Coast to Coast
It's a long way to go from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. But how long exactly? And how long is it going to take me by bike?
Depending on the route you take, it'll be a distance of 3,200 to 3,900 miles. So a well-trained road bicyclist, doing a hundred miles every single day, can make it in less than five weeks from the Santa Monica Pier, California to the Battery in New York City.
A touring cyclist, riding only 40 miles a day and having a day off every week for sightseeing, repairs and recreation, will need four months for the great traverse from Seattle to Key West. If you are not a U.S. citizen, keep in mind that you may need a visa, if you stay in the U.S. for more than 90 days.
The Bicycle Routes of the ACA
When it comes to bicycle routes across the U.S.A., the Adventure Cycling Association or ACA is the place to go.
ACA's Headquarter is in Missoula, Montana. They maintain a network of routes all across the country with a total length of more than 46,000 miles.
Most of those routes are just that: Routes on existing, often rural roads with not much traffic, not bicycle paths separate from the road. Most of them are suitable for all kinds of bikes, even road bikes with skinny tires. However, there are sections of the routes that even use the interstates, if there is just no other road available. Here comes a map of the most important routes:
This map is not up to date. I used these data from Steve's Site from 2010 to 2013. Some Routes may have changed. ACA's network is not displayed completely.
A complete, interactive network map is here.
ACA's Homepage is here.
The ACA produces beautiful maps of their routes. The maps come together with an elevation profile, a service directory including phone numbers and addresses of campgrounds and motels, information about history, plants, wildlife and climate and everything else you need to know on the road. I strongly recommend those maps. They even publish map updates and corrections on their website.
Those maps are printed on real, waterproof paper. That means (for the younger guys out there): No power, no mobile phone necessary!
If you still prefer to have it all on your mobile device: There is a
Bicycle Route Navigator App for both iOS and Android. The app is for free, the maps are not. You purchase them in app. This way they are much cheaper than on paper. After having downloaded the maps, you should be able to use them offline, without a mobile internet connection.
For those who would like to use their Garmin or another GPS-device or if you would like to work with the routes on your computer: Here they are available as GPX-files.
Rails to Trails
Turning old, unused railroads into bicycle and hiking trails, that's what the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy did for a long time. Today they maintain all sorts of trails, altogether more than 30,000 miles.
Most of the trails still are on old railway rights of way or on the former towpaths along canals. Both of them are easy to ride, as there is very little climbing. Quite often the old railway bridges and tunnels are still in use, now by the bicyclists. Along the canals you can still see many of the old locks.
Other routes run through parks or along active railways in urban areas.
The biggest advantage of riding the rail trails is, that you are away from the car traffic on the road, enjoying silence and security.
The surface of the rail trails is diverse. Near the cities they are often paved. Many trails are made of crushed limestone. They are good and easy to ride, if you are not using the very skinniest road bike tires. However, there are just dirt trails, too, sometimes even overgrown by grass. Expect puddles and mud in rainy weather. Plan for much shorter daily rides than on the road.
You'll find all kinds of information about those trails on TrailLink, complete with descriptions, images and maps. It will tell you in case you need a special permit for certain routes.
Use it, it will save you some unwanted surprise!
In addition, paying members can download GPX files for navigation. The best way to get started is this map.
By the way: Most of the rail trails are included in the bicycle layer of Google Maps. Anyway, they are only visible at certain zoom levels. They are used in the Google Maps bicycle navigation.
This map shows the most important trails from TrailLink:
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Rail Trail Corridors
Obviously there is no such thing like a rail trails network. There are hundreds of unconnected single trails, a mile, or ten, or a hundred miles each long, most of them in the northeast of the U.S. But in some places they can be nicely connected, using both rail trails and roads as needed. Two of those rail trail corridors are shown in this map in orange:
Cowboys go Washington
This is the northernmost of the two corridors in the map above.
Traveling eastbound, you can pick up the cowboy trail in Nebraska. It is one of the longest rail trails nationwide. You can ride it for all its 219 miles, then continue on country roads to Omaha and cross the Missouri River. On the way to Des Moines you have to use country roads again, until you reach the Raccoon River Valley Trail. In Des Moines it's parks and bike paths all the way through town. You will hardly see a car. The paved Chichaqua Valley Trail takes you far out of town northeast bound.
More country roads take you to Davenport. Here you will cross the mighty Mississippi River, rolling down to the sea. It's not far to the Hennepin Canal Parkway. For about 60 miles you use the former towpath of the historic canal. The Illinois & Michigan Canal State Trail takes you into the suburbs of Chicago. The well-paved Old Plank Road takes you some 20 miles further east. From Lake Michigan to Lake Erie it's mostly country roads again. Only the Pumpkinvine Trail and the Wabash Cannonball Trail can be included in the route. The North Coast Inland Trail takes you to Cleveland. Now the corridor turns to the southeast.
The Zoar Valley Trail and some others lead to Pittsburgh. From here on there is no need to use any roads anymore. The Great Allegheny Passage is a great way to cross the Appalachians at a very low gradient. At the end, you seamlessly change to the 184 miles long Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (and here). The only climb here is the detour around the Paw Paw Tunnel, which is currently (as of March 2018) still closed. Follow the Potomac River for several days and finally reach the capital, Washington D.C.
Kansas to Pittsburgh
In the same manner you can ride from Kansas to Pittsburgh. Once more you follow a chain of rail trails, connected by roads. This corridor, too is shown in the map above.
Compared to the route for Cowboys to Washington described earlier, this one tends to have larger gaps between the trails, even in the hills of West Virginia. Also, the surface of the trails is often worse and more suitable for mountain bikes than for racing bikes. It's a good idea to read the descriptions of the trails thoroughly before you set off, or you might experience some nasty surprises.
This corridor begins west of Kansas City on the 117 miles long Flint Hills Nature Trail. There is a lot of gravel here, so this trail is not suitable for road bikes. An alternative route is the TransAmerica Trail, traveling about 60 miles further south. From Kansas City on you use the Katy Trail for more than 220 miles. It follows the Missouri all the way down to the Mississippi river. You cross the stream close to St. Louis and leave the city northeast bound on the MCT Nickel Plate Trail.
Until you reach the city of Indianapolis, it's mostly country roads. Only for a few miles each you can use the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, the National Road Heritage Trail (Terre Haute) and the Vandalia Trail.
From Indianapolis to Richmond you follow more or less route 40. Only part of the way you can use the parallel running Pennsy Trail and some smaller trails. Alternatively, you can use the ACA Route Chicago to New York in this section.
The city of Dayton can almost completely be crossed on bike paths. The Creekside Trail takes you eastbound out of town. The Xenia-Jamestown Connector and the Paint Creek Recreational Trail continue through Ohio.
80 miles of roads will take you to West Virginia and the beginning of the North Bend Rail Trail. It is 72 miles long and takes you through 10 old railway tunnels. Unfortunately, the surface is in bad condition in places and sometimes soft, depending on the weather. If it's too bad, you can still use the parallel roads.
The Harrison North Trail, the West Fork River Trail and the Mon River Trails South and North take you further northeast. Now it's only a gap in the trails of about 30 miles you have to overcome on roads, before you reach the Great Allegheny Passage. From here, it's effortlessly across the Appalachians and then down the Potomac River to Washington D.C., as described above.
ACA Routes or Rail Trails?
So, what does this all mean to the cycling traveler? Should you believe in the ACA and its routes, or should you follow the rail trails? Or should you work out a completely new route on your maps?
Well, everything is possible. Whatever you do, all these methods take you to your destination, to the Atlantic Ocean. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
Most of the ACA routes are on paved roads. If you are one of those guys who are doing a hundred miles every single day, you will appreciate that.
The rail trails, on the other hand, are often made of crushed stone or simply dirt. So their quality can be very different, depending on the weather. Read the descriptions! Bring a suitable bike! That does not have to be a mountain bike. Tires 1 1/2 inches wide are usually sufficient. Anyway, keep in mind that the daily distance traveled will be about a third shorter than on roads.
The greatest advantage of the rail trails is, that you can move completely out of the car traffic. You can relax and enjoy the trail and the scenery. No worries about cars and trucks. That's especially important when you're traveling with children.
Many rail trails are a sight of their own. If you are interested in old technology, you will enjoy the bridges, locks and tunnels you can see on many rail trails.
If you go for one of the ACA routes, most of the planning has already been done for you. If you decide to do the Trans America Trail, for example, you just buy the maps, read them and you are always well-informed about the route, the accommodations along the way, the climbs of the next day and the history of the landscape you're riding through.
On the other hand, if you decide to use the rail trails, you have to do all the planning by yourself. Maps and websites have to be consulted: From where to where can I use a rail trail? Where do I have to use the highway? What looks the elevation profile like? Where can I buy food? Where can I stay for the night?
If you really want to do an individual trip, on a route that has never been done before, it'll be fun for you to do the planning. And if you want to go for a special goal, you have to plan anyway. If you want to see the Black Hills, for example, you should use the Mickelson Trail. However, this has no connection to the other rail trails and not to the ACA network either. So, plan for yourself!
On the ACA Routes and on the Rail-Trails you will frequently meet other cyclists, always a good opportunity to stop, chat, laugh and share experiences. The longer the route, the greater the proportion of long-distance riders.
If you want to stay overnight and meet some real Americans at the same time, you can use the Cyclists Only Lodging, which is listed in the ACA charts, or contact some of the hosts of Warmshowers or Couchsurfing. In this case it is sometimes good to stay away from the major routes. Then you are perhaps the first traveling cyclist this year with your host, and not the tenth or hundredth, and the more personally they will treat you.
The Net of Networks
Here they are all together at last: The most important West-East routes of the Adventure Cyclers and the two Rail Trail corridors I mentioned above. Choose your route, whatever you like!
You will also find this combined network of all important routes in my climate charts, which I hope to publish here soon.