North Coast’s Great Redwood Trail no longer just a dream

In-depth planning for 320-mile bicycle and hiking path is set to begin by year-end.|

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 paved blacktops 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 Expected to come out of that process are 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.

Humboldt County Supervisor Mike Wilson, an early supporter, touted both the economic and environmental benefits of the project, in addition to the connectivity it will offer - between visitors to California and specifically the North Coast, but also between cities within his county.

The linkage Finally linking of the 10 miles from Arcata to Eureka on a multiuse path has been a “long-term dream,” he said, and the trail proposal should help reduce some of the past obstacles along the old rail line.

“It’s taken longer and cost more to account for the idea of future rail,” Wilson said of the roughly $20 million segment he expects finished in the next few years. “Everyone building trail along the corridor has had that experience, so this alleviates that challenge and expense. It really opens up a lot of doors, and it just significantly changes the conversation.”

Repurposing the railroad authority in name and function into a trail building, maintenance and operations umbrella is the first charge of McGuire’s legislation. The other provides the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter line two years and $4 million to negotiate a buyout of the freight operations lease held exclusively by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.

The existing contract, which has 88 years remaining, allows NWP Co. use of the current rail corridor between San Rafael and Windsor at no cost until it earns more than $5 million in a year, which has yet to occur.

Negotiations between SMART and NWP Co. are ongoing, said Doug Bosco, the private freight hauler’s co-owner (and an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat), though he said the company is “not really in a selling mode” and instead has intentions of expanding operations.

Creation of the Great Redwood Trail is not contingent on SMART and NWP Co. brokering a deal, McGuire said. However, it would leave the eventual state governing body for the trail to work with more than a single rail agency to ensure the two uses work in concert.

“If they’re unable to reach an agreement, it doesn’t impact the trail,” McGuire said. “It’s not a big deal. The train has already left the station and the Great Redwood Trail is moving forward.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

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