If John F. Kennedy did, indeed, say it, he said it best: “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” As more and more people choose bicycles as their method of getting around (whether it be for financial savings, environmental concerns, fitness, or, as JFK said, pure fun), and more cities accommodate the demand for routes, creating dedicated bike lanes in urban centers and converting defunct railroad tracks to rural trails, cycling has become increasingly popular. For the casual cyclist, renting a bike and finding a great trail is one of the best ways to explore a new location. These are my favorites.
#1 Mackinac Island, Michigan
The 15-minute ferry crossing to Mackinac Island — one of the world’s best ways to arrive at a destination — builds in excitement. From small-town St. Ignace (population: 2,300), I was soon surrounded by Lake Huron. I had always wanted to come to this vehicle-free summer retreat island, especially in shoulder season, when it’s not too mobbed with day-trippers, affectionately (or maybe not) called “fudgies,” a neologism coined by the locals for visitors who make the crossing to sample the offerings of the numerous fudge shops here. From the ferry deck, I spotted the impressive summer homes along the bluff and the enormous, unmistakable Grand Hotel, the world’s largest summer hotel, with the world’s longest porch. The ferry docked in “The City,” the downtown area, awash in restaurants, stores, fudge shops, inns, and Victorian B&Bs. It’s also where I rented a three-speed dirt bike, complete with a gratis bottle of water. The only ways to get around the island, including for the people who live here (a number that drops to below 500 in the off-season), are by foot, on a horse, with a horse and wagon, and on a bike (or a snowmobile when winter calls). Pedaling through town on Main Street, I passed by the Butterfly House, historical markers, and, up on a bluff, Fort Mackinac (captured by the British at the start of the War of 1812). But the 8.2-mile loop around the island became my favorite bike trail once I left Main Street behind and I had Mackinac almost entirely to myself. In 1875, most of the federal land here was designated a national park — the second in the United States, three years after Yellowstone. It lost that status in 1895 and was downgraded to a state park, Michigan’s first, and it remains a beautiful one at that. Lake Shore Boulevard circles the island, hugging the coast on fairly level terrain. Officially known as State Highway M-185, the paved road is the only state highway in the United States to ban motor vehicles. I stopped often, to enjoy the expansive views of Lake Huron, the small beaches and big homes, old cannons, and, far off in the distance, the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge. Interesting rock formations along the way, like Devil’s Kitchen, invite exploration. The terrain becomes more challenging if you venture off the main loop and strike inland to see, for instance, Arch Rock and Skull Cave, but if you stick to the state highway, you’ll stay on even ground. I never knew what was going to cross my path — anything from blue jays to snakes — but it was never another person. After more than two hours, I returned the bike back on Main Street and then, predictably, purchased some fudge.
#2 Oulu, Finland
This Finnish city of 200,000, situated at the mouth of the Oulu River flowing into the northeast corner of the Gulf of Bothnia, quickly became one of my favorite smaller cities in the world. Settled 7,000 years ago and officially founded by Charles IX of Sweden in 1605, this old town of salt, tar, and salmon has morphed into a prosperous city with a high-tech workforce and cutting-edge research facilities. It’s also the most bike-friendly city I’ve ever visited, and an astoundingly high percentage of its citizens cycle around town on a network of dedicated bike lanes that lead absolutely everywhere. On two wheels, it’s easy to take in the tidy city’s sights, from its colorfully painted architectural treasures, like the yellow Oulu Cathedral, yellow-orange City Hall, and pink Valve Cultural Center, to its older pastel-colored wood houses that rest on stone bases; its wonderful museums, like the Northern Ostrobothnian Museum and the Tietomaa Science Museum (housed in a former leather processing factory); and its gorgeous and abundant parks, filled with rose gardens, streams, nature trails, and fountains. Cross over little bridges that connect the city’s islands to reach the easily accessible nature all around town, and even shorter bridges that span the narrow stream, with small, rocky waterfalls, that runs through the city. You’ll be building an appetite with all that cycling, but Oulu makes it easy to just bike up to places for sustenance. Start your day at Kauppatori, the market square, and stock up on fruits and snacks for the day, or power up with a huge peach and chocolate pancake at Pannukakkutalo. Grab a midday snack at the café at the ruins of the old Oulu Castle, commissioned in 1605 and largely destroyed in 1793 when lightning struck a wooden gunpowder magazine. Pedal your way to dinner at Sokeri-Jussin Kievari, a restaurant in an old, red, sugar warehouse. Things may get a little crowded in Oulu when it hosts the annual Air Guitar World Championship, but on an average day, this city is perfect for a leisurely bike ride around town.
#3 Boulder Creek Path (Boulder, Colorado)
In this wonderfully outdoorsy city, biking is made easy via the Boulder Creek Path. At about 10 miles, the bike path courses through the city of Boulder, from the east side through the city center and up into mountains. Created in the 1980s, this mostly paved path hugs Boulder Creek, and through a series of underpasses and bridges, it never intersects with the city’s streets and motor vehicle traffic. Dotted with historical markers and nature interpretation signs, the path offers easy access to the city’s highlights. Blending both urban and rural landscapes, it swings by cultural venues and historic landmarks like the farmers market, the gorgeous University of Colorado campus, parks, a library, and a sculpture garden. Lovely homes with steep staircases down to their small patios along the creek enable folks to easily throw an inner tube into the water and float away. Farther west, it provides quick access to hiking in Settler’s Park. The path turns to a dirt trail as you enter Boulder Canyon for a more challenging ride amid spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery right at the city’s doorstep.
#4 Grand Loop (Jackson / Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming)
Even if you don’t complete this 35-mile loop, you’ll be more than thrilled with just the first half. Rent a bike in charming Jackson and head north on a dedicated bike path that runs parallel to the main road between the town and one of the most beautiful national parks in the United States. Starting astride Flat Creek, the Grand Loop path enters Jackson Hole, the flat valley with gentle rises and falls that makes biking here a breeze. With the foothills of the Tetons on your left and the sweeping valley and Millers Butte to the right, I was awed by spectacular views right from the start. You’ll almost immediately gain direct access to the National Elk Refuge and, a little farther north, the outstanding National Museum of Wildlife Art. Soon after, you’ll enter Grand Teton National Park, with its dramatic range rising on your left from the flat valley floor. The snow-topped jagged mountains are best appreciated in the morning, when the rising sun strikes them and brings them to life. Officially enter the park at Moose Junction by crossing over the Snake River and continue to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, where you can stow your bike and hike to the fantastically photogenic lake. At just over 25 miles, this section of the loop rewards you with some of the most dramatic scenery in all of Wyoming.
#5 Zaanse Schans (Zaandam, the Netherlands)
After witnessing the hazards of riding a bike in large Dutch cities (combating foot traffic, vehicular traffic, trams, and canals with no protection that engender a shockingly high number of bicycles being hauled out of the water every year), I found Zaandam a much more inviting place to hop on two wheels, especially in Zaanse Schans. A 15-minute train ride from Amsterdam brought me to the town. Rent a bike near the train station and pedal toward Zaanse Schans, crossing the Zaan River and its watery inlets and dikes. Along the way, I detected the aroma of something chocolate being baked somewhere. Once I arrived, I was completely won over by the distinctive green wooden houses with very typical Dutch gables and a collection of fantastic windmills, all of which were relocated to this neighborhood in the early 1960s to recreate the look of an early 19th-century village. Although that may hint of a tourist trap, it’s not: Zaanse Schans is a living and working community, with people still residing in the buildings and tending their gardens, and some of the windmills still in full operation, producing wood, pigments for paint, and peanut oil. During the Dutch Golden Age, about 600 windmills were active in this area of the Netherlands. Now, only eight remain here, forming a shimmering quality to Zaanse Schans’ unique skyline as the windmills’ sails rotate at the top of their towers shaped like nuclear plant cooling towers (but with handsome caps). Bike past torpid cows lazing in neighboring fields and start exploring these beauties that would drive Don Quixote mad, a few of which date back to the late 1600s. Pop into some of the museums for a look at, for instance, clog making, and then go inside the windmills that are open to witness their fascinating structures and processes; just make sure to pay attention to the signs with the skull and crossbones — you can easily be injured by a sail swooping by on its silent rotation.
- Stanley Park (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Vicksburg National Military Park (Vicksburg, Mississippi)
- Rideau Canal (Ottawa, Ontario)
- Burlington Greenway (Burlington, Vermont)
- Prospect Park (Brooklyn, New York)
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