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Touring Using Bike Trails - Yea or Nay?

Old 02-01-23, 08:48 PM
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Touring Using Bike Trails - Yea or Nay?

I tend to limit my riding on bike trails when touring.
Never quite sure what I'll find on the trail ....
Sometimes pleasantly surprised by a moose,
but often frustrated.

1. Bike trails are often indirect and slow.
The worst are squiggly - weaving around every tree.
Great for kids with training wheels - not great for getting from A to B.
When there is a major highway to cross, there is often a long, out-of-the-way dogleg.
And then there are the stop signs at every block.

2. Safety is an issue, if there are a lot of business/residential entrances.
Bike trails that are little more than a wide sidewalk on busy city streets are scary.
Drivers are frequently turning into or out of businesses and may not be looking for cyclists.

3. City/Suburban trails can be clogged with casual users.
It's tough making headway when people are strolling 3 and 4 abreast.
You have everything from the guy zooming on the road bike to moms withs strollers.
Strava helps.but it's hard to know which trails are clogged when.

4. Often, trails don't go all the way through.
Sometimes trails dump you out where you have to weave thru traffic to get to your route.
Or, worse, come to a dead end with some kind of barrier requiring you to backtrack.
And then there's the unexpected surprise, "Trail Closed Ahead".

5. Trail surfaces are extremely variable.
Sometimes paved trails are as smooth as a bowling ball.
And other times tree roots have created a washboard.
Unpaved trails can be hard-packed or quicksand.
Often some of both.

6. Availability of services.
Since longer, rural trails are usually converted rail lines, services are few and far between.
Crossroads stores are a disappearing breed, but they still are out there - on roads, not trails.
Even in towns, you can find yourself blocked from access to services in view.

7. Scenery.
Rail trails have very modest grades, but you also don't get many hilltop views.
Because many rail lines are long abandoned, the trails can run thru a tunnel of trees.
Great, if it's midsummer and hot. But you don't have much variation in scenery.

And then, in some places you have to pay to use a trail!

<<<>>>

All that said, there are some great aspects about trails.

A) Car-free.
Gotta be the number 1 thing. No traffic, no noise, no fumes.
A trail segment after riding on a busy highway is like a bike spa.

B) Safety
Because there are no cars, trails are much safer.
Still, you have to look out for debris, rough surfaces, and other users.

C) Gradient
Most bike trails have very little climbing. Or freaky descents.
For newer tourers or at the beginning of tours, it may be a good way to start.

<<<>>>

I've been on trails all over the country - tending towards longer, rural trails.
Some of my favorites include:

1. The Katy Trail in Missouri -
River views and tall bluffs, small towns scattered along the way.
But it can be crowded with amateurs on nice weekends.
It does replace brutal ups and downs on parallel Hwy 94.

2. The Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Idaho -
Gorgeous scenery, near-wilderness riding through wetlands.
The eastern segment is meh - right alongside I-90.
Does anyone know why the bridge over Lake Coeur d'Alene has the humps?

3. The Great Allegheny Passage in Maryland and Pennsylvania -
Again, gorgeous scenery, especially along the Youghiogheny River and little towns.
This trail is paired with the C&O Trail to create a route from Pitsburgh to Washington, DC.
But, as beautiful as the C&O is, it can be a mudhole after any significant rains.

4. Carquinez Scenic Drive in California -
This used to be a through road from Crockett to Martinez, but the middle section washed out.
After many years, the middle section was rebuilt as a bike-ped trail - so, very little auto traffic, too.
This ride is the best of both worlds - trail & road. But .... some steep climbs to get the vistas.

<<<>>>

What's been your experience with bike trails on tours?

Last edited by jamawani; 02-01-23 at 08:52 PM.
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Old 02-01-23, 08:58 PM
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I mean it depends on the trail, there are plenty of great cycling routes that are trails. The C&O and GAP and Katy Trails (as you mentioned) are all quite popular MUPs that people tour on. I think some short distance in city ones might not be as great if they are super crowded but if long enough there is usually a point at which heavy traffic trails off as most casual folks don't want to be that far from home or their car.

I like being away from cars while touring at least loaded down and especially on narrow roads. However yes the frustrations I think everyone shares. I enjoy touring to be away from more people for a while, get out of the city or suburbs and be somewhere else. However sometimes it is fun to have people around as I have hit the wall on tour before where I just felt alone and couldn't really decompress after a rough day with anyone in person just over the phone and it didn't quite work. However I was a bit ambitious in that trip and maybe could have planned it a little better.
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Old 02-01-23, 09:42 PM
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I never found that trail, but just crossed the bridge over Carquinez Strait recently. 🙂

I don't really have a lot of trail riding experience, mostly just the Katy, when I rode to Colorado a few years back. I think I prefer riding the roads, even with all the dangers. The availability of stores is far better. 😁😉






That Zampa (?) guy was pretty skilled, that they named that bridge for.
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Old 02-02-23, 05:07 AM
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It depends on what you want in a tour. I generally avoid them.
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Old 02-02-23, 08:01 AM
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When I toured Nova Scotia and PEI, that is the only tour I have done where I had choices of trail or road several times. A lot of the roads had an endless series of hills. Trails were flatter, as they had been railroads in the past. A lot of the roads were busy with no shoulder, trails were not busy at all. I anticipated maybe using the gravel trails some, so I used 2.25 width tires on that tour which were very good for the trails. Ended up using the trails much more than I anticipated. I think my speed was about 20 percent slower on the trails, gravel is not an efficient surface for friction free riding. But some trail sections were straighter and probably faster without the hills.

One day I decided to ride a trail almost the entire day, all day long there was a light drizzle and intermittent fog. With that poor visibility, I felt that riding on a road, much of which had no shoulder would have been too dangerous.

I have already done GAP and C&O, Katy, Mickelson in South Dakota. So, I doubt that I will be planning any more gravel trail trips. But I do not regret doing those.

I have also ridden on some gravel roads that were worse (large cobbles, washboard, erosion, loose sand, etc.) than some of the trails I have ridden. This road was worse than any trail I have ever ridden.

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Old 02-02-23, 09:39 AM
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Originally Posted by jamawani
Some of my favorites include:
Katy Trail in Missouri...Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes...Great Allegheny Passage...
The Mickelson in SD was fun, and we enjoyed riding the canal towpaths between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Some November or February I'd like to do Florida's C2C and Arizona's Chuck Huckelberry. The Ohio to Erie & asso. offshoots looks fun. I'd like to ride Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta just for the historical aspect, having heard of it since the Bike Boom. Minnesota's Paul Bunyan & asso. offshoots would no doubt keep me entertained for a bit one summer, escaping the heat of Parts Unknown. I'm looking forward to the completion of the Peaks to Plains Trail; I'm planning a ride from Golden to Glenwood Colorado when they do. I'm intrigued by the potential of that loop they're planning with the Katy and Rock Island. Hmm. The Palouse to Cascades between Snoqualmie and Beverly has potential.

Eurovelo 15/Rhine Cycle route appeals, as does Japan's Shimanami Kaido. Oh! and Korea's Four Rivers

I want to throw the folder on Vonlane and ride San Antonio's Howard Peak Greenway & that part of the Riverwalk open to cycles. Next time I visit my brother in Houston I want to ride the Buffalo and Braes Bayou paths.

Last edited by tcs; 02-03-23 at 09:31 AM.
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Old 02-02-23, 09:52 AM
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My default choice if I look for a route in Google Maps is Auto with Avoid Highways. This is in part because for unknown places it seems to select short sections of trail and often go out of the way to do so. In addition, often the directions seem to add a huge number of small turns, some of which there would probably be signage.

I also don't go out of my way to find a tour specifically to tour on an off-road trail.

With that said, there are occasions I'll find myself riding some trails along the way:
1. In some countries such as the Netherlands, that is the default infrastructure for many parts and seems to work well.
2. If I am checking a bicycle map of say an urban area I want to cross and it looks like there is an extended trail as part of the bicycle network - then I may try it and then bail out if turns out to have too many turns/etc.
3. If I am on a long busy highway without too much in way of cross-streets, and a parallel trail - I'll also try that.
4. If I have gotten to my end destination and next morning the main road goes one-way and I want to go the opposite direction - I may take a trail/sidewalk a short distance to get back in intended direction. An example might be if I've stayed in a motel along a one-way frontage road and I want to get back to the last cross-road to go under the major road and head the other way.
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Old 02-02-23, 10:12 AM
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Originally Posted by tcs
Eurovelo 15
I didn't know this existed until my wife told me about a month ago. I think this year I'm going to try Wiesbaden to Bern then hop on the train in Bern and either go home or go back to Wiesbaden
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Old 02-02-23, 10:15 AM
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I watched a terrific YT series of a couple crossing the US in summer of 21, they used bike paths whenever feasible. Started at the ocean on the Olympic, bike path to Port Townsend, another across part of Wash into Idaho, they bailed in Montana due to fires on the route they wanted, flew to KC, trail to the Katy to St Louis, roads to Cincinnati , Ohio-Erie to Cleveland, then up to Buffalo to Erie Canal, finished on a NH trail to Portsmouth. Somewhat out of the way, though the route to Buffalo had them skipping major hills in PA. Not a terrible route if you want to avoid climbing, though even they admitted the farm and local roads across Illinois and Indiana were as nice as the paths.

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Old 02-02-23, 10:44 AM
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I love trail riding. Often you find yourself riding through scenic nature or topography that would not have been available otherwise. Rarely is the trail long enough to create a complete tour but I sure enjoy a portion of trail riding as part of a longer route mixed in with quiet county roads. Both Ohio and Michigan have completed a really extensive network of trails that one can use to fashion a week or longer ride. Only downside I find is that my drive train sure gets gunky when spending so much time on the crushed limestone trails.
This year in the works we have tours based around

the Mesabi and Munger Trails in Minnesota,
the Michelson Trail in South Dakota,
the Bike 4 Trails in Wisconsin,
the Great Miami River Trail system in Ohio,
and yes, another run on the Katy and Rock Island Trails in Missouri.

Last edited by robow; 02-02-23 at 03:59 PM.
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Old 02-02-23, 11:06 AM
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Ride your mood. Trails are great for relaxing. Roads lead to more site seeing. There are some that are both. Perhaps my favorite combo is Montreal to Quebec. Around Lake Michigan is another if you start in N Milwaukee or Manitowoc and bike to the ferry Muskegon (I think it is there). This avoids Chicago. Milwaukee to Chicago is mostly trail, yet you go through cities whatever you decide, enjoy
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Old 02-02-23, 11:25 AM
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Originally Posted by Steve B.
I watched a terrific YT series of a couple crossing the US in summer of 21, they used bike paths whenever feasible.
According to the Great American Rail Trail folks, one can ride from Washington DC to central Indiana almost all on trails, and on to Lincoln NE with the total trip ~75% on trails.

...they admitted the farm and local roads across Illinois and Indiana were as nice as the paths.


Trails have promotional organizations; little country roads don't!
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Old 02-02-23, 11:37 AM
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Hiawatha and NorPac.






I could go on.

For me, the trail needs to offer something interesting in the way of scenery lest you end up in a tunnel of trees like this section of the D&L above N. Catasaqua, PA. How boring.


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Old 02-02-23, 11:55 AM
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I tend to prefer small, lightly trafficed roads. When I'm touring, I normally have some destination in mind. Roads usually go someplace. I've seen too many bike trails that stop and make me hike-a-bike back to a usable route (read: road), or dead end in the worst of all possible traffic situations, or go from sublime to mud puddles within a few miles (C&O, thinking of you!).

In urban areas, a bike trail too often is also a walk-five-people-abreast trail, or take-the-family-for-a-bike-ride trail, or walk-the-dog-on-a-25-foot-lead trail. Not to say there's anything wrong with those, I've enjoyed most of those activities myself. But when I'm touring, I'm not interested in doing loaded track stands to deal with them.
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Old 02-02-23, 04:26 PM
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If you ride the TransAmerica Trail east-to-west you'll begin in Yorktown VA and very shortly find yourself on the Virginia Capital Trail for about 35 miles. It's a pleasant intro to the area but it's not the real world.
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Old 02-02-23, 04:57 PM
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Originally Posted by indyfabz
Hiawatha and NorPac.
...
I could go on.
...
For me, the trail needs to offer something interesting in the way of scenery lest you end up in a tunnel of trees like this section of the D&L above N. Catasaqua, PA. How boring.
...
Welcome back, I hope you are doing well.
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Old 02-02-23, 05:06 PM
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Trails that pass through little towns occasionally would be great .Lets face it,, you are not going to get killed by a drunk driver on a trail
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Old 02-02-23, 05:11 PM
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Glad to see you, Indyfabz.
Glad you're doing better.
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Old 02-02-23, 05:41 PM
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Originally Posted by garryg
Trails that pass through little towns occasionally would be great .Lets face it,, you are not going to get killed by a drunk driver on a trail
Don't underestimate drunk drivers...and watch the access points with any cross-roads or intersections.
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Old 02-02-23, 05:58 PM
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Why is the question yea or nay? There are so many great roads and trails in North America. On one recent tour from western Iowa to Michigan, we enjoyed a mix of roads and trails. Iowa…Cedar Valley, High Trestle, Raccoon River, Sauk River. Minnesota…Root River. Wisconsin…LaCrosse River, Elroy Sparta. Michigan…all the trails from St. Ignace to Traverse City. And the connections between trails had great back roads …. all along the Wisconsin River, across the UP and along Lake Superior. A to B should not be a shortest path, but the path of most scenic roads and trails with least car traffic.
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Old 02-02-23, 06:03 PM
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Welcome back indyfabz
Hope all is well

I too love the Hiawatha trail, nice pics Indy
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Old 02-02-23, 06:06 PM
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I like trails when I am mixing bikepacking gravel, trails and roads. I also like the trail when I am in a new city . The trails seem to generate my type of businesses along them, art, breweries, good restaurants, music.

If I am on a longer tour I'll ride the road.
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Old 02-02-23, 06:55 PM
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Navigation and signage can be an issue. On the GAP and C&O the navigation is trivial. When I did the Erie Canal Tow Path, the transitions from roads to trail, and vice versa, were not always well marked. I hear they have improved and published a better guide book since then.
Trails are also, often, not as well planned, engineered, or constructed as roads for cars.
WRT not being direct, on the Veloroute des Bluetsm in Quebec one section was pleasant, through some wet pine forest, but in about 15 flat miles, it crossed under a straight power line about six times.
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Old 02-02-23, 07:19 PM
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Originally Posted by IPassGas
Why is the question yea or nay?
It can be yea, nay, or anywhere in between - I would hope.

I'm about 62.3% nay and 37.6% yea.
(Rounding may not result in 100%)
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Old 02-02-23, 09:29 PM
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Originally Posted by jamawani
It can be yea, nay, or anywhere in between - I would hope.

I'm about 62.3% nay and 37.6% yea.
(Rounding may not result in 100%)
What if I want to vote for slightly left, instead of any of those three options? 😁😉

Welcome back, Kotter, or indyfabz, or whoever you are! 😁😎😁
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