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Within the United States, you'll encounter untold thousands of miles of outstanding cycling options. On offer; anything from short 24-hour overnighters, to grandiose and life-changing multi-month odysseys. But the toughest challenge? Selecting the right route for you. Your passions and previous experiences will help guide you through the bewildering array of road surfaces, climates, and elevations that splay out before you. Intrepid explorers might craft a custom route from the nations' capillary network of crisscrossing roads, paths, trails, and greenways. But for most, following in the footsteps of those who have come before will provide the best bang for your buck as it were. Follow any of the routes listed below, or combine the best bits of several to choose your own adventure. Alternately, pick one personal highlight and work backwards from there. As always, it pays to do your research! Remember, what follows is only a very broad outline of the possibilities to consider, when you're considering cycling in the United States.
- See also: United States without a car
Yep. Colorado is the undisputed heavyweight champion of cycling in the United States. There's just something about this landscape, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains that inspires folks to get on out there and explore on two wheels. This is as close as America gets to building Netherlands-style cycling infrastructure. Not by accident, the work you see here is the result of decades of political pressure. Today Boulder and Fort Collins are consistently ranked at or near the top of any cycling-related metric. Bag Peak to Peak Byway for its unmatched vistas of Rocky Mountain National Park, and an array of national forests and wilderness areas. It's 60 mi (97 km) trip from Estes Park to Black Hawk. The pavement fades away on the preeminent Colorado Trail (see below), connecting capital city Denver with Durango in the southwestern corner of the state. Once you arrive, keep playing in the mud along the Hermosa Creek Trail within San Juan National Forest. Or if you're feeling bold, try and conquer the Million Dollar Highway as it winds its way from Ouray to Silverton.
Marin County is legendary in the cycling world, it's basically the birthplace of the modern mountain bike movement. You may already be familiar with many town names, as several are now international bicycle brands. Ride the Bolinas Ridge Trail, running from Olema to Fairfax. From there summit Mount Tamalpais via the Old Railroad Grade, or spin through the Muir Woods Cycle Loop. Don't forget to take in Marin Headlands and its once in a lifetime views. Next up, ride Highway 1 through Stinson Beach and Tomales Bay, cap it off by rolling along the sublime Point Reyes National Seashore. And all that before reaching San Francisco! Crossing over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge welcomes you into one of the nation's great cycling cities. Hills be dammed. Ease yourself in at Golden Gate Park Loop, just 6.3 mi (10.1 km) of manicured scenery. If you've got time, do the 350 mi (560 km) San Francisco Bay Trail. Encircling the entire bay, it's about 70% complete and fully rideable. It does require a touch of adventurousness, however; due to lingering property rights issues.
All of Oregon cycling is supported by the strong foundations laid down in Portland. Decades of cycling advocacy have made Portland one of only 5 US cities awarded "diamond" status by the League of American Bicyclists. Once in town, you'll have plenty options to choose from. Warm up along the Eastbank Esplanade before taking on the Skyline Boulevard. Heading just outside of town, you'll find the Banks-Vernonia State Trail. Oregon's inaugural rail trail. Next, consummate college town Eugene plays host to the jaw-dropping McKenzie River Trail, arguably the finest MTB trail in America. Near Bend, climb through Ponderosa pine forests and snowbanks, to reach a surreal lava-rock summit landscape on the Three Sisters Bikeway. Finally, Crater Lake Rim Road on a vehicle-free day is yet another bucket list item for many cyclists.
While not quite as immaculate as other regions, its perfect weather and plentiful transit connections make LA another great area to cycle. Many pros train in the hills of Angeles National Forest, where you'll find no dearth of options to suit your riding style. In the San Gabriel Valley, Glendora Mountain Road is on many a bucket list. Stretching from Glendora to San Antonio Heights via Mt Baldy, it's absolutely gorgeous and occasionally closed to cars. Take on May Canyon in the San Fernando Valley and spin your way up along Veteran's Park & Santa Clara truck trails. These old fire roads have many secrets (and missile bases) waiting to be explored. Get in some mountain biking on Catalina Island where you're sure to have the place to yourself. Further afield, the Wind Wolves Preserve has a rideable entrance near Maricopa. This natural space on Chumash land was the original road between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's been called "El Camino Viejo" since around 1820.
- See also: Urban cycling
For those without months to spend spinning your way across the country, consider the cycling options offered in these American cities. Any on the list below should have ample cycling infrastructure, bike share programs, and public transit to tie it all together. Most also have active cycling clubs and sit at the nexus of several national routes, offering up a variety of nearby scenic trails to explore.
- Minneapolis — Among the most bike friendly cities in the country, Minneapolis boasts over 80 mi (130 km) of paved, protected pathways in town. Don't miss the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, a 50 mi (80 km) loop passing by the Mississippi River and a half dozen lakes. Additionally, three separate Adventure Cycling routes converge in MSP.
- New York City — Never known to do small things, NYC has turned its attention towards the use of its limited public space. In the 21st century, the city has reclaimed miles of parking and travel lanes into parks and cycletracks. The Hudson River Greenway is one of New York's most popular, running the western length of Manhattan. The adventurous could then cycle north to Albany, beginning an epic journey en route to Buffalo via the Empire State Trail.
- Boston — Labeled one of the worst American cities for cycling in 2007, by 2020 Boston would often find itself ranked among the best. As the northernmost major city on the East Coast Greenway (see below), it makes a great base for explorations further afield. The stretch of Greenway involving the Cape Cod Rail Trail via the Provincetown ferry are wildly popular in the warmer months.
- Seattle — Enjoy Seattle's 90 mi (140 km) of cycle paths by stitching together the Burke–Gilman, North Creek, and Interurban trails for a leg-stretching loop. You may find yourself slowing down, both from the commuter traffic as well as splendid views of the Puget Sound and Lake Washington.
- Washington, D.C. — No less than five major cycling routes converge on the nation's capital. With a bevy of rental options and infrastructure upgrades, you'd be hard pressed to find a better place to start your adventure.Time-poor individuals might choose the Sugarloaf Challenge Loop. While roadies could do the Mount Vernon Trail or the lower impact Capital Crescent trail.
- Tucson — Best avoided in summer, Tucson offers unreal mountain biking while the rest of America is buried in snow. For starters, the epic Arizona Trail (see below) passes through the area. Summit Mount Lemmon for the sublime viewpoint, or head further south, seeking out the rewarding La Milagrosa or Chiva Falls trails hidden in the Rincon mountains. The Starr Pass neighborhood offers connections to the Robles trail network.
- Asheville — Head to the "Paris of the South" and hit up the "mellowdrome" before taking on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This stunning and slow paced ride through the Appalachian Highlands covers 469 mi (755 km) on the way to Virginia. Mountain bikers should make a beeline for Pisgah National Forest and its miles of challenging dirt trails. The Appalachian Gravel Growler is yet another great route for rugged adventurers.
- Burlington (Vermont) — With extensive cycling infrastructure in town, take the Island Line trail to kick off your tour of the 60 mi (97 km) Three Ferry Loop. Crossing the Colchester Causeway, you'll see why many argue this is the most scenic rail trail in the nation. Burlington is also the beginning of the Green Mountain Gravel Grinder, a 255 mi (410 km) fat-tire tour of the best backroads and breweries of this rural state.
Don't forget about college towns! They're often quite a bit smaller, but have much to offer in the way of cycling facilities. Either Madison, Lawrence (Kansas), Davis (California) or Ann Arbor could be considered the gold standard of college towns. Each has several active cycling clubs. All offer extensive in-town cycling networks, and robust connections to the country at large.
- See also: Hiking in the United States
If you're planning a once in a lifetime adventure, you could do worse than to include any of these routes in your journey:
- East Coast Greenway — Connecting more than 450 cities in 15 states across 3,000 mi (4,800 km), the ECG is one epic trip. Stretching from Calais (Maine) to Key West Florida, roughly 1/3 of the trip is protected and away from cars. The full route might take anywhere from 2-4 months, depending on your schedule and fitness level. It's also an ever evolving beast, so riders should be confident holding their own with cars and handing the odd navigation issue.
- Great Allegheny Passage — By combining the GAP and the C&O Canal towpath, cyclists can enjoy a car-free ride from Pittsburgh all the way into Washington, D.C. This 333 mi (536 km) route is mostly flat and you'll find hundreds of options for eating, drinking, and sleeping scattered across its length. Along the way you'll cross the Eastern Continental Divide and the Mason–Dixon line. You'll also pass by Harpers Ferry, Fallingwater, and a variety of steam-age bridges and tunnels. Due to its robust transit connections and amenities, this is probably the easiest way to get started with distance routes in the USA.
- Colorado Trail — Completed in 1987, these improbable 567 mi (912 km) comprise one of the most spectacular adventures in America. Over three weeks, thru-bikers will pass miles of untrammeled forest, frigid alpine lakes, and stone towers of dizzying heights. The easiest sections are conveniently near Denver and Durango, although this is a high altitude trail. Riders will face over 90,000 ft (27,000 m) of climbing at an average elevation of 10,000 ft (3,000 m). You'll be sharing the well marked trail with other hikers, bikers, and even the occasional horse. A little courtesy goes a long way, especially on busier segments. Check the website for updates about hostile weather conditions and other emergencies that may require a reroute.
- Arizona Trail — Be forewarned, this is no proverbial walk in the (national) park. Over 780 mi (1,260 km) miles of rocky technical terrain combined with infrequent resupply points mean that it's best undertaken by experienced mountain bikers. The most difficult bit involves disassembling your bike and hiking it across the Grand Canyon. This “rim-to-rim” section is as awe-inspiring as it is challenging. It's even difficult to convey with words and images the magnitude of the experience.
- Going-to-the-Sun Road — This superlative road often tops any cyclist's short list of dream rides. Running 50 mi (80 km) through Glacier National Park. At 6,646 ft (2,026 m), you'll need to bring a modicum of fitness to crest Logan Pass. For a few non-specific days in the spring the entire length of the road is closed to cars. The specific dates vary annually depending on snow removal, so you'll need a flexible schedule if you'd like to ride it car-free.
- Katy Trail — At about 240 mi (390 km), this is the longest rail trail in America. By adding the 50 mi (80 km) of Rock Island Trail, cyclists can pedal from St. Louis to Kansas City almost entirely unmolested by cars. It's not particularly physically demanding, and the crushed limestone surface makes it a breeze to roll along. Considering the big city amenities at the trailheads, this trail makes another great option for those starting out adventuring on two wheels.
- Mickelson Trail — Established in 1998, this 109 mi (175 km) rail trail passes through the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The route lies almost entirely within the Black Hills National Forest, where visitors are treated to mile after mile of picturesque landscapes and forested mountains. Due to its former life as a railbed, however; inclines never exceed 4%. You'll cross over 100 scenic bridges, and find services spaced about 15 miles apart.
- Natchez Trace Parkway — Often referred to as the "road of glass" for its smooth surfaces, this parkway is ideal for cyclists. The 444 mi (715 km) route crosses three states without subjecting you to any stoplights, intersections, or other reminders of the modern world. The Parkway is narrower than modern US roads, and there's no shoulder. Cyclists are advised to stay well to the right and be visible. There are no services on the road and spotty cell service, advance planning is de rigueur.
- See also: Tour cycling
In America, it's rare to have a rail-trail run for more than a handful of miles. So for longer trips, you'll need to string together dozens of trails and work to fill in the gaps between. Fortunately, thousands of people have spent years doing all that laborious research! The resources listed below are some of the best you'll find for planning a unique adventure.
- Adventure Cycling Association — First on any list, and the granddaddy of them all; Adventure Cycling offers 34 long distance touring routes that criss-cross the nation. The TransAmerica Trail, their most popular, was first ridden in 1973. This is the route for those wishing to ride the 4,216 mi (6,785 km) from coast to coast. This path is well trod, and you'll find a variety of bike-focused services and meet dozens of like-minded folks along the way. Visiting ACA headquarters in Missoula is a right of passage for many. For mountain bikers, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route holds a similar allure. Beginning in Jasper, the route stitches together 3,088 mi (4,970 km) of trails through the Rocky Mountains, passing through several national parks on its way to a desolate border crossing into Mexico.
- Bikepacking.com — This high quality dirt-focused adventure site offers a global selection of routes, roughly 180 of which are in the United States. Their most popular routes tend to involve beer, such as the Green Mountain and Appalachian Gravel Growlers in Burlington and Asheville respectively. They have a lot of supplemental info too, if that interests you. Instructions on how to get started, stories from the trail, gear reviews and so forth.
- Komoot — One of the better "adventure apps", Komoot covers rides for all tire widths, even getting into hiking trails. Best for MTB, gravel, touring, and cross-country riders. The free tier offers route planning based on your type of bike and fitness level. There's also thousands of pre-built routes, wide device compatibility, and social features.
- RideWithGPS — Best for touring, road, and gravel riders, this app provides a variety of insights. Featuring: club rides, events, tour and tourism options. Search through hundreds of rides recommended by local cyclists. The free tier offers many features like: heat maps, custom route creation, and simple integrations with all your cycling gadgets.
- Ridespot — The wayfinding arm of "PeopleForBikes", a federal non-profit dedicated "to get more people riding bikes more often". Use this app to find a great route near you that matches your abilities. You can also find localized club rides, and other riders looking to share the experience.
- TrailLink — A great option if you're looing for something shorter. Traillink is the route-finding arm of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a federal non-profit acting as "the national voice for the rail-trail movement". You'll need a (free) account to access the full breadth of information they have on over 24,000 mi (39,000 km) of rail-trails nationwide.
On any given day there may be dozens to hundreds of cycling events taking place across the nation. They tend to fall into one of three categories. The first is racing, where you'll need a USA Cycling Permit to take part. The second is charity rides, where you'll need to raise a few thousand dollars to pin on a number. The last is club rides, which can often be joined by non-members with a quick text or email the day before. Have a look at the BikeReg calendar to see what's going on during your visit.
- San Jose Bike Party — Now replicated in hundreds of cities worldwide, this is where it all began. Roll through the streets of the South Bay and strike up a conversation with a friend you haven't met yet. Takes place the third Friday of each month at 8:00pm, always with a different start location and route. A few thousand cyclists may show up in nicer weather.
- Denver Cruiser Ride — Denver's Thursday night social ride takes place during the warmer months, from late spring to early fall. Riders are encouraged to come on a classic beach cruiser style bike, but really anything without a motor is welcome. Locks and lights are a great idea. People start to show up around 7PM and ride out about an hour later.
- Five Boro Bike Tour — This family friendly 40 mi (64 km) ride winds its way through each of New York City's five boroughs. Somewhere in the ballpark of 30,000 cyclists cover the 40 mi (64 km) route the first Sunday of May. Registration costs about $130, and out of towners can rent a bike on arrival.
- Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic — Take either one day or two to pedal from Seattle to Portland. This 200 mi (320 km) mid-July tradition sees some 8,000 riders make the trek annually.
- RAGBRAI — Join a week long rolling party at the end of July and cross 468 mi (753 km) of Iowa farmland from west to east. Participants typically begin the event by dipping their rear wheel in the Missouri River, and signify the finish by putting the front wheel in the Mississippi a week later. It's not a race, it's more of a carnival and party atmosphere with what seems like all of Iowa playing host.
Very generally speaking, the majority of public transit in America is quite capable of handling bicycles. Almost any city bus will have a front mounted bike rack. They often accommodate 2-4 bikes and are virtually never full. Most subway systems and commuter trains will allow you to simply roll your bike on. Do take care when travelling during rush hours. Generally lasting from about 7-9AM and 4-6PM, some trains will not allow bicycles during these times. Ferries basically never care about bikes, although you may need to pay some nominal fee to bring yours aboard. The biggest worry might just be your paint job. Don't be too precious about looks if you're planning on moving about the country extensively.
- See also: Rail travel in the United States
Fortunately for you, Amtrak offers fairly comprehensive instructions for travelling with your bicycle. Basically what it all boils down to is this: you can either roll your bike right onto the train, or you'll need to check it. Only certain routes (sometimes only certain stations!) allow carry-on bicycles, so check with Amtrak beforehand. Most everything that runs through the Northeast is carry-on, while most everything else gets checked. You'll need to remove your front wheel when carrying-on, so bring whatever tools you need with you. If you have a real folding bike, nice. These are treated as just another piece of carry-on luggage.
When buying tickets online, click to the end where you can select the "bicycle" add-on option for a fee ($0-20). There are only a few spaces per train, so book ahead for popular routes like the Northeast Regional. The Acela does not take bikes. If you need to box your bike, see the next section. Amtrak does offer bike boxes for $15. The price may be worth it to avoid the hassle of dragging a full box across town. Again, call ahead to confirm the station has boxes in stock...
By cardboard box
If your bike is going in a cargo hold, that means... your bike is going in a box! The process involves a few steps, but it's pretty straightforward and doesn't require much mechanical know-how. You'll likely just need some packing tape, a set of hex keys and maybe a pedal wrench. Start out by getting a box. Sometimes your transport service will provide boxes for a nominal fee, but call ahead. Otherwise, find the nearest bike shop and just ask for one. Remember, the bigger the box, the easier it will be to cram everything inside.
- Remove the front wheel. Return the skewer or thru-axle to the fork afterwards. This way you won't lose it, and you'll provide extra strength to your fork.
- Take the pedals off. You might need a pedal wrench for this step. Depends on your gear.
- Loosen your handlebars, or remove them entirely.
- If you're flying, let some air out of the tires.
- If you have disc brakes, add a little piece of cardboard between the calipers for protection.
- Place your bike, wheels, and pedals into the box.
- Toss any extra bags or panniers into the box. This provides added protection for your bike and reduces what you carry en-route. You can't really add too much padding.
- Tape the box closed.
Lugging this large, heavy box to an airport, bus, or train station will be arduous. If you have the money, consider shipping the box ahead of time to your hotel or other accommodations. Costs are obviously very fluid, but could be in the range of $220 from NYC to LA via FedEx, UPS, or USPS.
Cycling is not an inherently dangerous undertaking. But, since you'll be sharing the road with motorists, it never hurts to keep a few basics in mind:
- Eye contact — Since you can't read a drivers mind, do the next best thing and look at their eyes. If they see you, they see you. If not, act accordingly.
- Be seen — Lights, reflectors, and hi-viz gear may not look cool; but not getting hit is even cooler.
- Be heard — Ring your bike bell to alert others to your presence. If you don't have a bell, a loud "On your left" or "YUUUUUUUP" works too. Put your own flavor on it.
- Helmets — It's safer to wear one than not, but don't let it stop you from riding. In the US, helmets are seen as the hallmark of a responsible cyclist. Some helmets have a turn signal built in.
- Door zone — If you can touch the mirrors on parked cars with your outstretched right hand, you are too close. Check if it's safe, then move a bit to your left to exit the door zone.
- Right hook — Be especially cautious when riding straight through an intersection. Cars turning right may not see you, or be indifferent to your presence.
- Big trucks — Whatever the letter of the law says, give these guys the right of way. They're solving a whole other set of problems, and you're pretty far down the list.
In most accidents involving a four-wheeled and a two-wheeled vehicle, the car or truck driver is at fault, and they often claim not to have seen the bike. Nearly anything that makes you more visible will make you safer — lights and reflectors on the bike, bright (even day-glo) colors on bike, clothing or helmet, and so on. Some people even put a flag or other decoration on a pole above the bike; this may be visible even when bike and rider are hidden by a car.
Drivers rarely understand official hand signals, so just try and point out what you're doing. If letting go of the handlebars to signal feels unsafe, try pointing with your head. Audible commands often accompany these signs, it's all about communication. Customs can vary widely throughout the country, so ask any newly made friends about their signal preferences before setting off. If you notice any road debris: broken glass, sand, or potholes; give 'em a courtesy point.
- Turning left — Left hand outstretched.
- Turning right — Left hand up at a 90-degree angle or right hand outstretched. This varies by state and by individual preference.
- Stopping — Left hand down at a 90-degree angle. This signal varies widely by region and rider, and often means "slowing" as well.
- Hazard ahead — Either hand placed on you back. Point in the direction away from the oncoming hazard.
- Pass me — Flick an elbow on the side you'd like to be passed on.
- Legal stuff — With a few exceptions, cyclists in America have the legal right to "take the lane" and use roads in the same way cars do. The laws are written overwhelmingly with cars in mind, however; so in practice you may find yourself breaking the law just to keep safe. It's rare, but it happens. Use your best judgement.
- Private property — Americans can get heated about property rights. Respect any "no trespassing" or "private property" signs you encounter. It's worth riding a few extra miles to avoid a potentially dangerous confrontation.
- Mental strength — Maybe your body is ready for your next adventure, but is your mind? You may find yourself longing for friends, family, and the comforts of home. There's no real "cure", just let the emotions wash over you and see if you feel different after a couple miles.
- Discrimination — The stereotypical American cyclist is a straight middle-aged white guy. The less you appear to fit that model, the more likely you are to receive unwanted attention. If this is a concern, consider sticking to well travelled routes to reduce risk.
- Theft — There are two ways to combat theft, bring a lock or bring a buddy. Of the two, prefer the buddy. Not only will you have someone to share the journey with, but there's also less weight to carry!