Blazing America’s new coast-to-coast trail
For many years, adventurers who wanted long-distance trail challenges set their sights on the three longest north-south trails in the country: the 2,160-mile Appalachian, 2,650-mile Pacific Crest and 3,100-mile Continental Divide. This year, they will have the 6,356-mile east-west route of the American Discovery Trail to conquer.
The American Discovery Trail is made up of new trails and portions of old ones to form a continuous line from Delaware to California. It is the outgrowth of an effort by Backpacker magazine and members of the Silver Spring, Md.-based American Hiking Society to create a nationwide trail system that they hoped would come to within 15 minutes of all U.S. residents. (The ADT does not meet that ambitious criteria, but it does come to within 20 miles of 32 million residents.)
The trail is meant to expose people to historic, cultural and scenic attractions close to their homes, says Chris Voell, executive director of the Frederick, Md.-based American Discovery Trail Society. “I was one of those people who thought that, in order to see striking scenery, I had to go to Washington, Idaho, Colorado or someplace out west,” says Voell, a Maryland resident. “The ADT has brought to light all the places within an hour’s drive of me. It has allowed me to get out locally with my family to see some interesting places.”
The trail’s interesting places include 10,000 attractions as designated by the National Park Service. For example, the ADT passes the Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco), Buffalo Bill’s ranch (North Platte, Neb.), a statue of Popeye (Chester, Ill.), the International Mother’s Day Shrine (Grafton, W.Va.) and goes through the hometowns of five U.S. presidents. It also heads through the Shawnee National Forest (southern Illinois), the Garden of the Gods (Illinois and Colorado) and the Daniel Boone State Forest (Missouri) as well as the Appalachian, Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains.
Despite the trail’s varied attractions, the National Park Service determined that the ADT did not fit any of the criteria to be part of the National Trails System. The 1968 act that created the system designates two types of trails that may be recognized by Congress: scenic trails, which are located primarily in wilderness areas; and trails that follow paths with historic significance. The ADT uses some streets and sidewalks through urban and rural communities, and, although several historic trails are included in the ADT, they are only portions of it.
Trying to gain recognition from Congress has been the most difficult challenge in establishing the ADT, according to Reese Lukei, national coordinator of the American Discovery Trail. This year, the American Discovery Trail Society is trying for the third time to amend the National Trails System Act to create a new category for discovery trails. If Congress approves the amendment, the ADT will be eligible for support from the National Park Service.
“The criteria for a discovery trail would allow long-distance trails to exist in urban environments,” Lukei says. “The Discovery Trail will open doors to people who want to become active in outdoor recreation. One idea is to step out the front door and onto a trail and go as far as you want to go. You don’t have to drive to get to it.”
To gain support for the amendment, the American Discovery Trail Society is organizing a cross-country trip on the ADT for a four-member team. Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., is sponsoring the trip, which began in April at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Del., and will conclude in September at Point Reyes National Seashore in Point Reyes Station, Calif.
Along the way, the team is meeting with civic organizations, trail associations and students to promote the ADT. For example, when team members traveled through Ohio, they backpacked with members of the Buckeye Trail Association, and in Illinois they spoke to an assembly of 300 fourth- through sixth-graders.
In addition to seeking the amendment to the National Trails System Act, the American Discovery Trail Society is touting the ADT’s recent designation as one of 16 National Millennium Trails. The U.S. Department of Transportation selected the trails for the title because they “reflect defining aspects of America’s history and culture.” Other Millennium Trails include the East Coast Greenway (Maine to Florida), the Iditarod National Historic Trail (Alaska), the Underground Railroad (southern U.S to Canada) and the Unicoi Turnpike (Tennessee).
Trading rails for trails
Lukei is hopeful that the Ford Adventure team and the Millennium Trail designation persuade Congress to pass the amendment, since it may encourage communities to develop more trails. One way to create more trails is to convert abandoned railroads into public-use trails.
The North Bend Rail Trail in West Virginia, which the ADT follows for 70 miles, was converted to recreational use after the railroad closed down. The 100-mile Hiawatha Rail Trail in Des Moines, Iowa, will become part of the ADT once it is converted.
Rail-trail conversions are not popular everywhere, however. Bud Newell, who recently resigned as the ADT coordinator in Kansas, has faced opposition to the ADT from people who do not want abandoned railroads near their property to be open to the public. “There are some who question whether railbanked lines belong to land owners or land bureaus,” he says.
The debate lies in the varied state and federal laws regarding railbanking, which allows rail lines to be preserved for trail use when they are no longer used by trains. Some believe that abandoned rail lines should be divided among adjacent landowners. Others say that the land never belonged to the landowners and that, if they want the land, they should purchase it for its fair market value.
For now, the ADT follows low-volume county roads through Kansas, but the goal is to move the trail entirely off-road, either onto abandoned rail lines or other paths. “The ADT will happen here, there’s no doubt about it,” Newell says.
The rail-trail conversion issue struck a chord with John Fazel, coordinator of the ADT in California, who recently sold his father’s farm in Iowa. The farm has a rail corridor running diagonally through the property, and Fazel specified in the deed that it would revert back to public use if the line is abandoned. “Doing this will create wildlife corridors, not just rows of corn and beans,” he says.
In California, he says, it has been no problem to use rail-trails for the ADT, so he tries to help develop rail-trails in other states. Fazel, 63, has run across Delaware, West Virginia and California on the ADT, and, in June, he completed a two-week run across Iowa to raise money for the Hiawatha Rail Trail conversion. “The greatest part is meeting the people along the way,” he says.
Meeting people is fairly easy in some places on the ADT. In northern Illinois, for example, the ADT passes through a town every 15 to 20 miles, says Dominick Chellino, ADT coordinator for northern Illinois. “Canals went right through the heart of the towns, and those trails make up the ADT now,” he says. Some of the communities along the ADT in Illinois are even creating parks in their town squares to attract travelers into town.
The ADT in Utah is a different story, says Doug Carriger, Utah ADT coordinator. “Most of the trail [in Utah] is very remote,” he says. “The ADT passes through three towns in the entire state. A person hiking the trail in Utah has to like to travel independently because they’ll travel many miles without seeing another person for days at a time.”
Carriger says he knows of only two people who have traveled the ADT in Utah so far, and they used mountain bikes for most of their trip. Maps of the ADT in Utah are available, but Carriger receives few requests for them. “Most people will go from Colorado to Moab, Utah, and that will be enough for them,” he says.
If hiking or biking 6,300 miles across the country is too daunting, the 3,500-mile loop through the Midwest provides an alternative course. The ADT splits in Elizabethtown, Ohio, and reunites in Denver. “The creators of the ADT wanted an urbanized trail,” Chellino says. “They drew in another 10 million people who lived within 30 minutes of the ADT by splitting the route in two in the Midwest.”
The majority of people who use the trail will not travel the entire middle loop, let alone the entire length, Voell says. “The coast-to-coast trail is the grand idea that attracts people to their closest trail for two hours,” he says. “After the first two hours, they might want to stay longer, travel farther.”
Ultimately, the American Discovery Trail Society would like to teach children to be stewards of trails and of their environment. The society is testing an interactive CD-ROM that teaches students about the trail as well as about weather, science, geography, history and culture. Also, the society plans to provide a web-based forum for schools along the ADT to communicate with one another.
In the meantime, volunteers in each state along the trail are marking its course and creating detailed maps for travelers to follow from town to town; however, this process will not be complete until the trail is entirely off-road. The American Discovery Trail Society expects the final trail to span 6,500 miles through mountains, plains, forests and deserts from sea to shining sea.
For information on the American Discovery Trail, contact The American Discovery Trail Society at (800) 663-2387, or visit its web site at www.discoverytrail.org.