The most obvious and quickest way to travel between Washington, D.C., and Washington state is to board a direct flight on Alaska Airlines from Ronald Reagan National Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Washington-to-Washington in about six hours — fast enough. Enjoy the complimentary Pirate's Booty and the jaw-dropping views of Mount Rainier on the descent.
But for more adventurous types, there's another Washington-linking travel option on the horizon that will take weeks to complete. And what a journey it promises to be.
Described as the "single greatest trail project in United States history," the in-development Great American Rail-Trail spans nearly 4,000 miles between the nation's park-studded capital and the preternaturally beautiful Evergreen State. Originating in the historic D.C. neighborhood of Georgetown, the multi-use trail, when complete, will pass through 11 states and an array of singularly awe-inspiring landscapes before terminating in the Cascade foothills, not far from Seattle.
Countless communities large and small are situated along different segments of the trail including — wait for it — the city of Washington, Pennsylvania.
President of the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) Keith Laughlin notes that this "bold vision" will "take years to complete." So don't hold your breath. There's work to be done, but it's happening.
Threading them all together
In May 2019, the RTC announced its preferred route for the system: It will connect more than 125 existing trails and 90 trail gaps. The announcement came after a 12-month assessment and analysis of more then 34,000 miles of multi-use trails, a review of state and local trail plans, and discussions with hundreds of local trail partners and state agencies along the route.
According to a press release, "The preferred route aligns with RTC’s and its partners’ criteria that specify the Great American be one contiguous route that is initially more than 80 percent, and ultimately entirely, off street and separated from vehicle traffic; comprises existing trails to the extent possible; is the most direct route possible between Washington, D.C., and Washington State; is amenable to the state and local jurisdictions that will host it; and will serve as a catalyst for local economic development, including providing services for long-distance trail travelers."
The route was announced with a live-streamed broadcast:
According to the RTC, the whole shebang will serve 50 million people within 50 miles of the route.
As I said of the East Coast Greenway, an cycling route that spans the entire Eastern Seaboard from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida, and is not associated with the RTC, it's easiest to think of these undertakings as "mammoth patchwork quilts in linear park form given that they require the participation of dozens upon dozens of local nonprofit partners and governmental organizations."
From historic Georgetown to the foothills of the Cascades
The Capital Crescent Trail in Maryland and D.C. will be the first major section of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's ambitious coast-to-coast trail project. (Photo: eddie welker/Flickr)
Worth noting are the dozen established gateway trails that are currently accessible. There might already be one in your own backyard worth exploring.
The are, moving east to west: the Capital Crescent Trail (Washington, D.C., and Maryland, 11 miles), Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park (Washington, D.C. and Maryland,185 miles), the Panhandle Trail (Pennsylvania and West Virginia, 29 miles), the Ohio to Eerie Trail (Ohio, 270 miles), the Cardinal Greenway (Indiana, 61 miles), the Hennepin Canal Parkway (Illinois,100-plus miles), the Cedar Valley Nature Trail (Iowa, 52 miles), the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail (Nebraska, 219 miles), the Casper Rail Trail (Wyoming, 6 miles), the Headwaters Trail System (Montana, 12 miles), Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes (Idaho, 72 miles) and, last but not least, Washington's Palouse to Cascades Park Trail, which, at over 200 miles, is one of the longest and most spectacular rail-to-trail conversions in the United States.
"The investment of time and resources necessary to complete this trail will be returned many times over as it takes its place among the country's national treasures," says Laughlin. "As we embark on the journey to complete the Great American Rail-Trail, we embark on the single greatest trail project in the history of the U.S. One that comes with an important legacy of unity, ambition and access to the outdoors for the nation."
When the RTC was founded in 1986, scant recreational rail conversion projects existed. More than 23,000 miles of old rail lines have since been transformed into scenic trails with another 8,000 miles in the pipeline. Today, the conservancy, staunch in its mission to "build healthier places for healthier people," boasts over 160,000 members nationwide and has been instrumental in influencing policy that promotes modes of active transportation — walking, cycling, hiking and on — in rural and urban communities alike.
"We're going to have the chance to bring people to all different parts of the country and bring the economic benefit, but also the cultural benefit," Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for the conservancy, tells REI's Co-Op Journal of the Great American Rail-Trail. "Connecting with and meeting the different faces of America — that is a return on investment that isn't even quantifiable."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in February 2019.