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Fun and Easy Bike Trails in 5 Cities

See Chicago, Denver, Tucson, Seattle and Washington, D.C. along these cycling routes


spinner image Bikers Pass Lock and Lock House at Four Locks, C and O Canal National Historic Park, Big Pool, Maryland
Bikers along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Maryland.
Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo

Along with birdwatching and breadmaking, many Americans are rediscovering another old-school activity during the pandemic: biking. The sport allows you to enjoy the outdoors (where coronavirus transmission is thought to be less likely) while staying physically distanced from others. And the rise of e-bikes — also growing in popularity in the COVID-19 era — allows even those with bad knees to keep up.

While many areas of the country have wonderful areas for residents to get out and explore on two wheels (including hundreds of miles in California that were recently added to the U.S. Bicycle Route System [USBRS]), these five cities offer especially good opportunities for cyclists, both within city limits and nearby.

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spinner image Bicycle riders on Lakefront Trail with the Chicago skyline
travelpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Chicago

Though it's the third largest city in the country — and frigid in winter — Chicago has a strong outdoor affinity that's evident in the 200 miles of biking lanes that web the city. A civic cycling plan calls for those to more than triple to 645 miles.

While many of these are commuting lanes that share the roads with cars, there are also plenty of car-free paths. Among the most popular is the Lakefront Trail, a paved route with dedicated lanes for cyclists as well as pedestrians (who have the right of way, remember). You can spin though nearly 20 miles of waterfront parkland, catching stunning views of Lake Michigan and Chicago's famous skyline, alongside rollerbladers, walkers and runners.

The path is often busy on the North Side, so Ted Villaire, the author of Best Bike Rides Chicago, suggests riding south of downtown “for a quieter, less congested ride."

For a less urban option, try the North Branch Trail System, a 20-mile route that follows the North Branch of the Chicago River, winding up at the Chicago Botanic Garden in suburban Glencoe.

spinner image cyclists enjoy fall color along the Burke-Gilman Trail in the Fremont neighborhood
Paul Christian Gordon / Alamy Stock Photo

Seattle

Seattle, known as the Emerald City for its lush coastal setting, loves the outdoors, and its network of bike trails and protected bike lanes is growing to meet what appears to be an insatiable demand. A key destination: the Burke-Gilman Trail, which travels 27 miles through the northern neighborhoods of Ballard, Fremont and the University District. The Burke-Gilman is at the heart of the Lakeside Beer Tour, a favorite of Megan Ramey, the founder of the website Bikabout, which offers guides to urban biking in cities across the country. It combines “one of the most popular urban bike trails in America, as well as my favorite neighborhoods,” she says.

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Ramey’s easy, flat, six-mile tour starts at Gas Works Park and heads north along the Burke-Gilman past Lake Union with stops for quaffing at a couple of convenient microbreweries along the way, including Freemont Brewing, Hales Ales and Peddler Brewing. Try to end your ride at Golden Garden Park to catch sunset from the beach over the Olympic Mountains.

A less urban route requires a short drive outside the city: The Snoqualmie Valley Trail, offering 31.7 miles on a car-free crushed rock path. It winds past farms and nature areas, from Duvall to Carnation and on to Rattlesnake Lake (or the other way around). 

spinner image Cherry Creek trail on typical summer wekeend
Arina Habich / Alamy Stock Photo

Denver

As in most of Colorado, outdoor pursuits are wildly popular in Denver, where cyclists get all the thrills of the mountains — viewed to the west — and none of the lung-busting challenges.

While the city sits firmly in the car-centric west, it's home to nearly 200 miles of bike routes. Some are on streets, but several are scenic, flat, protected from traffic, and suit all levels of riders. Edging the South Platte River through downtown, the 36-mile South Platte River Trail meets the 40-mile Cherry Creek Trail at Confluence Park, popular with picnickers on the banks and kayakers in the whitewater. The intersecting 12.7-mile Cherry Creek Trail follows a sunken path below bordering Speer Boulevard, connecting downtown to the shop- and restaurant-filled Cherry Creek neighborhood.

The South Platte is a top pick of Jack Todd, spokesman for Bicycle Colorado, which advocates for biking statewide. Todd says he likes how the route offers placards highlighting Denver history, “alongside wildlife, nature and others enjoying life on two and three wheels."

As part of its “Denver Moves” plan, the city aims to add 270 more miles to its bike routes; when complete, all households will sit within a quarter-mile of a bikeway by 2030.

spinner image Outdoor enthusiasts traverse The Loop at the Rillito River Park west of Craycroft Road in Tucson, Arizona
Norma Jean Gargasz / Alamy Stock Photo

Tucson, Arizona

Tucson has a robust cycling scene, offering seriously sporty types desert mountain biking, road rides up Mount Lemmon (elevation 9,100 feet) in the Santa Catalina Mountains, and bucket-list events such as the 100-mile Tour de Tucson — held annually in November.

But it also has plenty of options for more casual cyclists, says Kylie Walzak, director of open streets for Living Streets Alliance, which runs Cyclovia Tucson, a biannual event that welcomes more than 80,000 participants to walk or cycle the city.

One of the best, according to Walzak: the Pima County Loop, a 130-mile car-free multiuse path. Officially named the Chuck Huckelberry Loop, the route, which encompasses several riverside spurs, is open to bikes, skates and horses as well as pedestrian traffic.

Walzak also recommends making a loop of several broad roads in the Tucson Mountains edging Saguaro National Park west of town: Silverbell Road to Sweetwater Drive to Camino de Oeste to Anklam Road. “It's just shy of 20 miles with decent, soft climbs,” she says. “It's enough for a great workout — and fast enough to get it in before my kiddo wakes up in the morning."

spinner image C and O Canal National Historic Park, Near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at Sandy Hook, Maryland
Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo

Washington

"There are so many great rides in D.C., and we have an amazing trail network,” says Jeff Miller, who plans and guides rides in and around the nation's capital as the DC Cycling Concierge. The city is at the heart of a regional bike lane and trail project, known as the National Capital Trail Network, poised to grow from its current 640 miles to 1,400 miles across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

One of the best protected (car-free) bike routes, the towpath along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal starts in Georgetown and runs northwest for nearly 185 miles to Cumberland, Maryland, where it connects to the Great Allegheny Passage continuing to Pittsburgh.

With multiple access points and a gravel surface, the path makes “a wonderful tunnel through the trees and a quick escape from the urban landscape,” Miller notes. It's easy to access the trail at various points in Washington and Maryland, and you can choose among many short segments for different kinds of rides.

There's also the Mount Vernon Trail, a paved-surface path that takes you from Theodore Roosevelt Island near Rosslyn, Virginia (just over the bridge from Washington), 18 miles along the Potomac River to George Washington's Estate at Mount Vernon. Park closer to Mount Vernon, in historic Old Town Alexandria, perhaps, to shorten the ride to about an hour.

 

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