Although it’s a long way from being completed, organizers of the Great American Rail-Trail were celebrating recently in Three Forks, Montana.

That was the site for one of many launch parties meant to bring attention to the 3,700-mile biking and walking route that organizers hope will one day traverse the United States from Washington state to Washington, D.C., passing through 12 states.

“It was really great to see our community step forward,” said Michelle McNamee, state trails coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who attended the kick-off event. “Obviously it will be a big challenge with initial funding and maintenance,” but people seem excited.

Trestle ride

Riders cross one of the seven railroad trestles along the Hiawatha Trail, part of the Great American Rail-Trail.


The group gathered in Three Forks because its Headwaters Trail System would be included as a portion of the cross-country route. The town’s trail travels to Missouri Headwaters State Park where the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers meet to form the mighty Missouri River.

Other trails in Montana that organizers are including in the route are: the Highway 89 South Pedestrian Trail and the Depot Center Trail in Livingston; the Bozeman Story Mill Spur, Oak Street, North 19th Avenue, Valley Center trails, and Jackrabbit Lane Shared-Use Path; the Milwaukee Road Rail-Trail (Thompson Park) and Silver Bow Creek Greenway in Butte; the Piltzville, Canyon River, Milwaukee, Mullan Road and A.J. Hoyt Memorial trails in Missoula County; the 31-mile long Route of the Olympian over the Montana-Idaho border and the 21-mile NorPac Trail along the same border.

“One of the cool aspects about the project is it’s really focused on any trail user, it’s meant to appeal to all Americans,” McNamee said. “It’s a neat way to connect people.”

The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy’s preferred route of the Great American Rail-Trail through Montana is described as 427.5 miles. So far only 83 trail miles exist with another 344.5 “gap miles” needed to connect those routes.


Likewise through Wyoming the group is hoping to eventually link the trail from Livingston through Yellowstone National Park and continue across the Cowboy state via 508.1 miles of pathways. So far the route is fairly sparse with Casper (six miles) and Glenrock (two miles) contributing some of the routes. But the conservancy is hopeful that a recent report on active transportation in Wyoming might include a sizable investment in trails.

For example, the Wyoming Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force has recommended that a 21-mile trail between Glenrock and Evansville should be a priority as part of the Great American Rail-Trail, according to the conservancy’s website.

“RTC will provide technical and planning assistance to Platte River Trails, Wyoming Pathways and Wyoming State Parks to determine ownership of the former rail line; engage with property owners and stakeholders; determine who will own and maintain the trail after completion; implement cost estimation; complete a feasibility study; pursue public funding; and provide design, engineering and construction assistance.”

Long haul

The conservancy has been working on the route for 30 years, so completion is not likely to come any time soon. Still, the group’s officials remain upbeat — even comparing creation of the trail to the preservation of Yellowstone National Park in the 1800s — and are striving to engage more people in the push for trails.

“RTC is providing the national vision, leadership and expertise to ensure connectivity across state lines and to bring the resources necessary to close approximately 1,700 miles of gaps in the trail,” the group says on its website.

In Montana, McNamee said the trails communities in Bozeman and Missoula have already taken big steps forward to spearhead the state’s effort.

“Anything of this caliber is going to take a lot of work,” she said.

The Montana Legislature took a small step forward this past session by passing Senate Bill 24, which increases the opt-out fee added to a vehicle’s licensing from $6 to $9. The largest portion of that increase will go to state parks, but trails funding will also get a small bite, estimated to bring in about $800,000 a year.

“So we’re starting to build more momentum,” McNamee said. “A lot of folks are joining forces and getting behind recreation.”

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