A Cross-Country Trail to Connect a Nation: The Great American Rail-Trail

The route of Great American Rail-Trail was formally revealed during a cross-country live event on May 8, 2019.

by Ryan Chao, President, Rails to Trails Conservancy

This winter, I stepped into the role of president at Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC), the nation’s largest trails organization, which is dedicated to connecting people and communities through a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines.


The preferred route for the Great American Rail-Trail was formally revealed during a cross-country live event on May 8, 2019.

Learn more at railstotrails.org.

In taking on this position, I had the great fortune of succeeding the 18-year leadership of Keith Laughlin, a man I not only admire and respect, but under whose leadership the vision for one of RTC’s most ambitious projects to date came into focus: the Great American Rail-Trail.

Spanning more than 3,600 miles, from Washington, D.C., to Washington State—and traveling through 12 states and the District of Columbia—this cross-country trail will ultimately serve more than 50 million people within 50 miles of the route, and is poised to become an iconic, American treasure.

While the time is now to bring this vision to life, RTC has recognized the potential for a cross-country trail for more than three decades—beginning in the 1980s. David Burwell, RTC’s co-founder, dreamed of a trail that would connect the North American continent like the railroads that came a century before.

Over time, RTC began to take hold of David’s vision, seeing its potential as a gift to the nation—connecting people within and between the small towns and bustling cities that make up the American landscape.

Since its inception, RTC has kept a keen focus on rail-trail development, and in the early days, the team began tracking this development on a large U.S. wall map at our headquarters in Washington, D.C. Using pins to designate new and developing rail-trail projects, over time, the skeleton for a cross-country trail slowly began to take shape.

Over the next 30 years, RTC focused its efforts on strengthening the national trail movement, and by 2016—when we revisited the idea for the Great American Rail-Trail—we had engaged more than 160,000 members and supporters, and there were more than 22,000 miles of rail-trails connecting American communities.

In 2017, the RTC team conducted preliminary GIS analyses, which revealed multiple potential host routes consisting of more than 50 percent existing trails—the threshold that we, as an organization, had identified for committing to the project.

Realizing the timing was finally right to make the Great American Rail-Trail a reality, we began a formal route assessment across 12 states and the District of Columbia, which included meeting with over 50 state and local officials and more than 200 local trail partners. We also collected mapping data for 125+ existing trails. The results of this assessment have been translated into what is now the preferred route for the Great American Rail-Trail—which will be formally revealed during a cross-country live event on May 8, 2019.

The route—traveling from Washington, D.C., to Washington State, will highlight the diverse communities, breathtaking landscapes and rich cultural and historical treasures that—together—make America special.

In tandem with its exquisite views and cultural sites, the Great American Rail-Trail will bring numerous tangible benefits to the nation. As new trails and connecting corridors are developed, the Great American Rail-Trail will open up access to safe places for physical activity and outdoor recreation—promoting health and wellness, and encouraging every American to make new connections to their neighborhoods and their environments. These connections will also bridge the gaps within—and between—our diverse communities, creating safe walking and biking access to jobs, green space, transit, shopping and the cultural treasures that make each place unique.

The deep personal meaning that trails hold for each of us can be shared in new ways—as geographic, generational and cultural barriers are replaced by connections brought about by this cross-country route.

Now, just three decades after David Burwell first dreamed of a trail route connecting America, I feel honored to work alongside the RTC staff, and with our local trail partners, civic leaders and government agencies who have been integral to this process, to help usher in this iconic trail in the making.

About the Author

Ryan Chao is the president of Rails to Trails Conservancy, responsible for overseeing the organization’s national leadership in trail development, policy advocacy and movement building. He brings to his role a long history in community and economic development and a passion for connecting people to opportunity and the outdoors.

1,264 views • posted 07/02/2019