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It’s been an American dream for more than 150 years: mounting a trip across the country. We can picture pioneers in their covered wagons, the Pony Express on horseback, followed by the iron horses of their day crossing the nation as it grew. Today, in 2021, driving across the nation is easy but not really as romantic. But now, we’re getting ever so close to being able to pedal the entire country, seamlessly.

Since 1986, Rails-To-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has driven the effort to create and manage trails from the East Coast, through the Midwest, to the West Coast, along the same course charted a century ago by the railroads. In the last year alone, the RTC has secured nearly $15 million in new funds and 100 miles of land to continue building the trails, bringing the system that much closer to a total linkup.

Since the end of 2019, RTC has developed an additional 80 miles of trails between the more than 2,000 miles that already existed, traversing 10 states from Washington D.C. to Washington state. According to the RTC, the entire project stretches 3,700 miles which included 95 gaps between 145 trails. Eliminating those gaps is the dream, one that could be realized within the next decade.

To accomplish this, the RTC developed a “preferred route” plan.

“When defining the preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail, we sought a cross-country route that would provide the highest-quality experience while delivering significant economic and social benefits to the communities it connects,” said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at RTC. “This route achieves those things and more.”

A map of the Great American Rail-Trail route.

Running through 12 states and the District of Columbia, the Great American Rail-Trail will extend 3,700 miles and include more than 1,900 miles of existing trails that will help carry the route across the country. The work to be done is adding more than 1,700 miles of “trail gaps,” or sections of trail in need of development to fully connect the Great American.

“We believe the Great American Rail-Trail will be a transformative project for the nation, as it magnifies on a grand scale the benefits that trails have delivered to communities for decades,” said Ryan Chao, president of RTC. “Whether bridging gaps within and between communities; creating safe walking and biking access to jobs, transit, shopping, and green space; or serving as recreation for cyclists, runners, and casual daily explorers, this will be America’s trail.”

According to the RTC, at the end of 2019, some 50 million Americans lived within 50 miles of the planned trail. The belief is that hundreds of communities and towns will realize new economic benefits from tourism and the growing American outdoor economy.

To learn more about the Great American Rail-Trail and RTC and to view the preferred route, visit greatamericanrailtrail.org. Also read up on our best biking and rail-trail content here:

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