trail the entire length of Missouri going from the Kansas City metro to the St Louis metro. The main part is called the Katy Trail, which goes from Clinton (roughly 50 miles southeast of KC) to STL. There’s a separate section called the Rock Island Spur that connects the KC suburbs to Windsor (a few miles north of Clinton).


  19. […] HERE is an article about this trail explaining the plan and providing some information about what has been built thus far and where things stand. […]

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