The Great Redwood Trail

Have you heard of a new long-distance trail in the works from just north of the Golden Gate Bridge all the way to Eureka? It’s called the Great Redwood Trail (GRT), and it will one day be 317 miles of blissfully car-free pathway from Larkspur in Marin County, through Sonoma, Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt Counties. A classic rail-to-trail conversion, the GRT will be concurrent with the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) pathway in Marin and Sonoma Counties, where significant portions of the trail already exist or are in the planning stages. North of Cloverdale heading into the wilds of Mendocino County and beyond, the trail will be built on the old North Coast Rail Authority (NCRA) line.

Rail to trail conversions have long been a popular way to make good use of a public asset that is no longer used for its original purpose. Competition from the automobile and trucking challenged passenger and freight rail beginning in the 1930’s, leading to the demise of many a rail line. “Railbanking” began in the mid 1980’s and according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy website “is a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail sponsor (such as a trail organization or government agency) to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service. This interim trail use of railbanked corridors has preserved thousands of miles of rail corridors that would otherwise have been abandoned.”

The GRT will be a multi-use trail for walkers, hikers, runners, cyclists, and in the northern reaches for equestrians as well. Where the trail is coincident with the SMART pathway in Sonoma and Marin, the surface will be paved. Trail segments in Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt counties are far less developed and are the subject of a master planning process happening now. These segments are less likely to be paved, and more likely to be “natural surface”—decomposed granite, crushed limestone, etc.

The GRT promises to bring the economic benefits of tourism to the small, rural northern California towns that have been hard hit by changing industries and appetites. According to the Great Redwood Trail Agency, “…this multi-use trail will travel through some of the most scenic landscapes in the United States, traversing old-growth redwood forests, running alongside oak woodlands and vineyards, and winding through the magnificent Eel River Canyon…creating a transformational economic engine and boosting healthy recreation for all in the North Coast region.”

But before you start rigging your Surly for that multi-day adventure from Marin to Humboldt Bay, it is important to note that the trail is very much a work in progress, particularly north of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. Existing segments in the northern reaches include the Ukiah Rail-Trail, Eureka Waterfront Trail, Humboldt Bay Trail, Arcata Rail-with-Trail, and Annie & Mary Trail. While an additional 15 miles of trail is currently in the planning or construction stage in Ukiah, Willits, Eel River Canyon, and Humboldt Counties, these projects are on various timelines, each with their own complexities and challenges.

The GRT will be funded by a combination of public and private sources. Grants from state agencies like Caltrans, the State Coastal Conservancy will surely be in the mix, as well as other sources not yet identified—sources both public and private. The master planning process had identified strong local and regional support for the trail, and a high level of interest in volunteering for everything from trash pick up to stewardship, interpretation, and a trail ambassador program. And should passenger and/or freight rail in this part of the state make a booming comeback, railbanking of the line preserves this flexibility.

For all the wild scenic beauty of the north coast of California, there is a surprising lack of easily accessible parks, trails and open spaces. The Great Redwood Trail will offer a way to experience and enjoy this land that belongs to the American public, to create connective tissue between rural towns brimming with both history and future.

To learn more or to get involved, check out the Great Redwood Trail website.

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