This week’s blog celebrates one of the great American movements of the past half-century. . . The Rails-to-Trails Movement.

You may be surprised to learn that it all began back in the mid-1960s — and in the Midwest of all places. This was the idea that surfaced: Convert abandoned or unused rail corridors, which were then rapidly growing in number across the US, into public trails.

Back in the 1960s, as tracks were pulled out, people instinctively gravitated toward these corridors — to walk, to explore, to hang out, to treasure hunt. Mostly, people walked — or snowshoed in the winter. . .and soon the name “rails-to-trails” was coined — and a nascent movement began.

According to the RTC website: “The rail-trail movement would see its formal birth with the opening of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in 1965 and the opening of the Illinois Prairie Path soon thereafter. In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, which largely deregulated the nation’s struggling railroad industry and allowed for the discontinuation of unprofitable routes. This prompted the abandonment of 4,000 to 8,000 miles of lines each year throughout the early 1980s. In 1983, Congress became concerned about the potential permanent loss of thousands of miles of rail corridor and amended the National Trails Systems Act to create “railbanking,” a tool to preserve inactive corridors for future rail use, while providing for interim trail use.”

Thirty years ago, there were a mere 250 miles of open rail-trails in America. Now more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails providing a place for tens of millions of people to walk, run, hike, skate and cycle each year. Local communities are joining together to connect townships via walking and biking trails — to promote connection and healthy living as well as access to nature for all ages.

The mission statement of the RTC is simple: “We transform unused rail corridors into vibrant public spaces that engage, inspire and empower communities from coast to coast.”

Now, new projects exist that aim to connect states across America. The most ambitious of which is The Great American Rail-Trail, which will stretch 3,700 miles from Washington DC across 12 states to the Pacific Ocean west of Seattle. The Rail-Trail will connect more than 125 existing multi-use paths, greenways, trails, and towpaths. An official route was announced to the public in May 2019 by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the Washington DC-based non-profit leading the effort, when the trail was already more than half completed.

This national movement now boasts an extraordinary goal, as elucidated by RTC president Ryan Chao:

“The Great American Rail-Trail will be a national treasure. It presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create—together—an enduring gift to the nation that will bring joy for generations to come.”

As you can see from these maps, amazing progress that is being made on a national level

And be sure to check and see which rail-trail projects exist in your community. It’s a great way to volunteer and make new walking friends — as well as to preserve the corridors for generations to come. . .


Get a Rails-To-Trails Book of Maps