When I signed up for
Biketours.com’s guided eight-day bike tour of Slovenia, I was expecting
sprawling landscapes and quaint villages. What I wasn’t expecting was to be
surprised each day by some unique attraction – the most mind-boggling caves I
have ever seen (and most thrilling train ride ever!), a castle built into the
face of a mountain with a cave as a secret back door, the horse farm where the
original Leipzaners we
associate with Vienna were bred and trained,
as well as the surprises we chanced upon, like getting a tour of a centuries
old water mill by the family.
I wasn’t expecting to
find myself at the intersection of a multiplicity of cultures (flowers hoisted
high on a pole to announce a wedding), or thrown back into history. The
picturesque landscapes were like icing on a fabulously rich cake.
This actually was the
second week of my Biketours.com European biking experience. I had decided to
fly into Marco Polo International Airport in Venice to meet up with this guided
tour that started in Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, so I thought, it’s a far way to go for only
eight-days, so why not stop in Venice? And then I thought, Why not see if Biketours.com
offers another biking trip that I can link together?
I found a
Venice-Trieste-Istria itinerary, operated by FunActiv, that ended on the day this
“Emerald Tour of Slovenia’s Gems”, operated by another local operator, Helia,
would start, but it was self-guided. I thought about doing it on my own, but
sent out an invitation and successfully recruited my son to join me. (Thank
goodness, because I think I would have been lost and still wandering around the
wilderness if I had to do it on my own.) The Venice bike trip ended in Istria, in
Croatia, and, after a search on Rome2Rio.com, I found a bus (Flixbus.com) that
would take me into Ljubljana right on time for the
start of the second tour (and then from Piran, where that trip ended, back to
Marco Polo International Airport in Venice).
It is very interesting
to compare the experience of a self-guided tour, with the guided tour.
In the first place,
the guided tour of Slovenia averages 26 miles a day and each day; our
self-guided trip averages 50 miles a day (though we could have shortened the
daily rides by taking train or ferry), so there is more time for sightseeing on
the guided trip which is organized around sightseeing – that is, getting to
sites in a timely way (our leader, Vlasta, our wonderful guide, also takes
votes to see whether we want to detour to take in some attraction, whether we
want her to make dinner reservations for us at a restaurant).
our self-guided trip, we are able to set out from the hotel after a leisurely
breakfast and stop for lunch when we want and spend as much time lingering in a
village but when we come to a cave in time for a 5 pm English-language tour
with still an hour to ride before reaching our destination, we don’t take the
chance and so miss an opportunity. We also miss out on visiting the
castle of Miramare high above the Bay of Grignano just outside of Trieste
(which has a Manet exhibit) because we didn’t know better.
On this Slovenia bike
tour, we ride as a group – Vlasta says we ride only as fast as the slowest,
that one of us will be the “sweep” riding at the back. We don’t even have our
own maps or cue sheets, but follow the leader. I am only a little frustrated
because I have to ask to stop every time I want to take a photo, but it all
We are informed
in advance that the terrain is flat and downhill from Ljubljana to Postojna,
from where it gets a bit hilly (Vlasta says it is “Slovenia flat – rolling hills.
From Stanjel, the cycling is downhill on the way to the coast.
Most of the ride
is on quiet roads, 25% on roads shared with traffic, 3% on dirt or gravel roads
and 2% on dedicated bicycle paths. The tour is appropriate for hybrid and road
Day 1: Arrival to Ljubljana
It is pouring rain as I make my
way from the Porec Hotel in Porec, Croatia, where my eight-day, self-guided
Venice-Trieste-Istria bike trip has ended, to the bus station directly behind
it, and I am grateful that it is not a day I would be biking. I am pretty proud
of myself for having figured out the Flixbus connection – convenient and
inexpensive (after having looked online at Rome2Rio.com for how to get between
the two cities).
At the bus station in Ljubljana,
Slovenia’s capital, I use my GPS to figure out what public bus to take to get
to my hotel in the old city, and after wasting time waiting on the wrong side
of the street, hop on the bus. The driver doesn’t understand me but a fellow on
the bus helps me figure out where my stop is in the Old City, and I find the hotel
just a short walk from the bus.
I have the afternoon to explore
Ljubljana, and miraculously, the rain clears and sun begins to shine as I begin
to explore. I come upon a flash mob dance on a small bridge – one of the most
scenic spots in the city – and roam the narrow, cobblestone streets of the old
town center with its “fin de siècle” mansions.
The Old City is dominated by a
mighty fortress on the highest hill, so of course, that’s where I head, along
with others who realize it is the best place to watch the sun set.
The castle has a museum
inside, open until 9 pm, though you don’t need a ticket to walk around.
Day 2: Ljubljana – Vrhnika (24
miles/39 km or 36 miles/57 km with side trip)
Our group meets together for the first
time after breakfast at the hotel and our guide, Vlasta, orients us to how the
trip is organized. It turns out we are English-speakers from three continents:
a couple from England, a couple and their friend from New Zealand, a couple
from Denver and me, a New Yorker.
We are fitted to our bicycles, load our
luggage into the van that accompanies us, and are off.
Vlasta has organized an easy (flat) first
day of biking (notably, her rule is that we bike only as fast as the slowest
person), but generally 15-20 km/h or 30 km/hr downhill.
Interestingly, we are not given any maps
or cue sheets, and the alphabet is not pronounceable and signs are not
readable, nor do many people speak English; we are completely dependent upon
following the leader. But this is not a problem.
We ride across
the historic plains surrounding the capital, a flat, easy first day. The immense 160-square kilometer marshy
plain, the Ljubljansko Barje, was once a great lake until it dried up 6000
years ago, leaving behind landscape that, we are told, is now home to some of
Europe’s rarest forms of bird, plant and insect life.
We stop at the picturesque Iški
Vintgar Gorge Nature Reserve, carved deep into a stunning limestone dolomite
plateau, and visit the remnants of the world’s highest railway viaduct in
The highlight of the day’s ride –
as is so often the case –is one of those serendipitous happenings:
As we are riding back from
visiting the Gorge, I stop to take photos of a picturesque water wheel.
A young man comes out
and offers to take us inside to see how this ancient mill works. He is soon
followed by his father who explains that it is one of only two left in
Slovenia, and has been in their family for 380 years. There
used to be 9 mills on the river, now he keeps this one running to preserve the
heritage. It is private, not even a designated historic landmark. I admire an
old carriage, and the older man says it was his mother’s dowry 65 years ago.
We continue on, and stop
at a charming restaurant alongside a pond for lunch.
Just before arriving in Vrhnika, where we overnight, we visit
the Technical Museum of the Republic of Slovenia (actually a science and
technical museum), housed in Bistra Castle (later a monastery). The castle (technology museum) is like a maze
inside and it is tremendous fun to explore.
It provides a different
perspective on “technology”. Hunting, for example, includes the dogs used for
hunting and the birds and animals that were hunted.
A woman demonstrates how
she makes lace using a century-old pattern.
Here, we first encounter Joseph
Broz Tito, who served in Yugoslavia’s government from 1943-1980 and was the
dictator for much of that (apparently, he was considered a benevolent
I find my way to this
wonderful collection of Tito’s cars: his Rolls Royce (against the backdrop of a
giant photo), a Tatra from1898, a 1923 Chrysler, a Piccolo which was
manufactured from 1904-1912.
There are all modes of
transportation on display – cars, trucks, bicycles, bus, tractors – and
agricultural tools and machines. It evokes 1960s Communist-era vibe.
Today’s ride, 57 km, all
flat on roads (not dedicated bike trails), is easy cycling today, the weather
cool and comfortable for biking.
was just the warm up. The best is yet to come.
(I booked this 8-day “Emerald
Tour of Slovenia’s Gems” guided bike
tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced
guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very
attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN
37405, 423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)
We hadn’t biked far from
the Hotel Alexander on the mainland of Venice in Mestre on the first morning of
a week-long self-guided bike tour that would take us some 300 miles following
the seacoast to Porec, Croatia, before I imagined: had I done this by myself as
I had originally planned, I would have been found weeks later wandering in a
wilderness. I was so grateful that by son could come along – his tech prowess
(and insistence on getting an app of our route) made all the difference.
Each morning, he would
unfurl the day’s Stage map and have his smart phone tucked into the plastic
case on the handlebars. Once underway (after a delightful breakfast in the
pre-arranged inns), I would be trying in vain to follow the cue sheets and do
mathematical gymnastics with the kilometers, and was so consumed with these and
watching for Eric ahead, and being enrapt by the scenery and taking photos,
that I would miss the mark the tour operator left on sign posts for each turn.
“It’s simple,” Eric says.
If you don’t see a mark, you go straight.” But what if you have missed the mark
that told you to turn? You could find yourself kilometers ahead before you even
have a clue you missed the turn and have no idea where to go back. At one
point, Eric installs the hang-out app on my phone so he can find me on his map
and I can see where he is, that comes in really handy when I miss a turn
altogether in the middle of Trieste.
But all of it becomes
part of the adventure – the excitement of doing, not just seeing, of becoming
immersed in a place or not knowing what will beyond the next turn.
The day before we set
out from Venice for the first stage ride, Anthony, the guide from FunActive,
the local tour operator that coordinates the tour, had come to the hotel in the
afternoon to deliver and fit our rental bikes, the vouchers and maps and sit
with us for an orientation reviewing each day’s trip. He arrived specially, as
we requested, shortly after Eric arrived by plane, and we rushed him through so
we could have the afternoon and evening in Venice. Anthony sat patiently with
us in the hotel’s lounge trying to review the route for each of the six days of
riding (he would have to repeat the entire thing for the four other self-guided
cyclists later that afternoon). He reviewed the particularities of the route –
the recommended “options” for sightseeing and the route “variants”. He tried to
give us a sense of the road, and the highlights. I took notes but we rushed him
and I think we missed a few things.
day has alternatives of a shorter, easier ride (usually with some ferry or
train) and the longer one. But
one day stands out in Eric’s mind in particular when he is determined to take “the
Stage 1: Venice mainland/Mestre – Jesolo/Caorle (22 or 50 miles/35 or 80 km)
I thought the thunder storm that hit
during the night would mean fair weather for our first day’s ride, Venice to
Jesolo, a distance of 51 km (30 miles, though there is an option to take a
shorter ride, 22 miles). No luck. It is raining when we leave and surprisingly
cold – about 20 degrees cooler from the day before. We set out anyway because
the rain is part of our adventure, after all.
I had thought we would mainly be riding
on roads with traffic but am surprised and relieved that most of our ride for
the next few days are along bikeways – often paved but sometimes gravel or
pebbles, but nonetheless a bikeway – or else some country roads with very
little traffic. And for the next few days, our ride will be flat, taking us
through farmland and along the coast.
This first day of cycling is designed by FunActive to be easy (and would be but for the rain and head wind). Our destination is Jesolo, a seaside beach town. Many of the days offer options to cut off some of the biking (or the climbing or the traffic) by taking a ferry from the lagoon in Venice to Punta Sabbioni, which would have cut the day’s ride to 22 miles). We opt to take the “hinterland” route, cycling along the river Sile, 30 miles to Jesolo, passing the ruins of Torre Caligo, a tower from the Middle Ages which is situated near the canal “Caligo.”
FunActive has given us excellent
background material – a guidebook in fact (I wish I had paid more attention to
it before we set out) that includes background on the landscape, history and
culture of the regions we travel through, plus recommendations for attractions
and restaurants in each place, along with local maps. The route map, broken up
into each day’s Stage, is well marked with places to stop for food, photos,
We ride through countryside – farms
and villages – we can even see the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Dolomites
in the distance.
This first day is really an
orientation to learn “the rules of the road” – for me, figuring out how to
correlate the cue sheets and look for the trail markings. At first, I am very
disoriented, but Eric manages to get us to our destination.
Jesolo is utterly charming seaside
beach resort that attracts local families, and despite its proximity to Venice,
doesn’t seem to have attracted any foreign tourists at all (another delight of
a bike tour, that brings you into local places well off the beaten tourist
track). I am amazed how fine the sand is. The weather has cleared but it is
rather cold and there is a red flag on the lifeguard stand, so no one is in the
water this late in the afternoon. We enjoy walking along the beach, sticking
our feet in the water, and taking in all the color.
The town has a ferris wheel,
amusement park, water park, go karts, arcade, lovely shops and restaurants, is
loaded with surreys and bikes, and in the evening, closes the street to cars altogether.
What we notice is there are few (if any) bars. This is really a family place.
We love our hotel, the Marco Polo which is right on the main street, a block
off the beach. The scenes evoke flashbacks to my own childhood, when our family
would take trips in February to Atlantic City, normally a beach resort, and
enjoy the boardwalk.
There are a plethora of restaurants
– many are full and one in particular, Atmosphera, has
people (including many families), lining up in the street. Lucky for us, they
have a table for two. This place is a revelation – and we can soon see why it
is probably the most popular restaurant in Jesolo – it has a sensational menu
(pages and pages of pizza offerings, meat and fish selections), wonderfully
prepared with fresh, flavorful ingredients in open kitchens, large portions
beautifully presented and modest prices.
Our hotel, the Marco Polo, is most
charming, and right on the main drag.
Jesolo/Caorle to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro (19 or 31 miles).
Today’s ride, 31 miles from Jesolo
to Concordia Sagittaria/Portogruaro, is easy, cycling along the coast and it’s sunny!
which dramatically adds to my sunny mood and puts metal to my pedal. We ride
through scenic farmland and countryside. We take a slight detour into Caorle,
which the FunActive guide, Anthony, has heartily recommended we do, and this
proves one of the pure gems of the tour.
As we enter the town, the colorful
buildings around a plaza makes me think of Sausalito over the Golden Gate
Bridge from San Francisco, or, then again, of Seaside, Florida, that idyllic
village in the “Truman Show,” and as soon as we make the turn into the Old
District, with the warm sun streaming down, I think what a fantastic movie set
this would make. It seems that all the property owners by choice or decree
paint their buildings before each season, according to a certain gorgeous
palette of colors.
The colors are stirring, surreal
almost, especially because of the narrow alleys and the angles. A riot of
color. Think Nanny McPhee. I can’t get enough of it- the scenes make my heart
race, especially the narrow, angled alleys. As we walk, each new vista is like
a new painting.
We discover Carole in layers – first
wandering through the streets. Eric has zoned in on a restaurant for lunch. We
eat outside but this clever place, inside, actually has a model train set that
delivers your food to the table.
Caorle has been settled for about
2000 years. Wandering around, we come upon the Cathedral San Stefano
Protomartire Caorle, built in 1038.
Then we walk back and hone in on the
Madonna dell’Angelo Church, perched on a cliff overlooking the water and the
beach at the end of the stone promenade, wrapping around on two sides. Across
the way, there are a gazillion beach umbrellas set up, but where we are, there
are like random, ad hoc DIY blankets and umbrellas. Eric swims in the Adriatic while
I take photos.
We are so delighted with Caorle, we
buy refrigerator magnets with the scene of the colorful buildings.
We leave this enchanting town and find ourselves in
absolutely gorgeous countryside – with what I presume are the Dolomite
Mountains as a backdrop. At one point, we ride along a berm that elevates us
over the farmland on either side.
Anthony had strongly recommended
that once we arrive at Concordia Sagittaria where our inn is, we ride the few
extra kilometers into Portogruaro, and when I see the photo of the Town Hall on
our hotel’s card, we race out to take advantage of the warm late afternoon
It is a delightful ride on a bike
path along a river into Portogruaro, aglow in golden light. The town, founded
in the 12th century as a port on the river Lemene, is surprisingly
big and bustling, and we dash to try to capture that scene from the photo before
the sun sets. We find our way to the Old City and the Plaza della Republica
with its grand Gothic Town Hall, A concert is going on and we are drawn in but
pull away in order not to miss the fading sunlight.
The setting is absolutely
magnificent – this 12th century Town Hall with ancient watermills
(one still spinning), is very Venetian in its look. I realize that the shot I
want is across the river, and cross the bridge to a small park adjacent to a
monastery. I get there just in time before the light fades.
We bike back to Concordia
Sagittaria, a delightful village well off the tourist “beaten track,” which is
why I love bike tours so much. The village sits in what was a Roman colony on
the River Lemene.
By now we’re famished. It’s a Monday
night and some restaurants are closed. But Eric finds a marvelous one (which
turns out to be listed in the FunActiv guide): Pizzeria Al Solito Posto. All
the tables have been reserved (notably, by locals), but we notice two people
just finishing their meal at a table outside. There are something like four
pages of pizza to choose from and I have the best pizza I’ve had in my life:
cheese, olives, capers and anchovies with the freshest tomato and thinnest of
crust done to perfection.
Our inn, The Julia, is right on the river and in the middle of the square, towered over by the 10th century Byzantine Cathedrale di Santo Stefano Protomartire, dedicated to the first Christian martyr. (Inside, our notes say, is a holy water stoup in Greek marble from the 1st century and 13th century paintings). Just across the square, we discover an archeological dig with sarcophagus, on the ruins of the first basilica. The excavations have also uncovered ruins of a Roman street. Next to the church is a Roman-style bell tower from 1150. There is also a Bishop’s Palace (1450) and town hall from the year 1523.
This day has been the
most magnificent. And the most interesting thing of all is we would never have
seen or experienced any of it except for riding our bikes.
There are four other
riders following the same self-guided FunActive itinerary as we who have
started on the same day, and we meet up with them periodically in the inns and
even on the trail and delight in sharing stories and comparing notes of our
Discovering Ancient Christian Cite of Aquilea, Roman City of Grado
booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” self-guided bike tour
through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced
guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very
attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street, Chattanooga, TN
37405, 423 756-8907, 877 462-2423, www.biketours.com, email@example.com)
On the fifth and last day of our 160-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh Trail, the 37-mile bike ride back to the Hugh Moore Park in Easton along the Pennsylvania side of the river, is absolutely beautiful.
After spending our layover day exploring Washington Crossing State Park, our last night together was a true banquet (grilled steaks! beer!) served under a gorgeous pavilion at Bowman Hill, followed by a talent show by some of the more intrepid Sojourners which is surprisingly great in addition to being pure fun.
Biking back along the Delaware Canal State Park section of the D&L Trail, with its historic locks and bridges, I savor these views of bucolic villages and landscape.
On Day 3 of our Sojourn, we also got to experience part of another of my favorite greenways, the Delaware-Raritan Canal trail on the New Jersey side. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s TrailNation website offers an itinerary, but you can do a fabulous daytrip, starting on the trail just across from Princeton University, and biking north. You can ride 20 miles to the end, at Edison, NJ (or turn back when you feel you want to). I find this portion of the trail, which follows the canal, to be the most picturesque, particularly in fall. There are also places to rent a kayak or a canoe and you may even see the university crew team.
This Sojourn on the Delaware-Lehigh is a sentimental favorite for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy – returning to the trail that was the focus of the very first Sojourn, in 2002.
For the past 12 years, the annual Sojourn has been RTC’s way of celebrating accomplishments in repurposing disused rail lines and canal towpaths for biking, walking and recreation, as well as to showcase gaps in trails that its advocacy works to fill. This year’s Sojourn was a major celebration of the opening of a new bridge across the river at the village of Jim Thorpe in Pennsylvania, helping to complete the 160-mile long along the Delaware-Lehigh Trail.
“Way back in 2002, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy helped draw attention to our burgeoning efforts to build the D&L Trail from Wilkes Barre to Bristol, Pennsylvania. Today, as we welcome Sojourners back, the D&L Trail is about 92 percent complete and we hope to be fully connected by 2022,” Elissa Garofalo, the executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, wrote the Sojourners.
“While we are still a work in progress, the route of the D&L is one that celebrates the legacy of innovation, risk, resilience and beauty of America’s 19th century Industrial Revolution. As you travel our mine-to-market path, I hope you will revel in the wonders that my co-workers and I are fortunate to help celebrate, preserve and inspire connections every day.” (http://delawareandlehigh.org/).
But the 300 Sojourners – so many who have done multiple trips (I’ve done three, including two on the Great Allegheny Gap) – were disheartened to learn this year’s fully supported five-day bike/camping tour was Rail-to-Trails Conservancy’s last, at least for now. (It is hoped local trail groups or biketour companies would host similar annual supported tours). The reason? So the nonprofit organization can concentrate/focus on advocacy of preserving and repurposing trails – TrailNation –some 10,000 miles of multi-use trails, already. (You can find these trails on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s site, traillink.com.)
The urgency has come because the Trump Administration has pulled funding that had been available for more than a decade to help communities take back these resources for their own benefit – including local economic revitalization as well as improving the quality of life and healthful outdoor recreation – and changed regulations to make it harder for communities to take back these trails.
For example, an important tool for advocates seeking to acquire and repurpose abandoned rail corridors has been Railbanking, a federal statute which provided the mechanism for communities across the country to convert former railways into thriving rail-trails that boost local economies and create healthier, more vibrant communities while protecting rail corridors for generations to come. The process requires complicated agreements between the railroad owners of the corridor and local trail managers and necessitates multiple extensions beyond the six-month period provided in the law. Now the Trump Administration’s Surface Transportation Board (STB) is proposing to significantly restrict the timeframe for these negotiations.
Rails to Trails Conservancy has its work cut out for it – no wonder the non-profit organization, advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, is focusing on advocacy and activism. The Trump Administration has done everything possible to reverse course on repurposing obsolete railways and canalways to multi-purposed trails that provide alternatives to climate-choking cars and already strapped public transportation (largely in response to donors with a stake in fossil fuels like the Kochs who are spending their lobbying dollars to kill transit projects, see New York Times).
It is ironic because, as we see as we bike, these communities were originally built in the service of a fossil-fueled economy and have collapsed largely because of changing technology. The Trump Administration is desperately trying to rekindle that economy and quite literally, force society back a century instead of propel us forward into the 21st century.
But as Rails-to-Trails Conservancy points out, promoting biking and walking infrastructure can be an answer to so many of the ills facing communities today. According to the Rails-to-Trails’ website:
Traffic Congestion: Biking and walking infrastructure can be a solution to local traffic congestion. Pilot studies have proven that people will choose biking and walking over driving for daily trips if the infrastructure is in place. In Minneapolis, Minn., for example, 28% of all trips don’t rely on a car (Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program: 2014 Report).
Building more highways and roads has failed to stem the rise in congestion. Between 1982 and 2011, the number of hours of vehicle delay in urban areas rose 360%, even as the number of highway and road miles increased by 61% (Texas A & M’s Annual Urban Mobility Report).
Economic Development: Trails boost the desirability and value of the homes and neighborhoods they connect to. Prospective homebuyers in Ohio, for example, were willing to pay an additional $9,000 to be located 1,000 feet closer to a trail, according to 2012 study by University of Cincinnati School of Planning.
Trails and pathways have been proven to increase activity in downtown business areas by making it easier for people to get to stores without having to worry about parking and traffic. A study found the business occupancy rate in downtown Dunedin, Fla. increased from 30% to 95% with the opening of the nearby Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail. (Investing in Trails).
Transportation Patterns: Americans are already beginning to shift away from cars for daily transportation in favor of biking, walking and transit systems. This generation of young Americans is the first since the invention of the automobile to be less likely to get a driver’s license than their parents. (See: Transportation and the New Generation, 2012).
More than one-quarter of all trips we make are less than a mile—an easy walking distance—and nearly one-half are within three miles—an easy biking distance. Trail networks create the infrastructure that encourage and enable people to walk and bike as part of their daily lives.
Biking and walking is not just “an urban trend.” RTC’s 2012 report, Beyond Urban Centers showed that the share of work trips made by bicycle in small towns is nearly double that of urban centers.
Social Equity: Comprehensive trail systems can bridge gaps within and between communities, creating new access to jobs, physical activity and outdoor recreation-offering connected active transportation options to the more than 90 million Americans without a car.
Health: Obesity is the most pressing public health crisis of our age, particularly among children. Obesity costs America more than $190 billion in reactive healthcare spending each year. Making walking and biking a regular part of daily activities by providing convenient pathways is one of the most cost-effective ways to combat physical inactivity – something we cyclists on the Sojourns saw constantly.
When people have safe places to walk within 10 minutes of their home, they are one and a half times more likely to meet recommended activity levels than those who don’t. Comprehensive trail systems can give people new access to outdoor recreation opportunities.
Protecting the Environment: The environmental benefits of green infrastructure are strongest when open spaces are connected. Trail networks contribute to a healthy environment by protecting precious open space while encouraging active modes of transportation that reduce air pollution, traffic congestion and climate change.
The Beauty of Bike Tours
Bike tours are my favorite way to travel these days.
There are private bike tour companies that service many of these trails apart from these organized rides, notably Wilderness Voyageurs (which operated Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Sojourns in the past, and is offering five-day trips on the Erie Canal and offers trips on the Katy Trail in Missouri, www.wilderness-voyageurs.com) that offer these itineraries as supported rides, most typically with inn-to-inn accommodations. Road Scholar offers all-inclusive bike trips geared to seniors (www.roadscholar.org)
There are also outfitters, like Pocono Bike, that provide shuttle service to take you back to a starting point for hub-and-spoke kind of itineraries (which works well at Washington’s Crossing and the Jim Thorpe, where there are lovely inns in a most charming town). Pocono Bike offers full day, half-day, as well an overnight stay in historic downtown Jim Thorpe. Convenient access points allow for one way rides up to 36 miles, while two and four day overnight getaways feature up to 138 miles of trail through the D&L National Heritage Corridor (stunning in the fall foliage). (A four-day inn-to-inn bike trip goes from Jim Thorpe to Washington’s Crossing; the company also offers whitewater rafting trips and “pedal & paddle” trips. https://poconobiking.com/the-trail/ 800-whitewater.)
But these large-scale programs, organized around groups like Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Parks & Trails NY, which bring together hundreds of people from all over the country, even the world, add a new and marvelous dimension to the experience – a sense of community, especially because of the opportunity to do supported camping. And these group programs are also organized with so many other features – special activities like entertainment and tours, museums and attractions stay open for us, put on special guides, and whole communities who come out onto the trail to welcome us. Not to mention putting the trip in reach of many more people because they tend to have a modest per diem cost (about $125 per day including most meals).
Rails to Trails Conservancy is holding out the possibility that the local trail alliances will host their own trips, either as day trips, hub-and-spoke or multi-day. Indeed, there are organizations that do annual cross-state itineraries (not necessarily on trails but on roads): in Maine (Bike Maine is taking reservations for its Sept . 7-14, 2019 ride, 207-623-4511, firstname.lastname@example.org, ride.bikemaine.org), or agencies such as Missouri State Parks which offers an annual supported ride along the Katy Trail. New York State’s Parks & Trails NY (518-434-1583, www.ptny.org) does the sensational eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie biketour from Buffalo to Albany, which to my mind, offers the best panorama to tell the story of how America came to be (“400 miles and 400 years of history”).
Giving up operating the annual Sojourn, however, will allow Rails-to-Trails to concentrate on its TrailNation work so that many more communities have access to trails. These TrailNation projects take an innovative approach to how trails and active transportation systems are built—from concept to implementation— by demonstrating the power of trails to create healthy, thriving communities. Rails-to-Trails works with local advocacy groups, offering political, financial and technical expertise. For example (from RTC’s website):
Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition: A game-changing urban trail network that will link three existing Baltimore City trails to form a 35-mile loop connecting the city’s diverse neighborhoods and natural features with the downtown core. When complete, this project—a partnership between RTC and Bikemore—will transform the public realm by opening up bike and pedestrian access to major civic institutions and destinations around the city, and provide equitable, low-stress access to open space, transportation and recreation. Only 10 additional miles are needed to close critical gaps (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/baltimore-greenway-trails-coalition/).
Capital Trails Coalition is working to create a 676-mile network of multiuse trails throughout the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. RTC is a founding partner in this coalition which was initiated by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/capital-trails-coalition/)
The Circuit Trails: An innovative, regional urban trail network that is connecting people of all ages to jobs, communities and parks in the nine-county Greater Philadelphia-Camden, NJ, region will encompass 800 miles of trails on both sides of the Delaware River by the time of the project’s completion in 2040, and more than 50 percent of the region’s population—over 3.1 million people—will live within a mile of the trail network.
Route of the Badger, a partnership of RTC and the Wisconsin Bike Fed, is envisioned to be a world-class, 500-plus-mile regional trail system that connects people towns and counties, providing opportunities for physical activity, tourism, connections to nature, recreation and stronger businesses along the route (https://www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trailnation/route-of-the-badger/)
Empire State Trail: Notably, Parks & Trails NY, another organization which is committed to developing multi-purpose trails, has been active over the years in completing the 353-mile Erie Canalway. Now New York State is taking that initiative even further, spending $200 million to develop and connect 750 miles of multi-purpose trails (including 350 miles of new trails) of the east-west Erie Canalway Trail and the north-south Hudson River Valley Greenway. The Empire State Trail will enable someone to bike from the tip of lower Manhattan up to the Canadian border, and across the state, from Buffalo to Albany; it is targeted for completion in 2020 (https://www.ny.gov/programs/empire-state-trail)
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788, railstotrails.org, TrailLink.com.
Fall is a superb time to bike some of the phenomenal multi-purpose trails repurposed from rail lines and canal tow paths.
This year, I became acquainted with one of the best in our area – the Delaware-Lehigh Trail just across from New Jersey in Pennsylvania, a 165-mile long trail that follows the Delaware Canal State Park and the Delaware Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. The trail was featured in this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn, an annual multi-day supported biking/camping trip. The itinerary included riding a portion of one of my favorite trails on the planet, the Delaware-Raritan on the New Jersey side of the river.
Rails-to-Trails has offered these supported Sojourn biketours annually since 2002 to showcase repurposed rail trails and highlight the need to advocate for future projects. These trips are incredibly popular and the 300 of us on this year’s trip were saddened to learn that this Sojourn would be the last, because RTC will be focusing on advocacy and leave such organized bike tours to local organizations. Appropriately, the focus of the last Sojourn was also the trail for its first.
Still, it is there for all of us to enjoy, any time.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) follows the Delaware and Lehigh Canals and the old Lehigh Valley Railroad as it stretches through five counties, from the city of Wilkes-Barre in the mountainous coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, to historic Bristol borough, along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
Congress established the Heritage Corridor in 1988 at a time when the region was economically depressed with the collapse of coal and steel industry that had birthed these communities – the mining towns, factory and milltowns – to begin with.
With 86 of the D&L Trail’s 165 miles located within two state parks (Lehigh Gorge and Delaware Canal), the advocates to create the trail out of disused towpath had a jumpstart to connect people to the region’s story—one of innovation, conservation and industrialization.
About 92 percent of the D&L Trail is built and the goal is to connect all 165 miles by 2022. Three gaps will have been closed in 2018, including the opening of the $4.1 million Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River at Jim Thorpe (we get to participate in the opening ceremony and are among the first to cross), a road/railroad crossing at Middleburg Road in Luzerne County and a connector in Delaware Canal State Park at Tyburn Road in Bucks County.
These trail projects inspire local groups, breathing new life into the small downtowns along the corridor. Three regional revitalization efforts in particular: a 2004 move to greener programming; a 2005 Superfund reclamation project at Lehigh Gap Nature Center (which we visit); and Tales of the Towpath, an educational curriculum that now has 80 schools participating, which we get to sample at the National Canal Museum at Hugh Moore Park in Easton. And all along the way, we get to see participants in the Get Your Tail on the Trail wellness program who so far have logged more than 3 million miles.
As we, the beneficiaries of all this effort, appreciate over the course of our Sojourn, the trail showcases and immerses us into two significant revolutions in American history: the American Revolution (particularly when we get down to our most southerly point, Washington Crossing) and the Industrial Revolution. All along our route, which follows the canals built to transport anthracite coal from the mines to the markets, we see the markers and remnants amidst a beautiful setting.
Indeed, for me, the big surprise was seeing remains of the historic canal, the locks and gates, dams and lockmaster houses all along the ride.
Here we see the underpinnings, the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled the United States to ascend as a world power. Yet, from where we are on the trail alongside the canal with trees on one side, in a more natural state, except when we come upon long-shuttered steel mills that now seem like oversized sculpture.
A Soggy Day One
We meet up at Hugh Moore Park in Easton, Pennsylvania, (which we learn is land donated by the man made rich through the manufacture of Dixie Cups) where we park our cars and register. Interestingly, we will be returning here to camp the next night.
Rain starts just as we board the buses that take us an hour and a half to the start of the D&L trail near the quaint mountainside community of Glen Summit. But instead of stopping as forecast, the drenching rain continues on, and on, and on, throughout the day and into the night – almost 24 hours before it stops. I’ve never been outside in the rain for a full 24 hours before.
We set out on the ride – 160 miles over the course of five days – at the highest, steepest part of the trail, literally in the mountains where anthracite coal was mined. The trail becomes muddy and slick in the steady rain. I make myself feel comfortable with the feeling of slipping, but soon enough, the trail flattens out. The trail is surprisingly still solid enough to keep the tires from sinking or catching.
But we miss the gorgeous views for which this part of the trail is renowned.
I am loving the new poncho that I bought at the Bike Expo before the NYC 5 Boro Bike Tour, but thinking about having to set up my new REI tent in the rain which I have never done before, kicking myself that I didn’t use the Comfy Camper service (closest thing to glamping) so that my tent would be up, with an air mattress, when I arrived.
Instead of just enjoying the scenery and the thrill of biking downhill, this becomes an interesting physical and mental challenge that tests character, an adventure in overcoming obstacles, that when it is accomplished, changes you because you know you have done it and can do it– a value of a biking/camping trip in itself.
We ride along the river and see people out there in canoes and kayaks having a rollicking good time – clearly a great day for a waterborne activity.
This first day, we bike 35 miles southeast along the rushing Lehigh River, passing the most rugged and natural landscape of the ride – 800-foot hillsides of the Lehigh Gorge. At Moosehead Lake there are the remnants of highlift locks that were part of the Lehigh Canal’s Upper Grand Navigation.
Even this grey day cannot mar the beauty of the waterfalls we come upon, particularly Buttermilk, which cascades down in tiers.
Jim Thorpe, PA
We bike to the quaint town of Jim Thorpe, which (we discover), because of its steep hillsides, narrow streets, and terraced gardens is known as the “Switzerland of America.” I think of it as the San Francisco of Pennsylvania.
Our campsite is on a baseball field literally a 1.5 mile hike up a steep winding narrow road from the center of this charming town, pushing our bikes up (it’s only about half-mile walk back down along a steeper route). The rain is unfortunate because unlike most campgrounds on these trips, the only cover are a couple of dugouts that we have commandeered to stow our stuff (one woman has set up her tent inside one), but no pavilions.
I overcome one of my anxieties, setting up my brand new tent in the rain, fortunately, which has abated to more of a drizzle.
We stand outside in the rain waiting out turn for the shower truck to clean off the mud before walking back down into the town for dinner (tonight’s dinner is on our own).
The town of Jim Thorpe is absolutely charming even in this weather that has many of us buying up sweatshirts and sweatpants and even taking lodging in one of the many charming inns and guesthouses instead of camping out.
I am invited to join some new friends from the Sojourn I meet on the walk down for dinner at the Molly McGuire pub-style restaurant, which I learn is named for the Molly McGuires, labor agitators who were executed here (you can visit the Old Jail).
I stroll around awhile – struck by the many American flags and other patriotic displays, and in one of the charming historic inns, I find a poster of Jim Thorpe.
Established in 1818 as Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of the Sleeping Bear,” the name the Lenni Lenape Indians gave to the nearby mountain, it was later renamed for an Oklahoma-born Native American, Olympic hero, Jim Thorpe, who is buried there. Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1888 and raised on the Sac and Fox Reservation and had never set foot in the borough. But Patsy Thorpe, Jim’s third wife, cut a deal with two struggling towns in Pennsylvania, that if they would merge and rename themselves Jim Thorpe and build a memorial to honor him, she would present them his remains for burial.
Here, entrepreneurs led by Josiah White formed the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company in the 1820s (we can still see the brick building), which shipped tons and tons of anthracite coal and other goods to market via the Lehigh and Delaware Canals which they constructed. The town grew in importance when it was named Carbon County’s seat in 1843.
I explore this charming town before taking one of the shuttles the organizers have arranged for us to ferry us back up to the campground.
I am comfortable in my tent despite the rain which continues to fall, At 1:45 am, I hear the rain abating, so I race to the bathroom and get back to tent just in time for the rain to start up again. It stops in the early morning, so I rush to take down the tent before it rains again.
This morning’s breakfast as been arranged in a restaurant a short walk from the campsite.
I remember that they have arranged for us to have a guided tour of the Asa Packer Mansion (before the bridge dedication) and I race over there.
Asa Packer Mansion
Two things stand out as I regard the exquisite decoration and furnishings in the Asa Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a charming town on the Delaware-Lehigh trail: the house, which dates from 1861, was vacant from 1912 to 1954, but never disturbed, never vandalized, never burgled despite the fantastic riches it contained; and Asa Packer, who I had never heard of before, was a rags to riches American Dream come true story, who became one of the richest people in the world (Queen Victoria even gave him a table which we see in the house), but was always beneficent to his workers (he built housing for them and paid in cash from a strongbox), founded Lehigh University (was originally for boys who attended tuition-free), hospitals. In fact, everything that he built is still in existence and used for good purpose. Cornelius Vanderbilt hated him because Packer, an intensely religious man, made the miser look bad.
The mansion, built in 1861 by Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan, and containing the original furnishings and exquisite architectural details, is spectacular in its own right.
The mansion was constructed over a span of two years and cost a total of $14,000 dollars. Topped by a red-ribbed tin roof and a central cupola, or belvedere, the home was built over a cast iron frame and consists of 3 stories, 18 rooms and approximately 11,000 square feet of living space.
The furnishings are exquisite – a “Mermaid” chandelier, an important grandfather clock by Bailey Bay Banks & Biddle of Philadelphia, a table that was a gift of Queen Victoria. The mansion had gasoliers (capable of both electric lights, which was new, and gas) and a self-cleaning stove. But out of all this splendor, there is a “settler bench,” dating from the 1700s, that seems out of place: Asa kept it as a reminder of where he came from.
The mansion is spectacular enough, but what fascinated me is the story of Asa Packer, one of the early Industrial Revolution millionaires (he became one of the richest people in the world), but who never forgot his humble beginnings, acted honorably to his workers, antagonized the likes of the cheapskate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and whose beneficence created many important institutions that are still operating today, including Lehigh University (which was tuition free when it opened) and St. Lukes Hospital, because there weren’t any hospitals in the area. He made considerable donations to the Gothic Revival St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Jim Thorpe. “Everything he built is still operating,” the docent tells me.
The mansion – in contrast to Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s Breakers mansion in Newport – is a testament to Asa Packer’s humanism: he kept a safe from which he would pay workers’ wages and from the mansion you can look out on row houses on Ray Street that he built for workers; he built an entire new wing on the mansion and hung gold wallpaper (literally gold) for his 50th wedding anniversary gala at a time when few people lived long enough to celebrate a golden anniversary. He took in two orphan girls who became cooks – their rooms were actually quite splendid (especially compared to the servants’ quarters at The Breakers); the butler’s room had a copy of Lincoln’s bed and was where the son, Harry, would stay when the Bishop visited. (Just next door to the Asa Packer Mansion is the Harry Packer Mansion which was a wedding present; the Victorian mansion is also a jewel, indeed it was the model for Disney’s Haunted Mansion; today, it is an inn and hosts murder mystery weekends and wine tasting events.)
Born in Mystic, Connecticut, Asa Packer (1805-1879) left home when he was 17, setting out on foot to Brooklyn, Pennsylvania where he apprenticed as a carpenter to his cousin, Edward Packer. In 1828, he married Sarah Minerva Blakslee (1807-1882) and the couple tilled a farm they rented from Sarah’s father. But after four years, they were just as poor as when they started. So hearing that men were needed to captain coal barges on the Lehigh Canal, Asa traveled to Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, in the winter of 1832. He used his skill as a carpenter to build and repair canal boats. He resettled his family in Mauch Chunk and became the owner of a canal boat that carried coal to Philadelphia, then opened his own firm, A. & R. W. Packer, which built canal boats and locks for the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company.
He tried to get the company to build a railroad, but was refused. So, in October 1851, risking financial ruin, Asa purchased nearly all the controlling stock and interest for the unfinished Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad). By November, 1852, he expanded the railroad from Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania, in exchange for the company’s stocks and bonds, and later into New York State.
He became the third richest person in the world and parlayed his business success into political success, serving asja Judge, a state representative, a two-term Congressman (1853-7), and challenged Ulysses S. Grant for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868. He narrowly lost election to become Pennsylvania’s Governor in 1869.
The Packers settled in their Italianate Villa in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania in 1861 and on January 23, 1878, Asa and Sarah celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a fantastic gala (a newspaper printed in gold described it, and the man who performed their wedding attended). Asa died just 18 months later. For all his success, their life together was marked by tragedy. Daughters, Catharine, Malvina and Gertrude all passed away before the age of three. Lucy Eveline (1832-1873), Robert Asa (1842-1883) succumbed to pneumonia. Harry Eldred (1850-1884) passed away from cirrhosis of the liver (the mansion next door was built for him and is operated as an inn today). Mary Hannah (1839-1912), was the last of their children to pass away; she was supposed to sail on the Titanic, but got sick in 1912; she was legally blind when she died.
“Asa never fully forgot his humble beginnings, his generous deeds spoke for him. A philanthropist throughout his lifetime, Asa gave $33 million to the town of Mauch Chunk and the Lehigh Valley. At the time of his passing, Asa retained an estate valued at $55 million.”
Asa’s daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, who moved into her mother’s bedroom when she got sick, inherited the mansion and estate as the last surviving child of seven (becoming the second richest person in the world after the Queen of England). When Mary died in 1912 (the calendar on the desk is from 1912); she bequeathed the home and all its contents to the Borough of Mauch Chunk as a memorial to her father and his accomplishments. But the house remained shuttered from 1912 to 1954, until the Bear Mountain Lions became trustees and reopened the mansion to the public in 1956. Remarkably, the true testament to Asa Packer and his family is that in all that time the mansion was vacant, with all these priceless antiques inside, it was never vandalized or burgled.
“Robert, the only grandchild who survived, didn’t want the house after Mary died,” the docent relates. “Robert’s great granddaughter and her daughter came on tour once,” she recalled.“
This quaint village of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania is actually a hub for many marvelous natural and historic attractions including the Harry Packer Mansion; the Old Jail Museum (where the Molly McGuires were jailed; Cell 17 with its mysterious handprint on the wall, under the gallows on which seven of the accused Molly Maguires were put to death, and down into the eerie dungeon); the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, the St. Mark’s Church, Historic Stone Row, the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Anita Shapolsky Art Center, Mauch Chunk Museum and Old Jail Museum, plus wineries, distilleries (Big Creek Vineyard and Stonekeep Meadery), biking, hiking and rafting (PoconoBiking.com, PoconoWhitewater.com, Adventurerafting.com.
There are a score of historic bed-and-breakfasts, inns and guesthouses.
Jim Thorpe Visitors Center, 2 Lehigh Ave., Jim Thorpe PA 18229, 570-325-3673, jimthorpe.org.
The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, PA 18042, http://delawareandlehigh.org/ (It also has a description of the bike trail.)
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors; it advocates for its 160,000 members and supporters, 31,000 miles of rail-trails and multi-use trails, and more than 8,000 miles of potential trails waiting to be built, with a goal of creating more walkable, bikeable communities in America. RTC offers TrailLink, a free service that lets you access RTC’s 30,000 miles of trail maps and itineraries and downloadable mobile app.
I was thinking of Nancy Vadreen, the student ambassador for the 41st annual TD Five Boro Bike Tour, as I flew down the mile-long descent off of the Verrazano Bridge (after the mile-long ascent) that deposits the 32,000 cyclists into the festival venue on Staten Island, feeling the wind in my face, so refreshing and freeing.
At the send-off for the ride that morning, she had described that feeling as a yearning. She was a 30-something who had never learned to ride a bike. “I dreamed of riding.” She went on the internet and discovered that Bike New York offers free classes at many locations throughout the city. In fact, 25,000 people last year learned how to ride through Bike New York, the largest free biking education program in the country, and the annual TD Five Boro Bike Tour is the main fundraiser.
And here she was, riding in the 40-mile bike tour. “I’m proud and grateful to be riding the 40-miles at the TD Bike Tour. To learn to ride, to feel the wind when you coast downhill.”
I saw her again on the Staten Island ferry back to Manhattan after completing the ride – the thrill of accomplishment was still on her face.
REI, the presenting sponsor of the tour, pointed to the company credo, “Life outdoors is life well lived, it forges better connection to yourself.”
Such an outdoors experience does even more – it fosters such a sense of comradeship, this shared experience. And it brings you into neighborhoods that are so typically New York, with bands and entertainment to cheer and inspire the riders.
What is so special about New York City’s TD Five Boro Bike Tour is how, for one day, you and 32,000 of your closest friends, feel like you own the city. The streets, bridges and highways – like Sixth Avenue, the FDR Drive, the Queensborough Bridge, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Verrazano (the longest suspension bridge in the Americas) are your domain. It makes you giddy. Neighborhoods ring with sound and spirit – Greenwich Village, Harlem, Astoria, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, DUMBO, Staten Island, Central Park’s blossoms seem to burst just for us.
The ride this year marked the 41st year of this event, which is the largest noncompetitive bike tour in North America. The ride has come quite a long way from that first one, in 1977, when just 250 people participated.
Riders, who race to get a spot as soon as registrations open (participation is limited to 32,000 but could easily be thousands more), came from every state in the nation (yes, Hawaii and Alaska), and this year came from 40 countries.
New York City has really embraced biking, and now offers 1,000 miles of dedicated bike lanes; some 800,000 New Yorkers regularly bike, said NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg The city is improving its connection between Manhattan and the Bronx. “There’s never been a better time to bike in New York.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said “Thank you for your bike lane advocacy, for being healthy, for being part of the city’s future.” She thanked the DOT for making the Harlem River Bridges safe.
The annual event raises money for bike education. Bike New York operates bike education centers, after school programs, summer camps, and this year launched a Women’s Initiative, as well as its first membership program. “Alums” from the bike education program are joining the ride this year as “Student Ambassadors.”
Numerous charities also use the event for fundraising, purchasing registrations which participants then raise money against. This year, 1,200 riders representing 57 charities, collectively raised $1 million, said Ken Podziba, President & CEO of Bike New York.
The bike tour is also a model of sustainability, promoting recycling, water conservation, becoming the largest sporting event to be certified for sustainability by the Council for Responsible Sport 3 years ago. Each rest stop featured “zero waste” receptacles. Even the rider numbers were recycled.
The ride is designed to be a family friendly tour, not a competition, appealing to all abilities, ages – volunteers hold signs to slow the pace and alert riders to turns and obstacles.
TD Bank, which has been the title sponsor for the past 12 years, pointed to the continual expansion of sustainability efforts.
There’s a lot of good will here REI raises $5 million for community organizations.
But it is mostly in the one-to-one, the shared excitement that goes through all the people.
The 40-miles pass with one broad smile – we are sent off by the choral singing of Music With a Message, socially-conscious youth who inspire positive change and bring their message of love, hope in their singing.
At 6th Avenue we get our first cheering squad – there are at least one in every borough – and bands representing their borough, including Bombayo, Giant Flying Turtles, Night Spins and the Rusty Guns (one of my favorites).
“The thing that ultimately makes the event so special has remained a constant and can be summed up in one word: diversity,” writes Bike New York CEO Podziba in the official guide to the tour. “For decades, we’ve welcomed riders from dozens of countries and from every corner of this one, children and octogenarians, bike messengers, weekend warriors, everyday commuters, and even unicyclists, old pros and first timers… You never know who’ll be standing next to you at the starting line – they may be from a country you’ve never heard of.
“But diversity isn’t simply what makes our ridership so special – it’s also what makes New York City like no other place on the planet. Depending on who you ask, as many as 800 languages are spoken here. As you ride through all five of our beautiful boroughs… you’ll get the experience a 40-mile slice of the most populous, dynamic and ethnically diverse city in the country.”
There are any number of incarnations of bikes – tandems, kiddie carts, even elliptical contraptions that seem better suited to a gym (I meet a woman from Salt Lake City who said that 100 of them joined the tour from all parts of the country). There was even a grandson riding a rickshaw so his grandmother could have the joy of the Five Boro tour.
Indeed, everyone marvels at how well organized the ride is and all the precautions that are taken to make the ride safe, though we did see some spills and marveled at how quickly aid was provided..
We are 32,000 riders, but there are 2,000 volunteers who assist all along the way – marshals and course captains and EMS, and people along the route who tell us when to slow down and prepare for a turn, and rest stop people who hand out water and snacks.
And there is such a sense of liberation to take over New York City’s streets.
The ride embraces all five boroughs – and each shows off with street entertainment, raising the spirits of the riders along the route, and at rest stops (Clif Bar sponsored a DJ and entertainment at the Con Ed rest area) and at the Finish Festival on Staten Island (still three miles from the actual 40-mile mark, at the ferry terminal), where, all the finishers received a medal (and TD sponsored a free massage).
Here are more highlights:
As in recent years, the bike tour is preceded by a two-day Bike Expo, when bikers can take advantage of discounts and giveaways by scores of bike, biking gear, and bike tour companies and destinations from Quebec in Canada, to Taiwan, and special biking events through the World Association of Cycling Events.
I learned about a new online biking trip planner for the state of Maine, organized by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, various biking groups and clubs (www.bikemaine.org/wheretoride), as well as Maine’s annual 8-Day Bike Maine trip with 450 riders going 320 miles (2018 is fully booked). There’s also the Bold Cost Scenic Bikeway, 211 miles of low-traffic, on-road riding; you can get detailed online and printable maps, GPS data, and local information to organize a self-guided ride (BikeBoldCoast.com).
Also, a 45-day cross-country bike tour, from San Diego, California to St. Augustine, Florida, with luxury accommodations (none of this camping stuff), fine dining, for $13,000, through Cycle of Life Adventures (they also have less ambitious itineraries). (cycleoflifeadventures.com, 303-945-9886).
To see how America came to be – and what really made America great – you need only to join Parks & Trails NY’s annual eight-day, 400-mile Cycle the Erie Bike Tour from Buffalo to Albany. Riding the multi-use Erie Canalway, which closely follows the towpath along the original Erie Canal that was built between 1817-1825, transports you 400 miles and through 400 years of history. Unfolding before you, at a pace that flows like a movie, are the pastoral scenes of farmlands, the canaltowns that sprang up to handle the trade, the factories that emerged to manufacture the myriad inventions and innovations spawned by Yankee ingenuity, you cross the Native American tribal areas, the colonial settlements, the Revolutionary War sites. You see the rise and fall of industrialization and urbanization, and now, most marvelous of all, you see before you the reinvention, revitalization and repurposing of these villages, towns, cities and communities that the Eric Canal spawned.
The Erie Canal turned a modest port called New York City into a global trade and financial center, New York into the Empire State, and the United States into a global industrial power, with New York City as its center. It turned a subsistence farmer in the Midwest into a purveyor to the world, and not only transformed geography, but society. The Erie Canal “was the Mother of Cities” – overnight, canal towns catering to the boat traffic sprung up from nowhere and cities like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse blossomed. The canal was an incubator for innovation and a transmitter for new ideas. It unified the nation, tying together East and West, and was the artery by which pioneers and immigrants made their way to the settle the frontier. You come away from this journey with renewed understanding of what it means to be an American.
Besides being a marvelous car-free trail (mostly flat), with gorgeous landscapes (you can’t believe this is New York State!), what distinguishes this bike trip is that it is so interesting – the sites, and sights along the way. Every day is enlightening, inspiring, serendipitous. We go from urban to rural, pastoral lands and back to urban, from main streets into forest and into neighborhoods “tourists” would never see. There is so much to see, in fact, all along the way you have to make choices, which is why so many people come back multiple times. Indeed, this is my second Cycle the Erie tour.
This is no typical bike tour.
In the first place, it is one of the best managed, organized and supported bike tours you will ever experience – the 2017 ride (the 19th annual Cycle the Erie) which coincided with the bicentennial of beginning the building of the Erie Canal, July 4, 1817 – had a record 750 cyclists. The bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal will be held in 2025 (I’m already making plans.)
Our ride is supported by 90 volunteers and you appreciate each and every one: people who go out and mark the trail for us to follow; truck drivers and baggage handlers; SAG drivers and bikers who are there to help if someone has difficulty on the trail; rest stop crew; food service people; bike repair mechanics; medical nurse; site-set up crew; even a massage therapist and yoga instructor.
What is most impressive is how everything seems to be taken into account – texting is with a severe weather alert or some emergency, orientations that let us know what to expect from the trail and what to watch out for and what weather conditions to expect, what attractions to look for along the way, the best places to stop off for lunch and the best ice cream stops and trailside breweries, even cycling safety talks (done with great creativity and humor). Shuttle buses are organized to take us from the campsite into town for the evening; they arrange for indoor camping (typically the school gym) as well as Comfy Campers (a service that sets up tent for you, the closest thing to glamping). There are shower trucks to supplement the indoor facilities; access to swimming pools; charging stations.
The routes are well marked and signed, and there are as rest stops morning and afternoon with water and snacks and restrooms. Very often the towns and villages set up welcome centers for us on the trail with special snacks and bottles of water that supplement the rest stops. Museums and attractions stay open, early in the morning or into the evening to accommodate us; we get discounts on admissions, shopping and free shipping just by waving our Cycle the Erie wristband.
The trail makes for superb cycling – most of the 400 miles are on the dedicated multi-use trail, about 75 miles on roads (that is, until the trail is completed which is in the works by New York State). Much of the trail is crushed limestone; some of it is more rugged or overgrown (making it challenging when it rains); some is paved. The trail is mostly flat except for where we come off and ride the highway overpasses to get to our campsites, most typically on gorgeous grounds of private schools (which amazingly always seem to be at the top of a hill), and then we get to see neighborhoods that we would otherwise be unlikely to visit.
And the people! A trip like this brings like-minded people who enjoy camping, biking and discovery from across the country and around the world, and who very soon form a whole nomadic tribe. Sitting around tables at breakfast and dinner, or catching up with people on the trail, and finding people who step up to help with setting up a tent or fixing a broken pole, there is this marvelous sense of community and camaraderie. This year’s ride – with the most riders ever – drew people from 36 states including DC, 15 from Canada, as well as from as far away as Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom; the oldest rider was 84 (doing the ride for her 12th time); the youngest was 3, but the youngest self-powered cyclist was just 8 years old. Three-fourths of us are doing the ride for the first time. There were families, groups like Troop 497 from Baltimore, and lots of solos. One couple rode to the start in Buffalo from Canada and was linking this 400-mile trip to biking down to New York City.
The unexpected treat is how fascinating the historic sites are along the way – it is so intellectually and culturally satisfying. In addition to organizing our visits so that attractions stay open for us either early in the morning or into the evening, each day there are lectures or special programs, like music.
Every day’s ride – averaging 50 miles a day but as much as 63 – is special in its own way – the sights, the experiences, the ride and its physical challenge. First timers tend to focus on the ride – making sure they can complete the distance (we travel at our own pace). But those who have done the ride before know they will be able to go the distance, so take more time to take in the sights; third timers or more explore even further afield – take that yellow brick road up to the Oz Museum, go for that farm-to-table restaurant for lunch, stop in at the brewery or ice cream shop.
This was my second time doing the ride – I did it two years before. There is so much to do – so many attractions and sites and experiences – that I tried as much as possible to do things I hadn’t done on the first ride. And then there is pure serendipity, like weather, which makes a terrific difference in the experience. Knowing what to expect (and that you have done the distance before) gives you the extra confidence to take more time to explore.
Registrations have just opened for the 2018 ride, it’s 20th Annual Cycle the Erie bike tour, which will take place July 8-15. (If you don’t want to do all eight-days, 400-miles, they offer two and four-day segments but then you would have to organize getting back to your starting place.)
And We’re Off!
The tour begins in Buffalo and a good portion of us drive to Albany where we pull up to the Visitors Center, drop off our gear, then park in the adjacent municipal lot before boarding buses for the five-hour drive to Buffalo, where we camp at the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy. (If you don’t want to set up your own tent, you can sign up for Comfy Campers, a service which sets up a truly comfortable tent, with air mattress and fresh towel daily; there is also “indoor camping,” typically in the gymnasium at the schools where we stay. There also are recommended bed-and-breakfast inns along the way.)
Our journey begins on Saturday night before the start of the ride on Sunday, on the campus of the Nichols School, a magnificent private academy in Buffalo, where we have a welcoming reception and gala dinner, and an orientation about the Erie Canal and our route (Those of us who are here early enough can join an optional pre-tour ride to Niagara Falls and around historic Buffalo, but those of us who have come by bus from Albany arrive just in time to register and enjoy a festive kick-off reception and dinner and orientation meeting.)
The Erie Canal was the most successful public works project in America. Despite its cost ($7.7 million, the equivalent of $18 billion today), the opposition to the folly of Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “ditch” (nothing really changes) and the fact that the new nation did not even have the engineers nor the technology to build such a canal when the first shovel was put into the ground in Rome, on July 4, 1817, the canal actually quickly recouped its investment. In fact, the original canal only lasted until 1836, when it was essentially rebuilt and expanded, and then again, by President Theodore Roosevelt who redirected and replaced the Modern Barge canal altogether in 1903. No longer a “mom and pop” operation where barges and packet ships were pulled by mules, the new canal involved motorized boats.
Day One: Sunday, Buffalo to Medina, 54 Miles
Unlike my first time doing the Erie ride, when we all left at once with great fanfare, this time, we leave the campsite as every other morning, at our own pace (except that we have to get our gear on the trucks between 6 and 8 am and have breakfast (5:30-8:30 am).
Every morning during breakfast there is an orientation to that day’s ride (given twice, once for the early birds, 6:30 am and once for the rest of us, 7 am). They prepare us for road conditions, the weather forecast, alert us to any safety issues in the route, tell us about upcoming attractions we will come upon. We ride at our own pace.
We form a line of cyclists on the five-miles we ride through Buffalo’s streets before we get to the entrance to the Canalway The streets are well marked and there are police to help us through thoroughfares. It is exhilarating to be setting out.
We ride a new section of the Canalway into Lockport – indeed, the goal of this annual 8-day, 400-mile ride is to raise money and awareness to close the gaps. And it’s worked! New York State now has an ambitious program to not only complete the entire Buffalo-Albany trail, but to create a new north-south trail, the Empire State Trail, that will link New York City to the Canadian border – 750 miles of off-road trails all together. This would be the longest state ‘shared use’ trail in nation.
Blue paint along our route points the way to a historical/attraction (for example, the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village); orange paint on road shows us the way to bike to our destination. There are markers before and after each turn.
We reach a rest stop at 17 miles before coming into Lockport.
This day brings us into Lockport, where they have arranged for anyone who wants, a free 1 ½-hour-long cruise on the canal through two locks.
Here in Lockport, you get to see in the most compressed amount of space, the entire history of the Canal, with the original Flight of Five locks just next to modern locks (the only place where there is a double lock, one after another), combined with the story how the Erie Canal spurred America’s industrialization.
The 20th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 8 – 15, 2018 (www.ptny.org/canaltour). In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info and interactive map is at the ptny.org site (www.ptny.org/bikecanal), including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.
Information is also available from the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, Waterford, NY 12188, 518-237-7000,www.eriecanalway.org.
More information about traveling on the Erie Canal is available from New York State Canal Corporation, www.canals.ny.gov.
Our first day on this year’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn biketour on the Great Allegheny Passage and the Montour Trail, 140-miles biking over six days through Western Pennsylvania, brought us from Deal to Meyersdale with a side-trip that brings us across the Eastern Continental Divide (with gorgeous murals on the tunnel depicting the story), to the Mason-Dixon Line and a striking monument. It is a relatively short ride that brings us to the tented city we create at Meyersdale’s community park. We have time to explore, and to enjoy the town’s gracious hospitality with a dinner at the firehouse and pancake breakfast, complete with Meyerdale’s famous maple syrup, in the gym of the former high school.
Day 2: On the second day, we also have an option: to cruise an easy 31 miles downhill to the Confluence Outflow Campground, riding through an enchanting tree tunnel, or taking an on-the-road route to ride up to Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis.
The forecast of rain all day makes the choice an easy one: the easy tree-tunnel route through tranquil forest. Despite some shelter from the trees, we get soaked, but it is a warm rain, and the amount of good cheer keeps us warmer still. The rain stops just as we arrive at Confluence, where we are greeted with two representatives of Confluence in period dress, inviting us to follow the balloons lining a route into the town center for free bike washes at the local cycle shop (and a gift!) and ice cream at the gazebo on the village green. Confluence, I am told, has a population of 700; for these two days, the census swells by 200 more. That evening, no one complains about the rain.
The campground is absolutely magnificent, literally at the base below the enormous dam, constructed in 1944 to control flooding and more recently, to generate hydroelectric power. It is a popular place for fishermen.
Just after our evening “talk” (a workshop on repairing our bike), and sitting around waiting for phones to recharge, we get word that there is a major storm at Ohiopyle, about 11 miles away. We have 10 minutes before it hits us. Sure enough, small drops start to fall as I am just steps away from the tent. By the time I get there, rain is coming down in sheets.
Day 3 is our “Fun Day” when we don’t cycle (unless we want to), but instead have a choice of activities: Fallingwater tour (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), Kentuck Knob tour (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), a rafting trip on the Middle Yough Class 1 – 2, or, the one I choose, a class 3 whitewater rafting trip on the Lower Yough.
In fact, 81 of us choose this option, organized by Wilderness Voyageurs, the same company that organizes the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn rides including this one (the company has a catalog full of bike tours). I’ve done a fair amount of white water rafting trips in the past, but this one on the wonderfully scenic Youghiogheny River was absolutely the best – truly thrills and chills, especially since this is the only Class 3 rafting experience offered as a “guide-assisted” instead of having a guide in each raft. That means we are arbitrarily put into rafts and we “elect” a captain. This proves a great challenge and a great experience (I lasted about 5 minutes as captain, exactly one set of rapids, when one of our four rafters got bounced out and we all decided to go into other rafts, leaving one of the guides to portage the raft to a point where he could deflate it and pick it up later). Getting bounced out of the raft – going for a “swim” – is not unusual and we have been cautioned to only wear what can get wet or lost.
We aren’t really on our own – one guide positions himself on a rock and gives us hand signals how we should “attack” the rapid, where to enter and so forth (though the instructions are for naught when inexperienced paddlers can’t follow directions, forget which is left and right, or are being bounced so high, they can’t reach paddle into the water); other guides in a kayak and in a raft are there to pick up anyone who is bounced out, and three of the rafts have guides in them (that’s the one I go into). Over the course of the trip, several of us get tossed out of the raft; one fellow gets a bit beat up.
There is one point, though, where we come to an ominous sign warning that anyone who doesn’t want to raft through this particular set of rapids can portage their raft around it. The reason is because there is an underwater cavern, and if you get bounced out here, it is possible to be sucked down under. (Our guide says that most people die of heart failure rather than drowning. Small comfort.) The lead guide says that if any one of us in a raft wants to portage, the whole raft has to. We are in the lead raft and get to watch everybody coming through, cheering them on. Everyone makes it through.
We pull in for lunch at a small lagoon – we fill pita with chicken salad (fantastic) or tuna, cheese, lettuce and tomato, and have a wonderful time before continuing on down the river.
I don’t even know how long we are on the river – it all goes by so fast. But we are back at the campground by around 3 pm.
A few of us climb up to walk across the dam – the lake that was formed is popular for swimming and boating.
That evening, we are regaled by Pennsylvania Jack, a storyteller, and there is a campfire with s’mores.
Day 4 is our longest ride – 58 miles on the schedule (albeit mostly downhill), but with an option that increases the distance to a touch over 62. This section of the Great Allegheny Passage, between Confluence and West Newton, where we camp, is the most scenic, with much of it going through the stunning Ohiopyle State Park (Pennsylvania’s largest in land area). We ride along the river for just about the entire distance. When we reach the Ohiopyle State Park Visitors Center, about 11 miles into the ride, I go off the trail to do a hike that I had heard about the year before: Cucumber Falls. I had seen a painting of it in the Visitors’ Center, where there is an excellent historic exhibit, and heard about a hike starting a short walk from the center, and always regretted not doing the hike then.
“Follow the yellow feet on the sidewalk,” they tell me. The hike is just about 25 minutes each way – a little over a mile – and proves absolutely enchanting: you follow yellow markings on trees and rocks, do some scrambling, and then, you make a turn and there ahead of you is the most magnificent falls, tucked into the woods. I felt as if I were John Muir coming upon Yosemite Falls for the first time.
The lighting is perfect – just a touch of sunlight hitting the waterfall. It is a magical experience and I am transfixed.
(I heartily recommend this hike, which should add 1 to 1 ½ hrs to the day’s ride time.)
I’m calculating the extra time, as I get to mile 25.9 (not even halfway), when we have another option: to steer off about 2.1 miles on the Sheepskin Trail connector off the GAP, to go into the tiny town of Dunbar. Having visited last year, I knew this was an off-trail visit not to be missed, especially when you come in this way, off a back trail (even worth the half-mile over a rocky unimproved section). (See: Pascal Glass Sculpture with Trump Connection is Boon for Dunbar)
The train tracks come straight through the middle, as if a main street. On the village green is a coke oven and a memorial to those who died in a nearby mine accident.
RTC has basically adopted Dunbar as an example of how a town can be revitalized through tourism and culture.
Day 5: This proves our most challenging day – not just because it is 48 miles of cycling after yesterday’s long ride, but I suspect because of the humidity and also because much of it, it seems, is uphill. But it also proves very interesting, as we leave the GAP after 17 miles (just after Boston, PA, where the trail becomes very urban, bringing a certain culture shock after such pastoral scenes.). To get from the GAP to the Montour Trail, we ride six miles on urban streets, through a small town of Glassport (where we are treated to snacks and cold water at a church), ride over a bridge to Clairton that gives us an eyeful into what I expect defined Pittsburgh just a couple of decades ago: a humongous pile of coal dwarfing the trucks scooping it up, and across the railroad tracks, a giant carbon materials and chemical plant. We finally get to the beginning of the Montour Trail, which includes several places where you are on/off the trail, on/off a shared road.
At one point, I ride around a bend and find myself in a different time zone or the Twilight Zone – a hodgepodge of train cars, trucks, firetrucks, gas pumps and signs from the 1940s or so, as if they were just left there. After a rocky start, the Montour Trail becomes as idyllic as the GAP, nestled in trees. A highlight is the 600-foot long National Tunnel.
We finally arrive at the small town of Cecil, where we camp at the Cecil Township Ballfield Park, and are treated to an absolute banquet (no kidding), Sierra Nevada beer, and finish off with a talent show.
It pours during the night (I am snug in the Comfy Camper tent), but amazingly stops just in time for breakfast. We are told to expect a break in the rain from 8 to 11am – exactly how much time we need to go the 26 miles to the end of our ride, including the last mile of the Montour Trail (actually an added mile that goes beyond the zero-milepost that they are working to improve), which is very definitely “off road”. The trail is really nice – it is wonderful to see how local communities show their pride and appreciation for the trail with beautiful gardens and rest stations. It also offers an example of the serendipity that takes place on the trail: I suddenly come upon what appears a depot of antique trucks, cars, gas station pumps and signs – either the historical society or a warehouse for theatrical props.
This last day’s ride also lets us see some of the “hybrids” and innovations in repurposed multi-use trails – a section of the Montour is a trail-beside-a-rail – the multipurpose trail is carved out of the right-of-way beside the active rail line.
We also literally ride over the “Panhandle” Trail which goes to Parkersburg West Virginia, with the connector that ultimately will allow bikers to cycle from Pittsburgh to Parkersburg (PtoP).
As for the rain, sure enough, as I pull into the parking lot at 11:15 am, the drops turn into deluge in a matter of moments.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Sojourn is a wonderful introduction to bike touring.
Wilderness Voyageurs, which operates the Sojourn on the GAP for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, offers Ride the GAP trips with bed-and-breakfast accommodations (they portage luggage from inn to inn), as well as a full catalog of guided bike tours that includes Colorado; Missouri’s Katy Trail; Idaho’s Hiawatha & Coeur D’Alene; South Dakota’s Mickelson & the Badlands; the Erie Canal, Finger Lakes, and Adirondacks in New York; Shenandoah and the Civil War; Gettysburg & the Civil War; Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay; Pittsburgh to DC on the GAP & C&O; Pennsylvania’s Amish Country; Kentucky’s Bike & Bourbon; Georgia’s Gold Coast; and a biking trip in Cuba. (855-550-7705, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com)
I have joined a Vermont bike tour centered around Woodstock village, that takes place over Bike Travel Weekend in June. The popular itinerary offered several times during the year by Discovery Bicycle Tours is one of some 850 events around the world this weekend to raise awareness of the joys and benefits (and ease) of bicycle touring. No one has to convince me – I have long appreciated how bike tours provide everything I look for when I travel: the opportunity to discover, explore, immerse, photograph, encounter at a perfect pace– not too fast and removed as you are traveling by car or bus, and not too slow as hiking so you can cover just the right amount of distance – and, still have a physically exerting experience, a personal challenge, plus the camaraderie of a shared adventure. A bike tour is sight seeing rather than sightseeing; being a participant not an observer; a part of, not apart from, your surroundings; an experience rather than a scene. Bike tours are enriching and satisfying on so many levels.
But as I appreciate during the course of this short weekend, all of that doesn’t just happen. It requires knowledgeable and careful planning that we just take for granted as we experience it – how the route is designed for distance, topography, scenery; the choice of accommodations; the quality of the equipment; the attention, expertise and personality of the guides, not to mention having snacks and cold water readily at hand.
What is surprising to me about the Discovery Bicycle Tours approach is that even though this is a guided, group tour, it is really very individualized. Jim Ortuno, our expert guide, tells us at our first gathering that the goal is for each guest to have “a perfect day” whatever that is – and I contemplate what that actually means and how that might be achieved. So people who are relatively new to biking who don’t want to do the climbs can simply hop into the van (Jim, orients us in advance as to what the topography will be like and where he will be parked for those who don’t want to make the 3 ½ mile climb.)
It is fascinating to see this in practice: how with the two guides – one driving the van, the other biking at the back as the “sweeper” – they are able to accommodate everyone, regardless of age, physical ability, biking ability or interest. It is a guided, supported group ride, but we all go at our own pace, have our own interests and goals – some (like me) stop often for photos and don’t mind the physically exerting climbs; others are new bikers or really don’t want to climb; still others are intense bikers and want to cover the distance at a fast pace.
Indeed, Vermont provides an exquisite setting. Just crossing the border you immediately feel a sense of peace come over you. But these are the Green Mountains, after all. The trip planner has to be cognizant of the hills as well as the traffic situation, since we ride on roads, rather than bike trails.
Riding at our own pace means we can spend time without feeling we are holding up the group investigating an equestrian competition, watching glass blowing at Simon Pearce, or visiting the Billings Farm, or hiking down the Quechee Gorge, or shopping at an artisans market, or constantly stopping to take photos (guilty!) – but are being watched over to make sure nobody has any issues.
The bikes that are included in the program are top quality – Trek, Specialized – and we get to choose whether we want a hybrid or road bike. We have sent in our request and dimensions earlier so that they have our properly sized bikes ready for us at the inn. We can bring our own seats or pedals or clips if we want. They provide the helmets as well and water bottle, and the bikes have a carry-bag with a place to put the written directions and maps.
When I hear a flapping sound in my rear brake that I can’t figure out and Jim, who restores classic cars, can’t immediately fix it either, he whips out a spare bike, just my size, from the top of the van.
The advance preparation is also extremely good. We receive a complete itinerary and directions, packing list. Discovery also makes available the trip’s maps and directions on a Smartphone based GPS app, RIDE WITH GPS (as well as providing meticulously written directions and maps). By downloading the app which has our exact tour routes, we get turn by turn spoken directions, a map of the day’s cycling route, and a live plot displaying our progress throughout the day – how far we’ve gone, average speed, accumulated elevation. “She” gives us fair warning when the big climb is coming so we can get into proper gear, and at the top, gives a verbal high-five; “she” tells us when there is a good general store to stop at where we can take care of business, and even notes when we are coming to an attraction we might want to visit.
Despite the video that we are directed to, most of us can’t figure out how to download the app properly, but Jim and Kenzie Novak get it going for each of us before we set out.
We meet the first night at dinner at the delightful inn selected for this trip, On the River Inn, just about 2 miles outside the center of Woodstock, a quintessential New England village that is visual eye-candy.
After dinner, we meet for an orientation and Jim cleverly organizes an “Icebreaker” (think of one word to describe you:”adventurous”, “fun”, “embarrassing,” “easy-going”, “quirky”, “excited”). There are 11 of us on the tour – a mother and her son and daughter-in-law have come from Illinois and found the tour by a Google search; a fellow came from Miami; a couple came from Massachusetts; two ladies came from downstate (one had traveled the famous El Camino de Santiago in Spain with Discovery before). Three of us are traveling on our own. Cyclists are the most open-hearted, open-minded, open-to-new-experiences sort of people and within moments we congeal into a single group.
Jim suggests a trick for tackling the climb: just look down and directly in front, relax hands and shoulders, breath in once out twice, and sing or whistle (I find that’s exactly what I’ve been doing), and gives us riding tips.
35-Mile Pomfret Ride
On Saturday morning, we come down between 7 and 8 am to be properly fitted for the bike and helmet; we can attach our own pedals or seats if we like and if we bring our own bike, Jim checks that out too. The bike has a pouch which has a plastic holder for our written directions. We are given a water bottle and a bunch of goodies marking Bike Travel Weekend.
Safety is clearly the tour company’s top issue, so they give us their cell numbers, and let us know where the closest emergency medical services are located in our written directions.
Jim, who is driving the van on the first day, tells us the two places where he will be pulled over if anyone doesn’t want to do the climb, then passes us often to make sure we are all right – we can give a thumbs up sign or wave him on, but if we put thumbs down, he knows to find a safe place to pull over to give aid; he would put on his blinkers to acknowledge.
Kenzie, the second guide, is on the bike today and rides “sweep” – at the back of the pack, but as she comes upon us, also asks if we need anything, or makes helpful suggestion to be a better biker – like shifting gears more efficiently or choosing the right gear.
Saturday’s ride is 35 miles (a shorter, flatter option is available, or those who don’t want to do the 3 ½ mile climb can ride in the van to the top and sail down a 6-mile stretch with views of stunning countryside (Currier & Ives come to mind) that Vermont is so famous for. The first three miles are relatively gentle ascent; it’s the last half-mile that is a wonderful strain that gives you that endorphin-rush for having done it.
We bike along the road (as opposed to a dedicated bikeway) but as Jim has promised, the Vermont drivers are very hospitable.
We come to the charming village of Quechee, where we visit the Simon Pearce Glass Works. I am transfixed watching the glass-blowing and shaping process.
We continue on to Quechee Gorge (but Jim has put my bike with the flapping brake into the van and I ride the 2 miles to the snack bar where we have lunch). I will still get to bike this stretch because we will backtrack these two miles after lunch. The Gorge offers dramatic views from the bridge and I hike the half-mile trail down to the bottom (the view isn’t worth it).
We come down a short steep hill and the GPS lady notes the sharp turn-off onto a dirt road just before an absolutely marvelous Taftsville Covered Bridge (watch out for loose gravel!). I am really appreciating the care that Discovery Bicycle Tours puts into designing the route.
Who would have believed that Vermont still has unpaved roads! This part of the ride though is so beautiful, along the river, passing farms that go back hundreds of years. I stop off at a cemetery where I note one of the tombstones is for a veteran of the American Revolution; others from the Civil War. It is striking to see the family stones in a line.
Just before coming into Woodstock, we pass the Billings Farm and Museum, a Rockefeller institution, where we can stop and visit.
Soon we cross The Woodstock Middle Bridge, a picture-perfect covered bridge that takes us right into the heart of the village to the Woodstock Green.
We arrive here around 3:30 pm and have plenty of time to explore, shop (I love Gillingham’s General Store, which dates back to 1886 and offers everything from the practical to the whimsical to the touristic). The van is available for those who want to shuttle back to the hotel rather than tackle one last steep climb at College Hill (it turns out to be such a short hill that by the time you feel it, you are at the top).
There is time before we meet for dinner to swim in the inn’s gorgeous indoor pool – big enough (and just the right temperature) for lap swimming – the hot tub, dry sauna and fitness room. On the River Inn proves a superb choice for accommodations, that really rounds out the Vermont experience.
Jenne Farm Ride
The Sunday ride is shorter, 20 miles, to accommodate the fact that people are traveling back. We check out of our rooms but Discovery has arranged for two rooms to be available for us after the ride to shower and change before hitting the road.
The itinerary is basically 10 miles in and back on the same road – but it is remarkable that coming back is a totally different experience, it might as well be a different route.
It’s a beautiful ride that takes us south along Kedron Brook passing through picturesque South Woodstock (a good thing, too, because we avoid a major half-marathon event going on where we biked Saturday), visiting a charming country store and passing the Green Mountain Equestrian Association (where a cross-country equestrian competition is underway) before arriving at a vista overlooking the Jenne Farm, possibly one of the most photographed scenes in New England.
The 10 miles going is virtually all up – beginning with a gentle pitch to a gradual pitch, and only the last half mile of a steep pitch (the GPS “lady” gives the heads up when we are to prepare for the steep climb). But the challenge is made easier because we already know we can do it from the previous day’s ride.
At the very top we are warned to be careful as we start the descent and not gain speed because very shortly there is a hard-right turn off the paved road onto a private dirt road that begins very steeply. They have made sure to mark the place where we will turn. I choose to walk the bike up that sandy hill. This is actually the private drive to the Jenne Farm, which for good reason boasts being “one of the most photographed farms in the world” especially in autumn. The scene (which I recognize from the inn’s posters) has appeared on magazine covers, photography books, a Budweiser television commercial, and was used as the setting in the films “Forrest Gump” and “Funny Farm.”
Gradually, we all find ourselves gathered together beside a tree looking down at the classic country scene (we are reminded this is a private road and we are on private land).
In this and all the classic Vermont scenes we have seen (at one point I think to myself that the aging red barns and covered bridges have been put there for tourists’ benefit), serendipity makes the scene and the experience unique – the weather, colors, light, time of day, season, and myriad things that make it unique.
Returning, there is that short steep hill which we came down, and then pretty much downhill for the 10 miles. But even though we are traveling the same road, the scene is completely different – the return takes you alongside a creek. And because we are going at our own pace, I linger at to watch the equestrian cross-country competition underway at the Green Mountain Equestrian Association grounds and stop frequently for photos. I think I am the last rider back to the inn, happy as a lark.
Turning a Group Tour into a Personalized Experience
Discovery Bicycle Tours began offering inn-to-inn bicycle tours throughout Vermont in 1977. Larry and Dawn Niles have been running the business since 1991 and have expanded the tour offerings to include a variety of tours in the United States, Quebec and Europe. They range in length from our 3-Day/2-Night weekend tours to 11-Day/10-Night tours.(New this year is a 10-day/9-night Dolomites to Venice tour). Each tour is designed to provide a uniquely memorable experience for the rider and includes all accommodations, most meals, bicycles, helmets, detailed directions and maps, van support and tour guides.
“We continue to encourage a culture that values substance over flash, where our focus is on the individual guest’s experience rather than a preset ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula. We are all about treating people personally,” Larry says, and this becomes clear from the first moment we gather together.
It’s hard to envision, at first, what our guide, Jim Ortuno, means when he promises that the plan is that each of us have our own perfect day. And if it isn’t, it’s not for the lack of trying. They go over-the-top to be accommodating each person’s individual abilities, interests and goals.
Maryland (Eastern Shore Chesapeake Bay; Harbour Inn Weekend)
Quebec – Eastern Townships
Italy – Puglia; Tuscany; Dolomites to Venice
Ireland – County Clare / Connemara
Spain – El Camino de Santiago
France – Provence
Discovery Bicycle tours also offers private and family tours, as well as customized tours. Each is designed to recognize and encourage varying skills and interests of riders. The tours are flexible and most include easy-to-moderate riding, plus optional routes for the more energetic cyclist.
At this writing, Discovery was offering a $400 discount on the 6-day/5-night Coast of Maine tours, that includes all ferries and excursions, guided kayaking, 5 nights lodging, including three nights in premium rooms at the Bar Harbor Inn, each with a private balcony overlooking Frenchman’s Bay, 5 breakfasts, picnic on Swan’s Island, 4 dinners, bicycle, helmet, and free transfer provided from/to Bangor International Airport (July 23–28, July 30–August 4, and August 13–18).
There also was a recent “Teacher Appreciation Sale” of $250 off longer tours and $100 off weekend trips.
The last day of Rails-to Trails Conservancy’s first spring sojourn, a three-day supported bike tour on the Great Allegheny Passage, is our longest ride, 49 miles from Adelaide to West Homestead, and, unlike our first two days which have been essentially downhill, has a good number of ascents, to boot – mostly as we come into the urban area and have to ride up and over bridges and overpasses.
This ride offers the starkest contrasts between the wholesomeness of a trail reclaimed for nature, and the industrial heritage that both built and destroyed this region’s environment.
We have three support stops. The second, at 21.9 miles, is in West Newton at a replica of the 1910 P&LE train station, now a historical society center and retail shop, with a train car outside. Literally across the “street” are three bed-and-breakfasts, right off the trail.
If you took the time to explore the downtown, you would find some quaint storefronts (some needing new owners), and some tucked away gems like the Victorian home on Vine Street, the historic Plumer House (circa 1814) on South Water Street. I take time to explore the historic West Newton Cemetery, accessible from the trail.
The trail follows the Youghiogheny River with beautiful scenic views.
In the 1890s, this area that we ride through that seems so natural and so pristine today, was the Industrial Heartland of America – steel mills, coke ovens filled the air with suffocating black smoke, blighting the area and making it unhealthy to live.
“They didn’t have the number of trees we see now,” Tom Sexton, the Northeast Regional Director for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy tells us during our nightly presentation. “The skies were so dark, they needed to use lights during the day.”
But these steel mills also were enabled the expansion of the United States– forging the bridges, railroads, skyscrapers – and the booming industrial economy that made the United States a world power. The wealth generated – and the economic policies – produced the Gilded Age, a time of great income inequality, when money and power was concentrated in a handful of Industrial Barons like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, among the richest people in the world, whose steel plants accounted for 30% of all the steel produced in the US.
We associate Carnegie and Frick today as great philanthropists, but they were ruthless industrialists who exploited labor and the environment for their personal benefit.
Sexton cites a book, “Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America,”by Les Standiford, who drew his title from Frick’s response to Carnegie’s deathbed invitation to meet: “I’ll meet you in hell,” Frick responds, perhaps a reflection of the penance they would have to pay for the hellfire they forced their workers to endure.
Carnegie and Frick were enthralled by efficiency, developed new processes, new tools to maximize productivity and manpower, Sexton tells us. That helped them add to their fortune, but “wasn’t a good lifestyle for people living and working in the steel and coal plants.
“They cut costs in all ways.” For example, workers lived in company towns and had to shop in company stores where prices were high. People were working 12 hours a day and wanted a shorter day.
“Being efficiency experts, they did study and found that after 8 hours, worker wasn’t so productive, less efficient, so they reduced the work day to 8 hours.”
Still, conditions were abominable and on July 4, 1892, the steel workers went on strike. After a bloody battle, followed by the state militia ultimately quashing the labor action months later, in November, Carnegie Steel reinstated the 12-hour day as retribution.
Sexton relates this story because our ride will take us passed the historic Pump House in West Homestead where the bloody labor battle took place.
Sexton’s story is in my mind as we ride, as I reflect on the glorious landscape. To think this whole area was so blighted – didn’t have the trees, the clear clean air, the clean rushing water that is so intoxicating now.
Indeed, the ride is gorgeous up until Boston where there is a beautiful park and we have our third support stop. Then, just as we ride through some trees, it is like culture shock because the trail becomes very urban – broken and winding, and then plops you out to a street beside the railroad tracks.
We go through a series of streets before getting back on the trail, going up and over several railroad crossings, past shuttered factories.
This is the part of the ride when we get to peer back into the landscape of the Industrial Revolution and get a greater appreciation of the clean pure air and the trees and clean water that we had been seeing along the GAP.
The most interesting part of the ride is when we come to the Pump House at West Homestead, the site of a bloody strike which Sexton has described to us, the site in 1892 of one American Labor’s bloodiest battles. I frankly might not have stopped (though there is also a restroom there for the benefit of the GAP trail riders) and spent as much time inspecting the site were it not for Sexton’s orientation.
Notes from the site tell the story: “In the early morning hours of July 6, 1892, at the Pump House of the Carnegie Steel Company’s Homestead Works, thousands of workers, their families and supporters, armed with sticks, rocks, and guns rushed to meet two barges coming up the Monongahela River. The barges carried 300 Pinkerton guards who had been sent to protect the works during the Homestead Strike and Lockout.
“After bitter fighting throughout the day resulted in the deaths of seven strikers and three Pinkerton men and dozens of others wounded, the guards surrendered. They were then forced to “run a bloody gauntlet” while being lead to a temporary jail at the Homestead Opera House until they were sent out of town by rail the next morning.
“Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie’s partner, convinced Pennsylvania Governor Pattison that Homestead was under “mob rule”. On July 12, 1892 the governor ordered 8,000 state militiamen into Homestead. The strike and lock out continued until November when unskilled laborers asked to be released from their strike pledge. Two days later, the strike ended – the union had been broken. The Battle of Homestead signaled the end of union activity in the steel industry until the 1930s” (riversofsteel.com).
After learning the history of the strike, a sign that salutes steelworkers seems more ironic than respectful: “In honor of the employees, USS. Homestead.” It also happens to be across the street from the offices of the US Steel Corporation.
As we continue along the riverfront trail, across the way, we see get a sense of how it was – massive factories, small houses built into the hillside, giant churches commanding the highest ground.
The ending of the ride proves the most strenuous – besides the ups and downs as we negotiate the overpasses and bridges, we are fighting against a strong head wind.
We continue on for several more miles until we come to the trickiest part of the ride – the shopping mall that has replaced Carnegie’s steel mill – and back to where we have parked, under the smokestacks.
This ride showcases a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy success story – the gorgeously maintained Great Allegheny Passage trail. It exemplifies the renaissance from industrial blight back to clean air and water and a better quality of life. Besides bringing in visitors who form the underpinning of a new, sustainable economy, the trail directly benefits locals, too – healthy living (the best preventive medicine) while offering families fun activities they can share together.
Complete from Pittsburgh in the west to Cumberland, MD in the east, the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage connects with the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Towpath to create a 335-mile non-motorized route between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. AMTRAK offers a walk on bicycle service. (https://gaptrail.org/, 888-282-BIKE).
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington DC with more than 160,000 members and supporters, is the nation’s largest trails organization dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s national office is located in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.railstotrails.orgor call 866-202-9788.
These rides are organized by Wilderness Voyageurs which offers many different biking and rafting trips including inn to inn biking trips, across the US and international: 800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.
I’m the first to arrive at the appointed spot beside the tall brick smokestacks that border the parking field of a shopping mill, where once one of Pittsburgh’s mighty steel mills had been. It’s 6:30 am, but one of the leaders of the Rails to Trails Conservancy’s Great Allegheny Passage Spring Sojourn is already here. Gradually over the next half hour, our group of 85 riders comes together. We bring our bikes, now with our “license plate” to a truck, load our luggage and camping gear, board the two buses, and drive about 1 ½ hours to where the start of our three-day, 120 mile ride begins, in Meyersdale.
Meyersdale is just nine miles down from the Eastern Divide – the equivalent of the Continental Divide, a highpoint in the Allegheny Mountains. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a relatively new, dedicated rail-trail completed in 2013, actually starts in Cumberland, 32 miles from where we begin our sojourn. The GAP links to the 184.5-mile C&O Canal trail that comes out of Washington DC, and extends 150 miles westward to Pittsburgh, creating a 335-mile non-motorized route between Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. (AMTRAK offers a walk on bicycle service; https://gaptrail.org/, 888-282-BIKE).
We are starting our ride below the Divide, so our trip today, 27 miles, will be a gentle decline totaling 600 feet. Had I been cleverer, I would have done what a few others did, and go back the nine miles up to the Divide, which would have added about 1 ½ hours to the ride. (
We are greeted at the Meyersdale train station, now converted into a delightful café and shop, by representatives of the Meyersdale Merchants Association. We are part of the repurposed, renewed, sustainable economy, now that the rail line, steel and coal extraction have shut down. The rail-trail has brought new visitors, and new vitality, to these small villages and towns all along the Great Allegheny Passage.
This is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s first spring sojourn, and it takes place over Mothers Day, no less, which accounts for our group being smaller than a typical sojourn – just 85 riders instead of over 200 which is more typical of the annual sojourn. But this year, RTC is for the first time offering a series of four sojourn rides. The first, in Florida, had already taken place. The third one will be in West Virginia (June19-22); and the last is four-days/three nights from Cleveland to Columbus on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, Ohio in (Sept. 23-26, 4 days/three nights)..
These rides showcase the progress of rail lines that are no longer used converted to biking and multi-use trails, and where there are gaps in the trails that need the support of advocates, communities and government to complete. The Great Allegheny Passage rail trail is on what was the Western Pennsylvania line, which closed in 1975, because it couldn’t compete with the C&O line (that still operates on the other side of the river, and, as it happens, right beside our campsites).
This ride, as it turns out, showcases a success story – the Great Allegheny Passage trail we ride over these three days is exquisite, a testament to the enthusiastic participation and pride of the communities it crosses – wide, with crushed limestone, lovely sitting areas along the way with views to the river, wonderful bridges and tunnels, some bathroom facilities, excellent signage, even “stations” where there are bike repair tools and an air pump. Since its opening, GAP (as it is known) has become one of the most popular trails and was the first inductee in RTC’s Rail-Trail “Hall of Fame.”
Our ride features gorgeous mountain vistas and relaxing river scenes, historic bridges and tunnels that showcase the GAP’s railway heritage. Highlights include Salisbury Viaduct, Casselman River Valley, the Historic Pump House (Homestead) and Great Allegheny Passage Trail towns: Meyersdale, West Newton, Confluence and Ohiopyle.
Offering these supported bike rides is not RTC’s main mission, but the rides are invaluable to raising consciousness and commitment, not just of the riders, but of the communities which are essential. We become ambassadors for the concept of rail-trails,
I love these supported rides. RTC’s sojourns are professionally organized by an Ohiopyle-based tour company, Wilderness Voyageurs, which lays out the route, arranges for our camping sites, the trucks, the meals (breakfast and dinner), the support stops.
This ride takes place over Mothers Day, as well as over a work/school day. Nonetheless, there are a number of us who have come on our own, leaving spouse and/or children at home (one mother left her five kids, age 8 to 16 at home with her husband as her Mothers Day gift). These rides are ideal for couples, for families (the ages on this ride range from 8 years old to 82 and a 10-year old can manage the ride), and particularly for single travelers because we become not just a community, but a tribe – a nomadic tribe in fact that picks up stakes and moves on each day. It’s a supported ride which means that our luggage is ferried by truck to the next designated campground where they have arranged dinner and breakfast, a place to charge our phones, bathrooms and showers, provide support stops (with snacks) along the way, leader/volunteers who ride with us and behind, and support vehicle if anyone can’t complete the day’s ride.
Day 1: Meyersdale to Harnedsville, 27.3 Miles
The first day’s ride starts in Meyersdale in the Casselman River Valley, near Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis (mile 32 from the start of the Great Allegheny Passage trail).
The area was first occupied by the Monongahela Indians, who harvested the sap from maple trees to make maple syrup – and representatives of the Meyersdale Merchants Association greet us with maple candy samples. Known as “Maple City,” Meyersdale has hosted the Pennsylvania Maple Festival every March for more than 60 years.
The town itself is experiencing a renaissance with rail-trail and the completion of a streetscape project. At the trail access, the Western Maryland Railway Station has been turned into a visitor center, with local history exhibits and a retail store. A mural on Main Street (one of several along the Great Allegheny Passage) pays homage to Meyersdale’s roots as a bustling transportation hub for local agriculture, coal and timber. (www.visitmeyersdale.com).
There is a bit of fan-fare as we set out, going through a blow-up arch.
It is clear, sunny day as we set out, but the weather forecast is for clouds and rain. But we soon come to one of the highlights of the GAP: going over the Salisbury Viaduct,: 1,912’ long, built in 1908, it is our first crossing of the Casselman River (this turns out to be one of the top 10 photo views). At the other end, we see a line of wind turbines on stretched out over the hilltops – a fitting testament to what is old is new again. I also come upon an old cemetery – a stone there memorializes Peter G. Meyers who died in 1891, and I wonder if he is the founder of Meyersdale.
Our cue sheets (very well done) also point us to the Wymps Gap Fossil Quarry, at 9.0 miles into the ride. During the Mississippian Period (330 million years ago), Western Pennsylvania was the hsore of a shallow sea. The exposed limestone layers are a fairly thin band of fossil bearing rock sandwiched between layers of shale. It’s marked with a wooden post, labeled GR5 (unfortunately, I miss it)..
At 11.9 miles, we pass Rockwood, where we are recommended for lunch options.
Rockwood is described as a tightly knit rural community, with roots in industry and railroading. The town was laid out in 1857 but boomed after the end of the Civil War, with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. By 1884, the town had several mils and shops, four general stores, two grocery stores and four hotels.
A locomotive sculpture at the Rockwood trailhead is a link between the town’s rail history and its present-day “investment” in biking and recreation. You cross the Casselman River to get into the town. There is public art, including a mural that honors trail ambassador Maynard Sembower, who died in 2009 at the age of 100 – a reminder that these improvements are the result of sweat and activism of committed individuals.
The most interesting structure is the Rockwood Mill Shops & Opera House, with a performance space. Lumber and feed were processed in the building for nearly a century, while the opera house hosted visiting and local performers above the mill. The building was restored in 2000 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (www.somersetcountychamber.com).
The highlight of today’s ride for me comes at 19.9 miles: riding through the 849‘ long Pinkerton Tunnel. The tunnel was originally built in 1911, collapsed and was rebuilt in a kind of a kwansit hut at a cost of $1.8 million and only reopened in 2015. It is very surreal going through it: Inside, a dizzying array of concentric metallic circles – long, dark, with proverbial light at the end of it.
Shortly after, we cross High Bridge over the Casselman River (our third crossing on the GAP today).
At 27.1 miles, we leave the GAP and follow the signs they have placed for us, for a couple of turns that bring us just a 2/10 of a mile beyond to the grounds of the Turkey Foot High School (which has been on the USA Today’s list of top high schools) where we will camp.
It’s Friday and school is in session, so we aren’t able to enter the school until after 3:30 pm – a little disconcerting because rain is threatening.
I opt to continue down the trail another two miles to the town of Confluence, so named because it is set where three rivers converge. It’s the shape of the three peninsulas that looks just like a turkey’s foot.
Indeed, in George Washington’s day, this area was called Turkeyfoot by natives and settlers. George Washington, himself, came to the confluence of the rivers in 1754 during the French & Indian War, as he and his soldiers were on their way to the forks of the Ohio River. As we travel the trail in the woods, revitalized and full now that the steel mills and coal mining have shut down, I can easily imagine the wilderness that he saw and the how the Indians would have used the rivers.
The skies have been threatening rain and I return to the campsite.
If we don’t want to set up our own tents, we can use the Comfy Camper service or stay in nearby bed-and-breakfast accommodations. This trip I treat myself to the Comfy Camper service ($118 for the two nights, comfycampers.info, 315-283-0220) and it adds a measure of luxury to the trip: When I arrive, the tent – roomy, comfortable, wonderfully waterproof, with an air mattress, chair and towel – are all ready for me. Shawn Stewart, owner/director, has just finished blowing up the air mattress and I am cozy inside, just as the rain comes down in earnest.
Our dinner is provided by the Turkey Foot Fire Department – another way the Sojourn supports local communities.
Ambassadors for Rail-Trails
Indeed, this is the theme for the Sojourn rides.
During the evening’s presentation, Tom Sexton, Northeast Regional Director of Rails to Trails Conservancy, tells us about the plans to finish the gaps on the trails, and ultimately connect a network of trails stretching through most of the Mid Atlantic.
RTC, in its 30th year, helps finds money and means to build rail-trails. Since 1991, $1 billion spent. Certain amount of transportation money (from fed) has to be spent on things other than highways, airports, bridges, but “other transit.” RTC helps communities, nonprofits, governments come together on how to build rail trail – negotiate with railroad, what surface to use, how to maintain. RTC also offers its members TrailLink – an online tool that helps you find trails and map your ride.
These Sojourns are a means of engaging interest in the rail trials – spotlighting gaps in trails, showcasing successes, and inspiring communities to get involved. The riders become ambassadors – especially with our “license” plates and shirts that announce who we are.
The sojourn also helps show a community (and funding agencies) the economic benefits of trails, as well as its social benefits, building camaraderie, community, and quality of life benefits.
“Towns (like Dunbar) which have fallen on hard times since the railroad left, find the trails revitalize, become the main street. In 15 years since RTC started sojourn rides, we’ve hosted 3400 riders, brought $2.1 billion in spin off to the corridors we ride through.
“We show that an economy built around the rail-trail is sustainable. The money spent stays here, it has low impact. The trail benefits environment and the local people who benefit from trails.”
Indeed, as we ride over the weekend, you see families out and about – the trails provide a healthy, active outdoor activity that families can share together.
RTC has big plans to create a regional network of interconnected trails.
For example, connecting Parkersburg West Virginia, the access for the North Bend Trail (the start of the third Sojourn of this year’s series) to Pittsburgh and the GAP rail trail, which already connects to the 34-mile long Sheepskin Trail out of Dunbar.
Then the idea is to continue on to Clarksburg-Parkersburg trail, which will be 260 miles when finished. At that point, you could start in DC, go to Pittsburgh (on C&O, 183 miles and GAP 150 miles), altogether about 600 miles.
“This is the epicenter of trails in the US,” Sexton says.
But this is only a piece of what is an even bigger grand plan.
Eric Oberg, Director of Trail Development, Midwest Regional Office, speaks of a “Trails Manifest Destiny”:in describing a sprawling network of 1,450 miles of interconnected multiuse trails that will be called “The Industrial Heartland Trail” which together, would be the largest in the country – from DC to Pittsburgh, to Cleveland –Cleveland-Cincinnati-Dayton, Parkersburg, Indianapolis, up to Erie and Buffalo (where you can then connect to the 400-mile long Erie Canalway). Some 48% of these multi-use trails are done, and the hope is to have it completed by 2035.
“It won’t take 80 years, but it will be more than five years” before the manifest destiny is realized, Eric says.
Sojourn Bike Tours
For the first time in the 14 years of hosting a Sojourn bike tour showcasing a rail-trail, the Rail-Trails Conservancy expanded the series to four rides: the first, in Florida, was held in February; the second on the popular Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, was May 6-8. The third was a four-day/three-night North Bend Rail Trail out of Parkersburg, West Virginia (June 19-22; and the last was four-days/three nights from Cleveland to Columbus on the Ohio-to-Erie Trail, Ohio in September.
“The Sojourn Series is much more than just a bike ride. It’s a trail building tool for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and allows us to pull advocacy into participants’ trail use experience.”
The Sojourn rides are crafted to weave experiences that go beyond simply riding from point A to point B. Each sojourn aims to transform trail users into advocates and create the economic case for trail networks nationwide.
The West Virginia Sojourn showcases the North Bend Rail Trail out of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “It is an incredible trail but does not yet connect to the two communities on either end, Parkersburg and Clarksburg.” This ride serves to bring attention to those gaps and advocate for their completion. The corridor is also part of a much larger trail development effort being undertaken by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition.
“The West Virginia ride will allow you to get on a new trail and take part in some of the advocacy that our organization is known for.”
Since 2001, more than 3,000 riders have joined RTC’s sojourns. These rides not only highlight incredible trails, but they also help empower communities to complete trail networks that will benefit the entire region.
Equally importantly, they highlight the economic benefit to communities, particularly those who have seen older industries shut down, along with the rail lines.
RTC’s 2015 Pennsylvania Rail-Trail Sojourn brought visitors from 35 states and had an economic impact of more than $245,000 – something significant for a town like Dunbar, Pennsylvania, which once depended upon coal and railroads.
The rail-trail could be an engine for a new economy fueled by lodging, restaurants and gear shops. RTC estimates that the GAP would generate more than $40 million in direct spending from trail users annually.
“The Sojourn Series is a real-world example that show how trails can provide an economic boon to local economies,” says Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development for RTC. “By providing these rides, we’re creating more opportunities for people to experience and advocate for these trail networks.”
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with more than 160,000 members and supporters, is the nation’s largest trails organization dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s national office is located in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.railstotrails.org.
These rides are organized by Wilderness Voyageurs which offers many different biking and rafting trips including inn to inn biking trips, across the US and international: 800-272-4141, Wilderness-Voyageurs.com.
Next: Great Allegheny Passage Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Sojourn Continues