a photo of bike riders on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa
The Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Iowa is one of 125 existing trails that will make up the Great American Rail-Trail. Liz Zabel, courtesy GO Cedar Rapids

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has announced a planned route for a coast-to-coast bike and walking path from Washington, D.C. to Washington State.

If you’re an avid American cyclist, odds are you’ve harbored this dream: a sea-to-shining-sea cross-country bike trek, the sort of epic journey Jerry Cowden took from Arlington, Virginia, all the way to Astoria, Oregon, when he retired from his job at the FCC in 2009.

“I went out my back door, got on my bike, and didn’t stop until I got to the Pacific Ocean, 106 days later,” he says.

Cowden’s path west traced the TransAmerica Trail, a set of cross-country routes on backroads originally mapped for the 1976 Bikecentennial ride, and the Katy Trail, a recreational rail-trail in Missouri. That helped him minimize his encounters with motor vehicle traffic. But he says he did have to deal with a few sections of roadway he had to share with motorists. “They tried as much as possible to route you on roads that are low stress and low traffic, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable.”

If you’re in a car, you’ve been able to motor across the United States since 1913. (Thanks, Lincoln Highway.) But on a bike, it’s been more of a challenge—there’s no single unified route made for cycles that spans the continent. That may soon change: On Wednesday, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy gave the grand reveal for an entirely car-free way to get across the country—the Great American Rail-Trail—that would connect Washington, D.C., to Seattle. The path runs through 12 states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

The launch event kicked off at Capitol Hill in D.C., near where the Capital Crescent Trail begins the cross-country route, as part of a live-streamed broadcast of events at stops along the way, including Columbus, Ohio; Three Forks, Montana; and South Cle Elum, Washington.

Small towns and cities along the preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail stand to benefit, if the route is completed. (Derek Strout/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy)

Currently, a Pacific-bound cyclist’s journey goes something like this: You hop on the C&O Canal Towpath and Great Allegheny Passage to escape the D.C. bubble and enjoy 309 miles of car-free pedaling through Western Maryland, all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then, if you follow the route suggested by a navigation app like Google Maps, you would have to cross PA Route 51 (not advisable) to reach the safety of the Montour Trail and the Panhandle Trail*. After that, there’s another four-mile gap at Weirton, West Virginia. And once you reach Ohio, a third of the bike-only route remains incomplete.

On it goes like that, for 3,744 miles. Only 1,962 miles of that can be negotiated on existing bike-only trails; the remaining 1,782 miles must be negotiated in mixed traffic.

After a 12-month assessment of route options using 34,000 miles of existing bike trails nationwide, RTC has identified the remaining 90 trail gaps to be filled. (The complete GIS route for the trail is available on their website.) Connecting these trails could put an estimated 50 million Americans within 50 miles of the route.

That will take a while: With the help of state and local planners as well as potential federal assistance, the group estimates that incremental completion could come within a couple decades. As the graphic below shows, some big Western states have a lot of work to do. But now there’s a map for them to follow.

The vision for a complete cross-country route was one of the founding dreams for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization hatched in 1986 to help convert former rail corridors into public trails for bikers, strollers, and other active transportation types. Founders David Burwell and Peter Harnik were railroad history buffs, and a coast-to-coast backbone was always part their vision. Not coincidentally, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

One big incentive to fund the trail for state and local leaders along the route: economic development potential from tourism. A study conducted by RTC in 2014 found that visitors to Pennsylvania’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail generated an estimated $8.3 million for nearby towns each year.

Since the rail-trail idea has taken hold over the past 30 years, it’s become easier to persuade local leaders that investments in trail-making pay off, says Kevin Mills, vice president of the Rail-to-Trail Conservancy. “You’ve got examples like Cumberland, Maryland, where the decline of coal mining really hurt. The trail was its chance for resurgence.”

The vision of a complete coast-to-coast trail, Mills says, also summons a bit more of a sense of possibility for local and state governments that might otherwise not see much of a point to finishing a solitary stretch of unconnected trail. “There’s the political will of people wanting it, but I also think there’s a step beyond that, which is believing that they really can do it,” Mills says.

Cowden, a donating member of the Rail-to-Trail Conservancy, says his cross-country adventure would have been a lot easier if he’d had this projected route. In Wyoming, where there’s the most amount of work to be done on the preferred route of the rail-trail, his only option was riding on the shoulder of the interstate highway. The Wyoming stretch of the preferred path would have the added bonus of making its way to Yellowstone National Park. “Obviously, it’d be far nicer to be on a rail-trail, not having to worry about being hit by a semi,” says Cowden.

A planned trail could also attract amenities used by bikers to less-populous areas. During his trip, Cowden had to rely on online resources to navigate finding food or place to stay. “When I was on a trail in Missouri, I talked to a woman who ran a bed-and-breakfast, and I asked her how much of her business came from the trail. She said about 90 percent, so it can definitely be an economic benefit to the communities it passes through.”

Speakers at the Capitol Hill kickoff included Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rick May, senior advisor for recreation to the Secretary of the Interior. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy hopes the project won’t just be a draw for gung-ho cyclists like Cowden. Rail-to-trail conversions have another benefit that may not immediately come to mind: What once made these rights-of-way work for locomotives makes them exceptionally generous places for human-powered vehicles. “Trains don’t like to go up steep hills,” says Mills. “All the engineering of railroads was about how you keep a gentle grade. That becomes really important and valuable when you think about building a trail that works for all ages and abilities.”

That was also the message that Juliette Rizzo, a disability rights advocate and former Miss Wheelchair America, brought to the Capitol Hill kickoff event. She told a heartfelt story about getting stuck reaching the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Maine. After making her way on some rocky paths and seeing a sunset, she didn’t realize how there would be no real path to get back when it got dark.

“While we understand that not all terrains are accessible, and may not be able to be made accessible, I am excited about the fact that [the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy] has made the commitment to increase the number of trails that are,” Rizzo told the crowd of rail-trail fans. “A trail is a wonderful way to mitigate the stressors of living with a disability. It can actively support inclusion, not isolation.”

*CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify the source of potential bike routing information

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