North Coast’s Great Redwood Trail would convert decaying railway into 320-mile pathway
The first steps toward making a more than 300-mile walking and cycling trail from the San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay, crossing some of the North Coast’s most scenic, least-traveled landscapes are set to begin later this year.
Details such as when the Great Redwood Trail could be completed, how the most challenging stretches might be constructed and how much it all will cost remain big unknowns. But advocates of the ambitious plan to convert a decaying railway into a world-class pathway, potentially drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the region each year, say they’re confident it’s not a question of if it’ll happen, but when.
“Oh absolutely, absolutely. No question,” said Caryl Hart, the former head of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “Portions are already built in Willits and Ukiah, and quite a large portion in Humboldt Bay and Arcata is in the beginnings of development. It’s not like we have to find or buy the right of way — it already is there, and that is just such an advantage.”
The concept involves connecting blacktop in populated areas and segments of dirt trails in rural sections adjacent to deteriorating train tracks throughout five counties to offer a hiking, biking and horseback riding experience unlike any other. The meandering trek from Larkspur to beyond Eureka, which includes the remote, 50-mile Eel River Canyon north of Willits, would provide unencumbered, picturesque views few have laid eyes on before.
“It’s something that almost nobody has seen,” said Hart, a board member for the North Coast Railroad Authority that oversees the defunct railroad corridor. “People never get the opportunity at multiple days through this region and to experience dawn in the redwoods, for example. You can be hiking along this trail literally adjacent to oldest and largest trees on the planet right by the river. It’s not something you can experience at all right now.”
The passage of a bill from state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and the governor’s signature last year directed the state to create a plan to build the trail while also doing away with the railroad authority, which has become insolvent after 30 years watching over the corridor. A forthcoming audit is expected to nail down debts of about $12 million for the Ukiah-based public agency.
While untangling what McGuire called a “hot mess” of finances will take time, it will allow the state to move ahead with transitioning the valuable tract into a landmark project that attracts people to a priceless outdoor amenity. He cited an Outdoor Industry Association study that found outdoor recreation in California annually generates consumer spending of $92 billion — more than 10 percent of the nation’s total — and the Great Redwood Trail could boost those figures.
“It’s a spectacular opportunity to open up some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth that traverse some of most socio-economically disadvantaged areas and be a significant economic driver now and into the years to come,” McGuire said. “My philosophy is to frontload this landmark project with all the homework necessary to ensure it’s a success in perpetuity. That’s why we need data in our hands to make educated decisions, which is why I’m committed to doing it right, not fast.”
Trail master planning, which will be preceded by town hall meetings throughout the region this spring and summer, will start later in 2019, and McGuire anticipates the process will take between two and three years to complete. That process will generate an easement survey, will indicate which sections could see asphalt versus those cut into the ground, and tally an overall price tag for the up to 320-mile trail. Identifying potential funding sources, such as state and regional grants, and bonds through Proposition 68 approved by voters last year, is also part of the overall study.