Great Redwood Trail, which stretches from SF Bay to Humboldt Bay along the train tracks, advances

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A proposed 320-mile trail that would stretch between Marin and Humboldt counties, and is billed as the nation’s longest rail trail, moved closer to fruition on Monday.

The Great Redwood Trail, as the concept is known, has been around for years: it would convert a rail corridor between San Francisco Bay and Humboldt Bay into a recreational trail for pedestrians, hikers and cyclists. The route passes through classic Northern California landscapes such as ancient redwood forests and golden hills, and hugs the banks of the Russian and Eel rivers.

In the eyes of supporters, the route’s scope and scenery could spark global interest among backpackers, who flock to the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail for long-distance hikes each summer.

On Monday, the new Great Redwood Trail Agency took control of a key 200-mile segment of the line in Humboldt and Mendocino counties from the North Coast Railroad Authority, which had operated it for 30 years to ship timber and gravel to the bay area. . The transfer was approved last fall when Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 69, which empowers the new agency to assume the right of way for the purpose of building the trail.

The mood of the agency’s board meeting was joyful.

“This is truly a historic occasion and one that should be celebrated,” said Sen. Mike McGuire, who championed SB 69. “The Great Redwood Trail will be a game changer for our region and the Golden State.”

“We are on the verge of creating a world-class resource that will transform the North Coast,” said agency director Caryl Hart, who serves on the California Coastal Commission.

The remains of a train derailment along the Eel River in Mendocino County.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

There is no estimate of the total cost for the construction of the trail. The finished product would be mixed in paved sections in urban areas with gravel and dirt roads in more remote sections.

The new agency is embarking on a $10 million master planning process, led by the California State Coastal Conservancy, which will assume responsibility for staffing the agency in July.

Between Larkspur and Cloverdale, the trail is overseen by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which has already built portions of the trail along its train line.

Damage to remote parts of the northern rail line would need to be repaired before a trail could be installed there. This northern section has been disused since the 1990s, when El Niño storms undermined sections of the line that proved too expensive to repair.

A landslide covers train tracks along the Eel River in Mendocino County.

A landslide covers train tracks along the Eel River in Mendocino County.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

“Will there be challenges? You’re right, there will be,” McGuire said. “That goes without saying with a project of this magnitude.”

One of those challenges surfaced last year when a Wyoming company submitted a federal application to redevelop the North Coast railroad segment for coal transportation. Northern California lawmakers have vehemently opposed this program.

During a brief public comment period on Monday, Bay Area weather personality Mike Pechner spoke out against the trail concept, calling it a financial “mess-up” that could cost billions of dollars in maintenance and repairs for little economic gain.

But agency board members view the trail as a long-term investment in active transportation and outdoor recreation that peaked during the coronavirus pandemic. It represents a major promise for rural communities in the state, they say.

Near the end of Monday’s meeting, Humboldt County Supervisor Steve Madrone, who serves on the agency’s board of directors, summarized the trail as a regional asset for future generations of residents and visitors.

“It’s not just about recreation,” he said. “It will truly be an economic driver for all of our counties.”

Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s Lifestyle and Outdoors Editor. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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