The Rails-to-Trails idea, wherein abandoned railroad tracks are converted to hiking and biking trails, started in 1964 in Wisconsin, which can still claim the most rail-trail mileage (1,247 miles at last count) of any state in the country. The original trail is the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta Trail, the nexus of four interconnected trails that form a hundred-mile chain from the Mississippi River to Reedsburg in the state's southwestern quadrant.
This chain can comfortably be ridden in three or four days; while trail surfaces vary, they can all be traveled on standard road bikes, and there are no big climbs. You can ride in either direction, but it's probably best to start at the Mississippi end in Marshland, where services are few, and finish in Reedsburg, where numerous inns and restaurants welcome ride-weary bodies.
On your first day along the Great River Trail, the 24-mile stretch from Marshland to Onalaska, you'll pass through wildlife-rich wetlands along the Mississippi. You can stay overnight in Onalaska or continue along the La Crosse River Trail eastward 21 miles to Sparta, where the Franklin Victorian B&B (doubles, $75-$95; 800-845-8767), an antique- and heirloom-filled Victorian house with five guest rooms, provides comfortable lodging. Travel along the Elroy-Sparta Trail the next day, passing through classic Wisconsin countryside — farmlands, wooded valleys, wetlands, and small towns — as well as through three tunnels (bikes must be walked through these; flashlights recommended). In Elroy, the East View B&B (doubles, $65-$75; 608-463-7564) is a three-guest-room country-style inn that sits on a ridge affording great views of the surrounding farmland. Finish the trip on the 400 Trail, crossing 10 bridges over the winding Baraboo River during the 22-mile ride to Reedsburg. Passes are required for all rail trails ($3 per day, $10 per year); call 608-266-2181.
C&O Towpath, Maryland
Riding the 184.5-mile towpath along the C&O Canal — a national historical park — is as much a tour through history as it is a tour through the Maryland countryside. From one end in Cumberland, Maryland, to the other in Washington, D.C., the relatively flat, hard-dirt path declines a total of 605 vertical feet, so an active family should be able to complete the trip in five days. Just be sure to bring bikes with sturdy wheels rather than sleek, road-racing machines (mountain bikes are recommended) so you can negotiate spots that suffered damage in recent floods.
From Cumberland the canal approximately parallels the Potomac River, passing in its first 100 miles through quiet Maryland farmland and small communities. Free hiker/biker campgrounds (with water pumps and Portosans) are spaced every five miles or so, but there's plenty of lodging in about half a dozen towns along the route. One good choice at Mile 124 in Hancock is the more than 230-year-old Colhill Manor (doubles, $50-$75; 301-678-7573), where goats, ducks, and geese wander about 11 acres. For your next night's stopover, you should be able to make it to Mile 81 and Ground Squirrel Holler B&B and Llama Retreat (doubles, $80; 301-432-8288), a Victorian B&B with three guest rooms that's friendly to towpath users.
Don't rush the next history-rich 20 miles. Worthy side trips include Antietam National Battlefield (at about Mile 76 near Sharpsburg), site of the bloodiest single day of fighting in the Civil War, and Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where John Brown staged his famous revolt. In Harpers Ferry, before heading into Washington the next day, you can overnight at the Hilltop House (doubles, $65-$150; 800-338-8319), a 110-year-old hotel sufficiently embedded in local lore to have been cited in a Carl Sandburg poem.
In southeastern Vermont, it is all but impossible to travel five miles without passing some converted eighteenth- or nineteenth-century home that now oozes with country-inn charm. Connecting these inns is a network of winding roads that are (for the most part) adequately shouldered and smoothly paved and that are (also for the most part) traveled by cyclist-friendly motorists.
You can ride a loop of approximately 115-120 miles by starting in Woodstock, heading south on Vermont 106 and connecting with Vermont 11, 35, 30, and 100 and U.S. 4 to return to Woodstock. Be sure to spend time on your first day in Grafton, 40 miles south of Woodstock (on Vermont 35) and renowned for its beautifully restored nineteenth-century architecture. Continue ten more miles on Vermont 35 to the quiet hamlet of Townshend and the Boardman House B&B (doubles, $70; 802-365-4086), an 1840s Greek Revival farmhouse on the village green.
As you head northwest from Townshend on Vermont 30 and 100, you'll want to allow yourselves extra time as the terrain gets hillier. After about 20 miles, you'll reach Londonderry and the Londonderry Inn (doubles, $59-$79; 802-824-5226), a 172-year-old converted dairy farm with 25 rooms decorated with period furnishings. In Weston, five miles north of Londonderry, check out the Vermont Country Store (802-362-2400), where nostalgia is played to the hilt; they sell everything from bedding to underwear to old-fashioned candy. From Londonderry, it's a leisurely ride of about 30 miles on Vermont 100 to Plymouth, birthplace of Calvin Coolidge. Overnight at the Salt Ash Inn (doubles, $69-$105; 800-725-8274), a former stagecoach stop that has also done duty as a country store and a post office. Finish the trip with a 15-mile ride on Vermont 100A and U.S. 4 to Woodstock.
For a more complete listing of area lodgings, call the Vermont Chamber of Commerce (802-223-3443). Vermont Bicycle Touring (800-288-2359 for reservations) and Bike Vermont (800-257-2226) lead tours in the area.
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