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 Rainer 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 4,000 miles between the nation's park-studded capital and the preternaturally beautiful Evergreen State. (Proceed with caution when identifying the two.) 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. As a press release details, after years of visualizing and 18 months of "analysis and collaboration with local trail partners and state agencies" the all-important groundwork for the coast-to-coast trail — the RTC's signature project and by far its most ambitious — has been laid. It's happening.
Threading them all together
As with similarly epic trail projects that span great geographic distances, the challenge ahead largely involves linking together the existing "gateway" trails (12 have been identified) that will partially comprise the Great American Rail-Trail. Eventually, connecting trails will be plotted out and all of these disparate pieces will link up to form one continuous path. (When considering the existing trails, the project is now half complete.)
A mix of scenic greenways, multi-use paths and established trails developed around disused rail corridors, the whole shebang will be separated from vehicular traffic and, according to the RTC, 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."
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)
From historic Georgetown to the foothills of the Cascades
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."