May is National Bike Month, and 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the invention of the bicycle. Baron Karl von Drais, a German aristocrat, is credited with inventing the “hobby horse” in 1817, to keep people moving during a shortage of horses. His version was quite a bit different than the Trek or Schwinn sitting in your hallway or garage, though: It weighed 50 pounds, and had two wooden wheels attached to a wooden frame. Riders sat on a leather saddle and, since gears and pedals weren’t part of the design, they pushed the device forward with their feet! (A boon to cobblers, no doubt.)
In honor of the bicycle’s birthday, here’s a look at some of the best bike trails in the United States, including two rail trials you’ll find here in New England. Since 1965, more than 1,200 trails have opened on former rail beds in the United States, a bonanza for cyclists (and pedestrians), and a great way to see America close up. Ready to feel like a giddy 10-year-old with the wind in your face? Let’s go.
For history buffs, Virginia’s Capital Trail
The route: Stretching between Richmond and Jamestown, this asphalt trail covers 400 years of Virginia history in its 52 miles. Pedal alongside parks, plantations, and historic battlefields as you travel between Virginia’s past and present capitals. Dedicated in late 2015, the Virginia Capital Trail weaves past the James River in some spots, traversing nearly 30 wooden bridges. You can do it in a weekend, but allow extra time if you’re the type who stops to read historical markers as you go; this trail has plenty of them (www.virginiacapitaltrail.org).
Fuel up: At mile marker 20 in Charles City, Cul’s Courthouse Grille (www.culscourthousegrille.com) serves Southern favorites such as fried catfish and fried green tomatoes, plus lighter fare, in a former c. 1972 general store. Closer to Richmond, dig into award-winning Southern smoked barbecue at Ronnie’s BBQ in Henrico (www.ronniesbbq.com). Yes, you risk a food coma, but it’s worth it.
Bunk down: Richmond has several pleasant small inns, like the Inn at Patrick Henry’s (www.innatph.com, from $109; two-night minimum Fri. and Sat. nights). In Williamsburg, consider a resort like Kingsmill (www.kings
mill.com, from $189) if you’ve got time to take advantage of all the amenities, like golf and the spa.
When you’re saddle sore: Stop at one of the Tidewater plantations along the way, maybe Sherwood Forest (www.sherwoodforest.org), former home of President Tyler, and said to be the current residence of a ghost, the gray lady. At the end of the day, sample one of the state’s surprisingly good wines at a local winery, perhaps Williamsburg Winery (www.williams
Tip: The new Cap Trail Bike Shuttle service (www.captrailbikeshuttle.com) offers transportation for riders and their bicycles along the trail, a great option for one-way cycling trips.
For families, the Sanibel Island Trail
The route: This one isn’t a rail trail, it’s a network of shared-use pathways that links Sanibel Island’s beaches and attractions — an easy-going way to navigate this 12-mile-long mash up of sand and palms. Connected by causeway to Fort Myers, Sanibel Island is one of Florida’s most bike-friendly destinations. The wide, paved path is separated from Sanibel’s main streets by a grassy median and there are no hairy street crossings, making this a good fit for families. Virtually everything on this lovely, shell-strewn island is reachable via the bike path, including beaches, a wildlife refuge, restaurants and shops, a shell museum, and a lighthouse. Park the car and pick up a trail map at the Sanibel Island Visitors Center at 1159 Causeway Road (www.sanibeltrails.com).
Fuel up: Join the crowds for breakfast at Bennett’s Fresh Roast (www.bennettsfreshroast.com); but get there early, so your favorite flavor of doughnut (say, maple-bacon) hasn’t sold out. There’s no shortage of upscale dining on Sanibel, but locals swear by Sweet Melissa’s (www.sweet
melissascafe.com) for small, shared plates and great salads.
Bunk down: Recently renovated, Sundial Beach Resort (www.sundialresort.com, rates from $209) offers sunny studios, beach homes, and condos, spread along the waterfront on the Gulf of Mexico. With on site restaurants, pools, loaner bicycles, and activities galore — even pickleball courts — nobody will get bored.
When you’re saddle sore: Getting out onto the water is a must. Book a trip with Adventure Sea Kayak & SUP on Captiva Island (www.captivaadventures.com) and explore twisty, mangrove-lined waterways and lagoons at sunset, after dark, or under a full moon. Admire the glorious green side of Sanibel (plus some crazy local bird life) at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/ding
darling), a 6,400-acre mangrove wilderness with hiking trails and observation towers.
Tip: Before you rent, check to see if your inn or resort has loaner bikes. Expect these to be the basic models (upright handlebars, no gears) with helmets and bike locks. If you need a rental, try Billy’s Rentals (www.billys
For water views, Island Line Trail
The route: Together, the Burlington Bike Path and Colchester Causeway make up the Island Line Trail. It’s only 13 miles, running between Colchester and Burlington, Vt., but oh, what a route! The views of Lake Champlain and New York’s Adirondack Mountains couldn’t be prettier, and what better place to knock around than funky, fun Burlington? The surface of the path is mostly paved, with some gravel stretches; you’ll cross Lake Champlain on a 2.5-mile marble causeway (www.localmotion.org).
Fuel up: Reserve in advance for a dinner at Hen of the Wood (www.hen
ofthewood.com), a splurge-worthy farm-to-table restaurant. Raved-about dishes include rabbit pate, grilled octopus, mushroom toast, and apple fritters with maple ice cream. Folks wait in line for a seat at comfort food favorite Penny Cluse Café (www.penny
cluse.com) for breakfast and brunch.
Bunk down: Burlington has several hotels that are convenient to the bike path, but for a real outdoorsy escape, go camping. North Beach Campground, on the lakeshore (www.enjoy
burlington.com, tent sites $37 per night) has 137 sites (69 are for tent campers) with picnic tables and grills.
When you’re saddle sore: Waterfront Park is a lively place to hang out in the summertime, since there’s always an event going on. Pop into the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain (www.echovermont.org) to check out the Butterflies Live! Exhibit (it’s for kids, but who doesn’t love butterflies?)
Tip: Need bikes? Local Motion (www.localmotion.org) offers rentals at its trailside shop.
For nature lovers, Cape Cod Rail Trail
The route: Running 22 miles from Dennis to Wellfleet, this beloved hometown trail is the perfect way to visit seaside villages and take in coastal views without dealing with summertime traffic on routes 6 and 6A. Following the former Old Colony Railroad right-of-way, the trail passes through Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet, alongside salt marshes, pine forests, and cranberry bogs. Oh, yeah, there’s also a national seashore. The 44-mile round-trip ride can be done in one day; add spurs to Harwich and Chatham if you’re really feeling zippy (www.mass.gov).
Fuel up: For a quick bite, pop into Ring Brothers Marketplace in South Dennis (www.ringbrosmarket
place.com) and choose among local vendors such as Chatham Fish & Lobster Co., plus noodles, burritos, and to-go items. To sample some of the Cape’s delectable seafood, try the Brewster Fish House (www.brewsterfish
house.com), a local favorite. Biking 44 miles earns you a stop at Hot Chocolate Sparrow in Orleans (www.hot
chocolatesparrow.com), a crazy-good coffee and chocolate bar. (A Frozen Mocha Sparrow? Yes please!)
Bunk down: The Ship’s Knees Inn (www.shipskneesinn.com, from $200 with private bath) in Orleans, is just a quarter mile from Nauset Beach. Each of the 17 guest rooms is unique.
When you’re saddle sore: Got a towel and a change of clothes in your pack or panniers? Cool off with a swim at Nickerson State Park, at around the halfway point. Or explore by foot at the Salt Pond Visitor Center of Cape Cod National Seashore in Eastham.
Tip: Want more bike path? It’s coming. A 3.7-mile extension of the Cape Cod Rail Trail is underway, going through Dennis and Yarmouth.
Tour de Missouri on the Katy Trail
The route: Running roughly 240 miles across Missouri’s midsection, the Katy Trail (technically Katy Trail State Park) is the longest rail trail in the United States. It follows part of the famed Lewis & Clark Trail as it rolls over bluffs and winds through historic towns. A ride from the trail’s eastern edge near St. Charles to Hermann takes in prime scenery, a metro area, and a mix of small towns — and you can do it in a weekend. Day one, ride 30 miles from historic St. Charles to Augusta; on day two, soak up pastoral views of the Missouri River valley on the route from Augusta to Hermann (www.mostateparks.com).
Fuel up: In St. Charles, Hendrick’s Barbecue (www.hendricksbbq.com) offers delicious smoked meats, and a surprisingly good house-made veggie burger made with mushrooms, pecans, and oats, served with a dollop of onion marmalade. Meanwhile, the award-winning sausages at Hermann Wurst Haus (www.hermannwurst
haus.com) in Hermann are the “best of the wurst,” they say.
Bunk down: Boone’s Lick Trail Inn B&B (www.booneslick.com, from $130) is set in c. 1840s home, located just a block from the Katy Trail in St. Charles. If you want to stick around Hermann and explore the Hermann Wine Trail, settle in at Hermann Hill Vineyard Inn & Spa (www.herman
nhill.com, from $172), an upscale retreat overlooking the Missouri River.
When you’re saddle sore: Did you know that Daniel Boone never actually wore a coonskin cap? Discover the story of this noted frontiersman at the Historic Daniel Boone Home at Lindenwood Park (www.sccmo.org) in Defiance. The re-created 19th century settlement includes a general store, schoolhouse, and chapel.
Tip: The recently completed 47-mile Rock Island Spur of the Katy Trail offers a connection to the Kansas City metro area.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.