The Route Stuff

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1996

The Route Stuff

Five tours, seven states, two provinces, and who knows how many byways and back roads for velo cruising
By Bob Howells

A bicycle tour magnifies every sensation--that's what creates both the allure and the demands of two-wheeled travel. Riding quiet roads through bucolic countryside makes the heart soar, but any violation of that serenity can be heartbreaking. The routes here are chosen with coronary and cerebral elation in mind: good paved roads as traffic-free as they come, scenery that ranges from pastoral to spectacular, towns spaced closely enough that you needn't schlepp more than a day's sustenance, and campsites and lodging that appear as if by magic just when you've bonked for the day. And if imitating a pack mule violates your notion of vacation, you can choose to make most of these trips with service from luggage-toting outfitters.

Although we've suggested itineraries for each of these trips, they all share a trait dear to intrepid bicycle tourists: the possibility of risk-free improvisation within the general course of travel. Following a whim won't lead you astray; one quiet road through paradise is usually as good as another.

Great Rivers Route
Iowa, Illinois, Missouri

This heart-of-the-heartland route from Muscatine, Iowa, to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, links some compelling attractions, but it's the time-forgotten byways through flat farmlands, tiny towns, and low-gear Ozarks that make it a great bike tour. Adventure Cycling, which charted the route, sells an excellent map detailing roads, motels, campsites, and bike shops, all of which occur frequently enough to suit any rider's pace--no need to follow preordained daily goals. Figure on seven to ten days of riding to cover the 530 total miles.

The great rivers here are the Mississippi and Missouri. The first few days are spent alternately flirting with the Mighty Mississippi's bluffs and banks and riding the easy farm roads of its floodplains. On day three or so, 90 miles out of Muscatine, you'll wander into historic Nauvoo, Illinois, jumping-off spot for the Mormons' long trek west; the next day you'll ride 65 miles to check out Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain. After another couple of Mississippi River days, with some short-but-tough rollers and river views, the route angles southwest into central Missouri, crossing the Missouri River at Washington, 240 miles from Cape Girardeau. But that's merely a warm-up for the seriously steep climbs of the next leg, 180 miles through the forested Missouri Ozarks. There are payoffs, such as frolicking in the swimming holes on the East Fork Black River at Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, near Lesterville, or some tractor-pull action in Sullivan. After the tiny burg of Cherokee Pass on U.S. 67, it's an easy 60-mile homestretch eastward back to the Mississippi at Cape Girardeau.

Resources: Adventure Cycling's Great Rivers Section 1 Map ($7.50 for members, $10.50 for nonmembers; 406-721-1776) gives full information on roads, lodging, dining, bike shops, and more. Membership costs $28 per year.

Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Parks
Montana, Alberta, British Columbia

No reason the continent's showiest scenery should belong exclusively to RVs. Just start early and stop early, and you'll find the not-all-that-difficult mountain roads pleasantly ridable and even moderately traffic-free. Fashion a counterclockwise loop by riding east and north from Whitefish, Montana, across Glacier National Park and then north into Alberta, west into British Columbia, and back south--about eight days of riding for the entire 360-mile loop.

The crux segment of the route, and the most strategic, is Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier--the 3,500-foot climb is something of a rite of passage for touring cyclists. Time your first 44 miles out of Whitefish to snag a campsite at Avalanche Campground in the park--call ahead (406-888-5441) to make sure the campground is open. Then hit Going-to-the-Sun's 21 miles of 4.5 to 6 percent grade at dawn; park regs require you to top Logan Pass (6,646 feet) by 11 a.m.--if you don't make it you'll have to wait until 5 p.m. The road is a marvel of engineering, and the views are marvels of nature: steep canyon walls, glaciers, the serrated crest of the Great Divide, and the odd mountain goat. Once you've made the pass, time is your own for the spectacular 18-mile descent to the town of St. Mary. Cars might slow you on the downhill, but so much the better for the aerial perspective on St. Mary Lake and the grasslands of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to the east. From St. Mary, ride 23 miles on U.S. 89 and Montana 17 to Many Glacier. Then undulate northward 53 miles on Montana 17 and Alberta 6 across high plains (and, alas, against headwinds) to spend a day amid Waterton's lakes, wildflowers, and waterfalls. From there it's 87 rolling prairie miles on Alberta 6 and 3 to Crowsnest Pass, a nine-mile descent into B.C. coal country, and then a 61-mile river ride along the Elk River to Elko. The return to Whitefish passes through serious beef country; get your year's red-meat quota at Valley Pizza and Steakhouse in Eureka. The final stretch follows U.S. 93 for 53 miles back to Whitefish.

Resources: Adventure Cycling's Great Parks North Map ($6.50 for members, $9.50 for nonmembers; 406-721-1776) details roads, motels, and campsites. Outfitters: Adventure Cycling (800-721-8719) runs an eight-day camping trip for $500. Backroads (800-462-2848) offers a six-day inn trip ($1,298) and a five-day camping trip ($749).

Willamette River Valley, Oregon
With its graceful agricultural beauty and easy riding on somnolent roads, the Willamette Valley may be the most European of U.S. bike-touring regions, complete with wineries and B&Bs, but it adds dashes of small-town, soda-fountain America as well. It's also blessedly free of Oregon staples that plague riders on other routes: coastal tourist traffic and mountain logging trucks. Progressive Travels has been guiding these trips in the Willamette since 1994, but you can improvise your own loops or take inn-based day rides through hazelnut orchards and vineyards and nourish yourself at you-pick-it fruit farms and roadside produce stands.

Tiny McMinnville, about 35 miles southwest of Portland, is a good starting point; its Steiger Haus B&B (doubles, $70-$100; 503-472-0821) is hip to cyclists. From McMinnville, ride six miles along a hillside contour to Amity; volcanic Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Jefferson loom to the east. You can keep your tour short by sticking to the northern part of the valley--head across the Yamhill River for 26 miles on Mineral Springs Road and Springbrook Road to Newberg, stopping for wine-tasting at Ch‰teau Benoit Winery. The hosts at Springbrook Hazelnut Farm (doubles, $90; 800-793-8528), just two miles from Newberg on Oregon 99W, are cyclists who can suggest all manner of day rides to take before making the 12-mile return to McMinnville. Or pick any of the several routes that run 35 miles south from Amity (more vineyards, fields of irises) to Albany. Make a week of it by small-towning your way another 45 miles on down to Eugene and looping back north by a different route.

Resources: The Albany Visitors Association (800-526-2256) publishes a free guide, titled Willamette Valley Scenic Loop, that describes a 195-mile tour. Progressive Travels (800-245-2229) runs six-day tours of the Willamette Valley, both guided ($1,745) and self-guided ($995, including detailed maps and accommodations).

Southwest Dairy Country Wisconsin
Blessed with a network of tiny farm roads that on a map look like elaborate filigree, southwest Wisconsin invites improvised rambles over roller-coaster terrain. The main thing in Wisconsin is the riding, not any particular destination. Madison is a logical starting place. Just fashion a loop on any of the dozen roads that lead out of town and start pedaling, taking time to bless the omnipresent dairies. The scenery--a patchwork of green pastures, small tracts of woods, and just-jump-in rivers--is unfailingly pleasant. Many of the region's trails are converted railroad rights-of-way, and the crushed limestone surfaces are fine for all but the skinniest racing tires.

For a two- or three-day tour, ride south out of Madison about 20 miles on any number of roads to New Glarus, a Swiss settlement replete with local brews, chocolate, cheese, and kitsch. Camp in nearby New Glarus Woods State Park (campsites, $7-$12; 608-527-2335). On day two, continue 23 miles southeast on the Sugar River State Trail, which is linked to the park by a 1.5-mile trail, to its terminus in Brodhead. The relatively flat railroad path is a welcome respite from the region's relentless hills. (An annual pass to ride on state trails, available at any state park, costs $10.) Then take County Road G, or any farm-road route west, about 58 miles to Platteville, overnighting another 6.5 miles beyond town at Walnut Ridge B&B (doubles, $50-$65; 608-348-9359), a log cabin country home stocked with antiques. From there diverge 30 miles west to peek at the Mississippi or angle northeast--using any of the several farm roads to bypass Wisconsin 151--for 30 miles to the Military Ridge Trail and back to Madison. En route, camp or swim at Blue Mound State Park (campsites, $7-$14; 608-437-5711) just outside the town of Blue Mounds and grab a fresh macaroon at Gobles Bakery in the tiny town of Mount Horeb along the Military Ridge Trail.

A longer tour leads northwest out of Madison about 45 miles to Reedsburg, from which you can feast on a 75-mile succession of bike paths: The 400, Elroy-Sparta, and La Crosse River Trails traverse farmland, prairie remnants, and trout streams all the way to Onalaska. From there, head 62 miles south along the Mississippi on wide-shouldered Wisconsin 35 to Prairie du Chien (or take a side trip north to the river town of Alma) and then go east 55 miles along the farm roads to Dodgeville and the Military Ridge Trail. B&Bs, motels, and state parks are ubiquitous on all these routes.

Resources: Snag a free copy of the Wisconsin Bicycle Guide from Wisconsin Travel Information (800-372-2737). Best Wisconsin Bike Trips ($12.95, from Wisconsin Trails, 800-236-8088) has information on 31 day rides and trails. Milwaukee Map Service's Southwestern Wisconsin map ($8; 800-525-3822) shows all secondary roads. Outfitter: Powwow Bicycle Tours (414-671-4560) runs a weekend trip from Verona to Platteville for $86.

Northeast Kingdom, Vermont
In a state so pastoral and relentlessly pretty that it has come to define the bike-touring ideal, the Northeast Kingdom is the outback, untrammeled even by Vermont standards. Cars are so rare on the country roads that you find yourself impulsively waving to them. Towns are just close enough to keep you fed and watered--nearly each one with a tall-steepled church and a village green with bandstand--while the countryside is less farmy and more woodsy than the rest of the state, and the riding hilly but not extreme.

For a classic tour, launch in genteel, artsy St. Johnsbury. Ride north 15 miles via U.S. 5 and Vermont 114 to East Burke; The Inn at Mountain View Creamery, just a mile outside town on Darling Hill, is a grand B&B (doubles, $95-$130; 802-626-9924), popular with bike-touring groups, and Bailey's General Store in town is a must stop for provisioning. From there, the 21-mile ride to Island Pond on Vermont 114 is trŠs Northeast Kingdom, following the East Branch of the Passumpsic River through deep forest. Depending on your needs, chow down on meaty fare and homemade pies at Loon's Landing on Main Street or dive into inviting Island Pond itself. Brighton State Park has 84 campsites three miles outside town; call 802-723-4360 for reservations. Then you have options: If time is short, take Vermont 5A south about seven miles to West Burke and then go another six miles on U.S. 5 to Lyndonville. Or head northwest 20 miles to Newport and on to Jay Peak for the most challenging hill-climb in these parts, a 5.5-mile grind. From there go south via Montgomery Center (stop in for a fountain soda at Kilgore's General Store) and Craftsbury. The Inn on the Common (doubles, including breakfast and dinner, $220; 802-586-9619) and The Craftsbury Inn (doubles, $90-$150; 800-336-2848) are both popular with bike travelers--charming and sympathetic to caloric demands. On the ride back to St. Johnsbury, stop in Cabot at Cabot Creamery to learn how to make cheese and in Danville to learn how to dowse for water; it's the home of the American Society of Dowsers. Really.

Resources: 25 Bicycle Tours of Vermont, from Countryman Press ($10; 800-245-4151), details day trips and weeklong journeys. Outfitters: Backroads (800-462-2848) offers a six-day tour for $1,398, Bike Vermont (800-257-2226) has a six-day tour for $880, and Vermont Bicycle Touring (800-245-3868) offers a five-day tour for $895.

Bob Howells lives in southern California with his four bikes and writes frequently for Outside.

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