America wasn’t settled at highway speeds, and some of the towns that made our country great are now near-forgotten blips. Traveling by bicycle offers an up-close and leisurely look at this history. For a weekend of relaxed family pedaling or an extended bucket-list-worthy cycling adventure, these three long-distance recreational trails are packed with possibilities.
Erie Canalway Trail
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, settlers headed west while goods and raw material poured east, and New York became the young nation’s economic powerhouse. Today, the Erie Canalway Trail takes hikers and cyclists 360 miles across upstate New York from Buffalo to Albany, along the waterways of the state’s iconic canal system. Adventurers on the trail experience under-the-radar historic sites, such as the extraordinary five-tier locks in scenic Lockport, where early 19th century engineers figured out how to conquer the massive Niagara Escarpment. The trail also passes through small towns and major cities, crosses wetlands alive with migrating waterfowl, and takes in the beauty of the Mohawk Valley gorge, where exhausted pioneers trudged through the Allegheny Mountains. For 80 percent of the distance, it’s a well-marked off-road recreational path, and by this time next year, the trail should be completed. Need help planning your trip? The nonprofit Parks & Trails New York leads an annual summer bike-and-camp event, and touring company Go Bike Erie offers guided tours and shuttle service.
The Great Allegheny Passage
When you wheel a couple of saddlebag-laden bikes into a hotel lobby and the concierge doesn’t bat an eye, you know you’re traveling a wildly popular rail-to-trail route. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) runs 150 miles between Point State Park in Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland. It’s built on abandoned railway lines that once hauled coal to the Steel City and travels along sparkling rivers that a young lieutenant colonel named George Washington navigated during the French and Indian War. Managed by the nonprofit Allegheny Trail Alliance, the GAP offers breathtaking scenery and friendly small-town accommodations. Like the Erie Canalway, the GAP surface is mainly crushed limestone and flat; when you’re traveling west to east you won’t realize you’ve been peddling ever-so-slightly uphill until you come to the sign for the Eastern Continental Divide. If you leave your car in downtown Pittsburgh, don’t fret. One option for traveling back is Amtrak.
C&O Canal Trail
In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas laced up his boots and took two Washington Post editors on a hike. They trekked the wilderness on the north bank of the Potomac River along the remnants of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal—land that the Post and the public were itching to have developed as a scenic highway. But the esteemed jurist made his case: The area and its history should be protected. The editors agreed, and the newspaper advocated that the 185-mile stretch between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland, be preserved as a national park. Today you can bike through the C&O Canal National Historical Park on the canal’s old towpath, past ancient lockkeeper cottages and heritage-soaked sites, such as Harper’s Ferry, where abolitionist John Brown made his 1859 raid. Beyond the D.C. suburbs, the trail is frequently a rutted, fat-tire affair, with at least one strenuous detour scheduled this summer around the 169-year-old Paw Paw Tunnel. But the journey’s remote and rugged feel is a great window into life in canal days. The C&O Canal trail links with the GAP in Cumberland, and multiple touring companies offer guided trips on both. There are campsites along the way, too, but hotels and grub are less predictable, so plan ahead.
Side Trip: Ohiopyle State Park
The name looks goofy, yes. But Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, is serious fun. It’s located in the state’s breathtaking Laurel Highlands, a landscape of deep woods, rocky bluffs, and the heart-pounding whitewater of the Youghiogheny River. During the off-season, the outpost has a population that hovers around 58. In summer, it’s crawling with hikers, kayakers, rock climbers, and tourists who’ve come to enjoy the waterfall-blessed Ohiopyle State Park. Rafting guides and fly fishing outfitters offer day trips, and the GAP trail runs right through town, so it’s an ideal spot for a weekend of out-and-back cycling. There’s culture, too. Less than five miles away you can visit the world’s most famous summer cottage: Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater.