Ever dream of thru-biking across the interior of the United States? Thanks to a decades-long project spearheaded by the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, that trip is one step closer to fruition.
When completed, the Great American Rail-Trail will stretch from Washington D.C. to Washington state, encompassing nearly 3,700 miles along the way. The idea has been in the works for 50 years and more progress is being made every day.
About 80 miles of the trail are considered complete, but the Great American Rail-Trail already connects with existing bike trails. It's built on old railroad lines, hence the name. The path is made from paved asphalt, crushed stone and other materials.
Bike the Great American Rail-Trail
Unfortunately, the trail won't be completed until 2040. But if you want to get a head start, you can begin in Washington D.C. The trail starts near the Smithsonian on the National Mall. From there, it meanders northwest through the city and into Maryland. Stay overnight at a 19th-Century lock house along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal or pitch a tent in a cutout along the C&O Canal Towpath. Cross the continental divide at the 3,118-foot Paw Paw Canal Tunnel and venture along the Potomac or Shenandoah rivers til you reach the Blue Ridge Mountains.
This excursion is just a sampling of what the Great American Rail-Trail will offer cyclists. The Rails-to-Trails organizations want the trail to connect the nation's history, geology and towns, allowing bikers to discover new faces and places along the way.
Why is the Trail Important?
At completion, the Great American Rail-Trail will be within 50 miles of 50 million people. In that sense, it will be a boon for the millions of Americans who have recently discovered cycling. A Rail-to-Trails Conservancy study found 200 percent more people spent time on its trails in 2020 than in 2019. While that's probably due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing social distancing measures, hopefully, those people have discovered how much fun biking in the great outdoors can be.
"I think [the pandemic] demonstrated to a lot of officials that access to the outdoors actually is key. Creating these connections is really critical," Brandi Horton, vice-president of communications at the RTC, was quoted as saying in a BBC story about the trail.
Bike Trails Elsewhere in the World
Many Americans are just now learning about the joys of biking, but elsewhere in the world, similar cross-country through trails have been in use for decades. For instance:
In Europe, the EuroVelo 6 route traverses 10 countries between the Atlantic and the Black Sea.
In Northern England, the Transpennine Trail ambles through villages, historic sites and national parks. The trail is built on old railway lines and connects the country's coasts.
The Cycling Through Water path in Belgium allows bikers to travel through the ponds of Bokrijk. The path sits at the same level as the water, so riders appear to glide through the pond.
Need a Trail Recommendation?
Lots of people are taking up the hobby of cycling, so it's more important than ever before to provide safe, secure places to ride. Plus, the proximity of trails brings riders through forgotten downtowns that need an economic boost.