SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — In the heart of Northern California, a trail running through downtown Ukiah already attracts hikers and bikers to this small city year-round.

Visitor numbers will likely soon grow, thanks to a new state plan that would further expand the trail, connecting it to 28 other cities and a variety of scenic landmarks.

The Great Redwood Trail, as the proposal is known, would create 307 miles of walking and biking trails across three counties, including Mendocino County where Ukiah sits. A draft master plan, released in April and open for public comments until June 1, envisions the trail running north from the San Francisco Bay Area and along the Russian River all the way up to Arcata near the Oregon border.

The ambitious plan would repurpose former Northwest Pacific Railroad tracks into recreation spaces. It could help turn blight into an amenity, said Neil Davis, Ukiah’s community services director.

“The property has really been allowed to go to seed, really,” Davis said of the long-defunct rail line running through the center of town. “Establishing a trail through there and getting people into that area will make a huge difference.”

Other community leaders in the region are similarly excited. David Hagele, mayor of the city of Healdsburg north of San Francisco, said the city already attracts nature lovers as well as food and wine enthusiasts.

The Great Redwood Trail is slated to run through Healdsburg. Hagele hopes it will bring thousands more visitors to the region.

“It really takes into account the spirit of each of the locations,” he gushed about the plan. “There’s opportunities to experience what’s great about Northern California and see what’s great about each of these communities and their histories.”

The Northwestern Pacific Railroad stopped operating in 1998, after the railroad’s debt became too high to make infrastructure repairs. Decades later, in 2018, the California State Legislature ordered an assessment of the rail corridor to study the feasibility of a trail along the route.

That proposal saw overwhelming support from environmental organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited. In 2021, state lawmakers created the Great Redwood Trail Agency to plan and build out the trail.

he former Northwest Pacific railway runs across the Russian River in Healdsburg, one of many stops planned along the Great Redwood Trail. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)
he former Northwest Pacific railway runs across the Russian River in Healdsburg, one of many stops planned along the Great Redwood Trail. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

The current proposal would connect the Great Redwood Trail to various natural wonders, including the headwaters of the Eel River. In total, the proposed route would cross over 239 rivers, creeks and streams.

The trail is also poised as a big source of new revenue. Planners estimate it will bring in up to 3,600 cyclists and 22,000 pedestrians per day, generating an estimated $102.5 million per year in local economic activity.

The possibilities have excited both naturalists and budget-minded local officials. Luke Farmer, the Wildlife Conservancy’s regional director of the Sonoma Coast & Eel River Canyon Preserves, said the plan could “transform a dilapidated eyesore into a national treasure.”

“It gives us hope to know that this abandoned rail line, a short-sighted scar of industrialization running through some of California's most pristine lands, will be transformed into a journey of solace and introspection for those seeking connection with the natural world,” Farmer said.

Still, the Great Redwood Trail faces challenges. The corridor has experienced more than 250 documented landslides, which have all but destroyed at least five old railway tunnels. In addition to these fixes, parts of the trail will require improvements to help people access steep, rugged terrain.

Then there’s the issue of community involvement. The Great Redwood Trail Agency says that in surveys, around 83% of residents living within the counties on the trail route approve of the plan — but getting locals involved has proved a challenge. While the agency has held 23 community events and six workshops to gather public feedback, only 371 people have so far participated.

Critics say the agency isn’t doing enough to connect with affected parties. Christie Moore is executive director of The Buckeye, a nonprofit land stewardship organization of landowners, professionals and businesses. According to Moore, Buckeye members together own nearly 82% of the land adjacent to the planned trail.

Moore said the agency isn’t collaborating enough with landowners and that Buckeye members did not feel heard in local meetings to gather input. “There are great concerns about the [agency’s] transparency and willingness to address concerns,” Moore said. “Ultimately, if this trail is going to be built, landowners want to be a part of the conversation.”

Among the concerns of Buckeye members are liability, safety and trespassing issues. Moore noted that parts of the route also include land designated for crops and timber.

“To build a public trail through already conserved lands with the goal to preserve green and car-free spaces doesn’t make any sense,” she added. “Opening this route to the public increases human foot traffic and puts the ecosystem and natural resources at higher risk.”

Colin Fiske, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities, said he was impressed with the plan’s attention to traffic safety and accessibility. Nonetheless, he is concerned about how much Native American tribes have been included in the planning process.

The Great Redwood Trail Agency and State Coastal Conservancy say planners will consult California Native American tribes. The April master plan also acknowledges “the harmful legacy created by colonization and the railroad industry.”

Still, “some Indigenous groups have raised serious objections to the way engagement has or has not occurred in their communities,” Fiske said. “I think those concerns need to be taken very seriously.”

Despite some setbacks, many in Northern California are nonetheless excited for the new trail. In Ukiah,  two miles have been completed, with construction already underway on two more.

Davis, the city’s community services director, hopes residents and visitors will soon be able to enjoy 10- or 20-mile bike rides through Mendocino County. “You’re taking something that’s been a blight and turning it into a real positive,” he said.

Hagele, the Healdsburg mayor, agreed.

“The trail takes you off the street [and into] urban nature,” he said. “I think it’s really going to open up a lot of opportunities.”