Great Redwood Trail, to stretch from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay, enters planning phase

The 316-mile path will “take its place next to such iconic trails the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail,” said trail design expert Michael Jones.|

Over 1,000 people logged onto a virtual town hall last week to hear an update on the Great Redwood Trail, the ambitious, expensive 316-mile foot and bike path which, when complete, will be the longest rail-to-trail project in the nation.

This pathway, to be constructed along the right of way overseen by the North Coast Railroad Authority, will stretch from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay, offering hikers, cyclists and equestrians new access to towering redwood forests and the stunning Eel River Canyon.

“It will ultimately take its place next to such iconic trails the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail,” said Michael Jones, founder of Alta Planning and Design. Jones, of Marin County, was one of the panelists at Thursday’s town hall hosted by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who authored the 2018 bill to create the Great Redwood Trail.

Map showing the future Great Redwood Trail in all its glory. For more info see: (The Great Redwood Trail)
Map showing the future Great Redwood Trail in all its glory. For more info see: (The Great Redwood Trail)

While some segments of the multibillion dollar trail are already in use, its final completion is probably decades away. The next step, McGuire explained, will be the formation of a master plan, a 2- to 3-year process that will determine what the trail will look like in different places: paved bike paths in some sections, gravel and single-track in others.

“We know there are lots of landslides and slumps and ground problems,” said Jones of the section of trail that will go through the remote Eel River Canyon. During the planning phase, he said, soils engineers and other experts will answer questions such as, “Should we fix them? Try to live with them? Build a bridge over them? What’s the impact? What’s the cost?”

It was a clue of how much work remains to be done came when McGuire bid attendees to close their eyes and “imagine” a strip of land from Marin “through the gorgeous vineyards of Sonoma County, showcasing the stunning beauty of Mendocino County, through the redwoods and oak-studded hills of the Eel River Canyon.”

Along with that gauzy pitch, he brought news. That very morning, said McGuire, the NCRA board had voted to file paperwork with the federal government to “railbank” a long stretch of its tracks in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Railbanking “locks in” the existing railbed, “so you can put a trail on top of it.”

In addition to opening wide swaths of remote wildlands to nature lovers, the trail will also serve as an economic driver for many of the rural communities it adjoins, McGuire said. That message was amplified by panelist Laura Cohen, director of the western region of the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy. She pointed out that the 2.5 million people who visited the 87-mile Ohio Erie Canalway last year spent over $7 million.

The Great Redwood Trail, when finished, would attract many more users, “and much more of an economic impact,” she said.

“Trails attract visitors, and visitors spend money.”

But how much money will this vast project cost? A preliminary study released last year by the California State Transportation Agency said the Great Redwood Trail could cost as much as $1 billion to build, and another $4 billion to address environmental impacts. Those jaw-dropping sums were dismissed by McGuire at the time as “hogwash” and “not based in reality.”

While the final price tag may not be that high, there’s no question it will be steep. Supporters of the project contend that it can be paid for with bond measures, state funding and private philanthropy. Proposition 68, passed by Californians in 2018, earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for the state’s parks. Some of those funds are set aside for trail projects.

The cost will depend on the type of trail that is built. Single track pathways will cost as little as $15,000 per mile. Class 1 bike paths through towns and cities are $2 to $4 million per mile.

“We can put wide, paved trails in communities where they work well to attract visitors,” said Kevin Wright, government and external affairs manager for Marin County Parks. “But as we get into these more wild experiences, single track trails are not only more cost effective, they also in many cases match the environment they’re put into.”

In Sonoma and Marin counties, SMART is tasked with building the paved portion of the trail network along its planned 70-mile service line from Larkspur to Cloverdale, plus the 2 miles north that it will oversee to the county line. The rail agency and its partners have built path segments totaling about 24 miles, with another 10 miles of segments already funded or under construction.

Jones’ slideshow included images of rusting old box cars and other heavy equipment left behind in the remote Eel River Canyon. The removal of that junk “could be extremely expensive,” said Jones. “But we don’t know yet.”

All the panelists emphasized that, despite all the work ahead, the hardest is already complete.

“A lot of the heavy lifting was done just creating the rail right of way in the first place,” said Cohen.

The Great Redwood Trail, she added, “is going to be an incredible draw to people from all over. It’s pretty exciting.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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