What Every Cyclist Should Know About the Great American Rail Trail

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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What Every Cyclist Should Know About the Great American Rail Trail

If there’s one thing that tends to keep people away from cycling, it’s having to deal with the potential for accidents on busy roads with lots of vehicle traffic. Thankfully, a plan is in place to eliminate this risk, providing cyclists with a way to ride from coast to coast without having to deal with speedy cars and traffic lights.

Consisting of a 3,700-mile multi-use path, the Great American Rail Trail will be the kind of highway most cyclists only imagined in their wildest dreams. From the projected route to completion dates, here’s what you need to know about the ongoing project.


Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC) is a nonprofit organization whose primary objective is to work with communities across the country to create multi-use paths along unused rail corridors. Since 1986, the organization helped build 23,000 miles of trails — with plans to build more than 8,000 additional miles.

Part of those planned miles will be the construction of the Great American Rail Trail, with the suggested route already about 52% complete. If you’ve heard of the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail this might sound familiar, but in reality the two are quite different. Instead of utilizing highways and roads where vehicles operate, the Great American Rail Trail is designed to create a car-free atmosphere to encourage more people to get in the saddle and ride their bike without having to worry about safety.

It is estimated the trail will provide 50 million people within 50 miles of the trail access to a continuous off-road bicycle path, allowing for the opportunity to explore the country in a unique way.


Beginning in Washington, D.C., the 3,700-mile trail will connect 125 existing trails and fill in 90 trail gaps upon completion. More than 80% of the trail will be on multi-use paths away from vehicle traffic initially and 100% upon completion. The trail will also be open to walkers, runners and horseback riders but not motorized vehicles.

The current plan for the trail is to cross the District of Columbia and 12 states, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho before finishing in Washington state. Here are a few of the route highlights:

  • The Capital Crescent Trail in Georgetown and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park will be part of the trail.
  • In Pennsylvania, the Industrial Heartland Trail Coalition (IHTC) will be utilized, which is a 1,500-mile network of trails stretching through 51 counties and four states.
  • The Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail will lead to Indiana.
  • 115 miles of trail gaps are planned to be constructed in Indiana.
  • One of the states with the biggest construction projects will be Wyoming, where more than 500 miles of trails gaps will be built. On the plus side, part of the planned route heads through Yellowstone National Park.
  • While Idaho already has multi-use paths in place, Montana will need to construct 344 miles of path.
  • The Cascades State Park Trail and the Olympic Discovery Trail will be utilized in Washington, eventually leading all the way to the Pacific Ocean.


Currently there are 1,900 miles of completed trail, leaving about 1,800 miles of path that still need to be built. While the RTC is fully committed to seeing the project through its completion, significant time and resources are necessary. It is estimated the trail may take more than two decades to be completed, but a large part of the exact time-frame depends on funding.

Federal and state government participation will play a significant role, but public funding is also crucial. The RTC is a grassroots community that is currently 1 million strong. If you aren’t part of supporting this organization you can learn more about donation and providing other resources here.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.


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