A group of cyclists follow a trail next to a river.

What Is the Great American Rail-Trail? And What Does it Have to Do With Minnesota?

The Great American Rail-Trail is a grand scheme of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy to build a continuous, off-road multi-use trail from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to the Pacific Ocean in Washington State — a trail across the entire United States. It sounds like something of a bananas dream, but it’s possible. 

The route of the Great American Rail-Trail. From the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) has been dreaming about the Great American Rail-Trail since the organization’s founding in the 1970s. However, in 2017, the Conservancy did an analysis and realized that 50% of a route across the country already existed. At this moment, the Great American Rail-Trail became an official project of the Conservancy, and planning, studying and promoting the trail began in earnest.

There’s no minimizing the challenges. Circa January 2024, 48% of the trail remains to be done, and it’s gotten harder. Rail rights of way are not abandoned at the pace they used to be. Many of the gaps are in sparsely populated areas, places where it’s practically — and politically — difficult to build a multi-use trail for non-motorized uses. It’s an open question whether building a trail through, say, windswept Wyoming would be more difficult than finding a path through denser, established communities and pricy, fiercely guarded agricultural land.

But the more I read of the RTC’s plan, the more I came to believe that it was possible. I highly recommend to people who are my brand of planning and wayfinding nerd that you review the planning documents and studies.

The Local Angle

Streets.mn is about transportation and land use in Minnesota, and despite Minnesota being perhaps the best state in the nation for biking, the Great American Rail-Trail does not envision passing through Minnesota, instead favoring Iowa. (It’s a wise trade-off: Read the plan to understand why.)

In my obsession with the project (because I need better hobbies), I became interested in the exact route of the Great American Rail-Trail. The RTC has the trail passing through Waterloo, Iowa — the trail’s northernmost point in Iowa — where it separates after following the Cedar Valley Nature Trail that traces the Cedar River.

Now, I understand if folks may be unfamiliar with Iowa geography. But Waterloo is only 60 miles from the Minnesota border. That shapes out to be about 105 miles from Rochester, almost exactly due south.

Waterloo, Iowa, and Rochester, Minnesota, are a little more than 100 miles from each other.

Here’s my pitch: The Great American Rail-Trail is a crazy, beautiful idea on a very long timeframe to ever be complete. Minnesota is a great bike state, and the Twin Cities is a great bike metro, and both Minnesota and the metro have exciting bike and active transportation futures. And I will make the emotional appeal that if there’s going to be a Great American Rail-Trail from Washington (D.C.) to Washington (state), Minnesota should get in on the action — and finalize trail connections that would lead to the RTC’s route in northern Iowa.

While my instinct is rooted in emotion, my idea is not so unthinkable. Minnesota already has long-distance bike routes. I rode them last summer, and it was a blast.

First, I’m going to do a 10,000-foot approximation of the method that Rails-to-Trails used to propose the Great American Rail-Trail. The RTC looked at existing trails and saw if there were trails that could be connected to create their grand aspiration. I am using Google Maps, which is not 100% reliable for bike maps, especially in rural areas. But trail markings on Google are generally a good indication that some kind of trail is there, and trail surfaces are often within our power to be changed, even if the “bike trail” is actually a crushed-rock snowmobile trail.

Going south to north, one can see some trails that travel generally N/S between the Waterloo area and the Minnesota border:

Trails between Waterloo and the Minnesota-Iowa state line.

Namely, the Wapsi-Great Western Trail in Iowa begins near Elma and picks up again at Riceville. Elma is roughly 46 miles as the corn crows fly from the bike routes on the outskirts of Waterloo, which is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s an imaginable distance to connect with trails. This, notably, would be the job of Iowa.

In the process of researching this, I learned from the trail association website that the Wapsi-Great Western Trail is designated as a Minnesota/Iowa interstate trail, and there are plans to someday connect it to the Shooting Star State Trail in southern Minnesota, which is pictured below, heading west from Le Roy.

The Wapsi-Great Western Trail, the Shooting Star Trail and the western portion of the Root River State Trail System.

Per the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Shooting Star State Trail extends to Austin, Minnesota — someday contiguously. However, remembering Monte Castleman’s piece on the Root River State Trail, it’s hard not to dream that the Shooting Star route could also extend eastward and connect to the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, which is part of the Root River system surrounding Lanesboro.

Rochester could be connected via Fountain or Austin, Minnesota.

Rochester is 32 miles from Austin as the crow flies and only 25 miles from Fountain. In the grand scheme, these are manageable distances to connect existing trails. Maybe not for a new right of way, but I’d bet some country roads could run a multi-use trail adjacent to them without so much as tipping a cow.

Rochester is a growing city with big dreams and is a destination in itself. But it would be really cool if an uninterrupted multi-use trail extended from the Twin Cities to the future Great American Rail-Trail. Fortunately, north of Rochester, it looks even more possible.

There are many possible routes between Rochester and the Twin Cities, in various states of planning and design.

There’s already the Douglas State trail as far as Pine Island, which is planned to be connected to the Goodhue Pioneer State Trail, which currently has a southern terminus in Zumbrota, and plans to connect to Red Wing and the Cannon Valley Trail

At this point, any number of connections could be possible, whether through Hastings, Lakeville or elsewhere in the south metro.

As I discovered while diving into the trails that fall between the Twin Cities, Rochester and Waterloo, many of these trails already have aspirations, plans or projects to form a trail network that connects communities of all sizes throughout the state. Per the Minnesota Statewide Bicycle System Plan, prepared and updated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the corridor between Northfield and the Twin Cities is identified as high priority, and Rochester to Mankato or Red Wing is identified as medium priority. It’s worth pointing out that the Statewide Bicycle System Plan called for connections to Iowa before the Great American Rail-Trail was even announced — an illustration of the trajectory that multi-use paths have across our state.

Prioritized corridors from the Statewide Bicycle System Plan, 2016.

Dreams of the Open Trail

It seems there already is sort of a plan to connect the Twin Cities to the Great American Rail-Trail, even if the plans and priorities were drawn up before the Rail Trail was announced in 2017.

First, some caveats. The neat part about bike infrastructure is that it can be implemented incrementally. Very incrementally. Trails can be extended a couple of blocks or miles at a time. It’s alright if it takes a long time — people will ride the trail and value the extensions. I wouldn’t advocate a project to connect the Twin Cities to Waterloo, but if you name the vision, and invite others to contribute, it’s possible that many small efforts can come together to create an impressive accomplishment.

The Great American Rail-Trail has been created as a vision without a timeline, a project that will likely take at least a generation to complete. We can copy that methodology, and by naming the intention and creating a vision, create something almost unbelievable over the long term — like an off-street trail from the Minnesota State Capitol to the nation’s Capitol in D.C.

Additionally, it’s possible (if not desirable) to have interim solutions. I respect that not everyone feels comfortable riding on a rural highway shoulder, and I acknowledge that the ultimate goal ought to be a fully separate route from traffic. But I’ll offer from my experience that a wide shoulder on a quiet country road can feel pretty comfortable, especially on routes where MnDOT is intentionally installing paved shoulders. Crucially, this can bypass tricky gaps and demonstrate ridership to skeptics by showing the demand for a cycle route in that direction.

I am well aware that we’re dealing with distances that most people don’t associate with “bikeable.” A rough approximation of the route described here — from the Twin Cities to Waterloo — is 257 miles. That’s enough to give pause to even the most lycra-clad road-warrior.

Here’s where I refer to my (one-off) experience of having biked across the state of Minnesota, and my role as a teary-eyed bike believer. As the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy puts it, it does not matter if few people even attempt to ride the complete length of a trail, whether it’s from the Twin Cities to Waterloo or Washington to Washington. What does matter is that connecting these trails multiplies their value, and brings value to folks who may otherwise be excluded.

This is for the people who spend a day riding the trail and never have the disappointment of coming to a dead end. It’s for the bored college kids in Northfield who’d bike to Rochester in a day because they can. These trails, while able to facilitate incredible journeys at a large scale, also facilitate small things: places for kids to learn how to ride, or maybe even to have their first taste of independence. They become commuting routes and places to walk your dog. They become treasured social infrastructure, hosting events like the MS 150 or the Mankato River Ramble. Trails — even especially the ones through sparsely populated farmland — have a way of proving their worth.

As said in the most famous movie set in Iowa, “If you build it, they will come.”

Appendix: Trail Gaps

Max Singer

About Max Singer

Max Singer is Minneapolis born, raised, and returned. He's had a lot of odd jobs and wacky experiences for being Gen-Z. Max gets around- at times by foot, bicycle, light rail, bus, car, boat, delivery van, train, and sometimes, escalator.