Mid-morning, mid-April. Traffic’s crawling as we depart from Annapolis near U.S. 50. We can count on the Orioles home game later today to snarl roads as we pass through Baltimore. North of the city, homebound commuters will reliably choke Interstate 83 as we continue to our destination in York, PA.

At least, that would be the experience if we were going by car. But we’re two-wheeling it, pedaling the East Coast Greenway. The greenway is a glorious, public, work-in-progress, a hopeful counterweight to the interstate highway system that began transforming transportation in the United States 60 years ago.

We’ll roll into York about 36 hours later with a leisurely overnight in Baltimore, having explored a good chunk of the East Coast Greenway’s 166-mile route through Maryland. You can follow us turn by turn on your own bikes by exploring the web resources at greenway.org.

Our travels will cover a tiny fraction of the grander East Coast Greenway, a network of linked biking, pedestrian and equestrian trails and less-trafficked roadways that stretches about 3,000 miles from Key West to Canada. It connects hundreds of towns and cities along the way, passing in the Chesapeake region through Richmond, the District of Columbia, Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia. Eventually, the whole route will be on dedicated, off-road trails, separated from vehicular traffic. It’s about a third complete, coastally and in the Chesapeake region.

We set off on the long-established Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, an old railbed that is paved and wide enough for riding two and three abreast for nearly 14 miles. The first several miles, while close to the busy Ritchie Highway, were leafy and quiet enough to identify bird songs filtering through the blooming dogwood and redbud. A trailside cafe offered crepes and lattes at tables under aromatic pines.

Around mile seven, ringing our handlebar bells as we overtook joggers and dog walkers, we passed a small park with bathrooms and picked up Greg Hinchliffe, a retired international airline pilot and longtime Baltimore bicycle activist. Hinchliffe was an invaluable guide through the unfinished gaps in our route ahead.

“Maryland is for meandering,” he joked, showing us the zigs and zags required to develop an off-road path through the nation’s fifth most densely populated state.

Indeed, the East Coast Greenway as a whole is not meant to be the fastest or most direct route, and it is not a good option for hardcore cyclists trying to maximize speed and distance. It’s more about connection, about making communities accessible to the maximum number of citizens who would eschew the car.

As trees gave way to the Glen Burnie suburbs and some happy, perhaps stoned bench-sitters waving us on, we arrived at the Sun — actually a handsome sculpture of it. It is behind Harundale, said to be the nation’s first shopping mall. We’d passed Pluto six miles back, and in the last few hundred yards we cruised by Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury. Their distances along the trail are to scale, reflecting their position in the solar system. We covered the last 30 million miles in about 10 seconds, pretty good on a bike.

At the end of the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, a short jog to our west plunged us unexpectedly into some of the day’s most bucolic miles, a ribbon of pavement swooping prettily through forest on the 15-mile trail encircling BWI Airport that connects to the air terminals and the Light Rail.

The Light Rail carries bicycles, except at rush hours, and gives greenway riders a lot of options, with stops all the way through Baltimore, nearly to where we’d pick up dedicated trails the second day that would carry us all the way into downtown York.

The BWI trail is worth a ride in itself, with stopping places that afford a close “underlook” at planes touching down and, farther on, an overlook of the entire airport. This is the first time you’ll encounter any climbing — nothing extreme, but bring a bike with some easy gearing.

Gap alert: The five or so miles after BWI were fascinating and only a little terrifying, traversing a mix of modest to gritty neighborhoods and busy, potholed industrial boulevards, crossing the Patapsco River at least a couple of times. Without Hinchliffe, we’d have spent more time picking our way. If I were facing this part with kids or inexperienced riders, I’d consider taking the Light Rail from BWI or the Linthicum station, maybe all the way to the stop near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

But you would miss a cool experience, following the Gwynns Falls Trail that winds around the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, with views of Fort McHenry and big ships, passing under highway cloverleafs, past Baltimore’s Vietnam War Memorial, behind the new Horseshoe Casino and through the Raven’s football stadium parking lot and close to urban-nesting night herons and egrets.

We pedaled into Baltimore’s Federal Hill Park, maintained since the end of the Civil War, in time to lunch atop a spectacular overlook of the downtown and its harbor. Hinchliffe had been giving a running commentary on the tedious work of trail building as we wound through city and county neighborhoods.

It seemed comparable to urban warfare, fighting house-by-house, block-by-block. Finding out who owns a fence that’s blocking the way can take months or more. A needed bridge requires approval from three jurisdictions: “none will say no, none will say yes,” he said. Typical of many neighborhoods, he said, is an “initial, NIMBY (not in my backyard) reaction,” followed by the eventual realization that trails boost the local economy and raise housing values.

Around the Inner Harbor in the heart of Baltimore, the Gwynns Falls Trail becomes the Jones Falls Trail, which follows the central valley that carries the Jones Falls from its trout-filled beginnings way up in Baltimore County down to where the stream goes underground near Amtrak’s Penn Station (“I have come to bury the Jones Falls, not to praise it,” a city official said in 1915, when the industrial waterway was covered over amid fears of pollution-borne cholera).

You’ll climb a bit for the next hour or so as you navigate the city, almost all on dedicated bikeways, winding through the grand trees of Druid Hill Park, the old mill villages and trendy restaurants of Clipper Mill, past Cylburn Arboretum and into the shaded environs of the lovely Mount Washington neighborhood. Here, we finished the day at a friend’s home, about six hours and 45 miles from our start.

Had we needed it, we were no more than five minutes from Whole Foods, Starbucks, several restaurants, a bicycle shop and a Light Rail stop. Ironically, Hinchliffe said, trail building is easier in densely populated areas than rural ones “because the demand is there…they see the quality of life aspects.” Of course, the other side of that perspective is that even the larger roads in rural areas are usually good for bicycling, trail or not.

Day two. It’s nearly 60 miles to York, but the last 45 miles or so will be a hard-packed, all-weather, gravel trail, largely uninterrupted by busy crossroads, a straight shot north from Cockeysville, a northern suburb of Baltimore. Hinchliffe leads us through a gap of 12–15 miles where dedicated trails don’t yet connect.

The first part of this route may be the prettiest ride of the trip, on dirt paths that wend through big oaks and tulip poplars around Lake Roland. You don’t need a mountain bike for this, but you wouldn’t want ultra-skinny racing tires either. (Our road bikes have tires 30–35 mm wide — good all-around sizes).

From there we go mostly through quiet streets of pleasant Baltimore County suburban neighborhoods like Seminary Ridge and Lutherville, emerging at an Amish market on York Road close to the start of the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail. From there to the Pennsylvania line we’ll traverse a linear state park that follows a rushing coldwater stream, popular with trout fishermen and rafters.

A word here about the gaps in our route. You can bike these without a guide. Turn-by-turn instructions are downloadable from the greenway’s website for any of the 16 states along it. Streets and roads are chosen, insofar as possible, to be bike-friendly.

The next 40 miles were a joy, steadily but gently uphill all the way to New Freedom, PA. The old coal-carrying trains that began running here in 1832 could not manage grades of more than a few percent, so you don’t have to, either.

We had a remarkably good lunch at Carol Childs’ New Freedom Rail Trail Cafe in the revamped train station. My falafel wrap with curried rice was as good as I’ve had anywhere. And from New Freedom to York, it’s all downhill or flat. The York County Heritage Trail picks up where Maryland’s Torrey Brown Rail Trail leaves off. Forest falls away to mixed farmland and mixed towns. In both states, small local roads take off from the dedicated trail all along the route, just begging to be ridden if you want to see more countryside and don’t mind more climbing and descending.

Somewhere in Pennsylvania, I spotted a magnificent shagbark hickory in the woods and halted our little train of riders to admire it. We might well have made such stops hundreds of places along our two-day, 103-mile route. But the old hickory crystallized something about traveling more slowly, open to the sun and wind, that I’d been feeling almost since we began.

Annapolis to York would never be the same space on the map again. What by automobile was just space on a map, conjuring up nothing more than route numbers and some vague notion of “scenery” whizzing by, now was indelibly known from a thousand turns and dips and textures beneath our wheels; from myriad sounds, smells and trees distinct from the forest; from neighborhoods and conversations with people and the sights of hawks and deer; and from associations with the manifold charms of water, from the tidal Chesapeake to sparkling streams.

The interstate system made Americans more mobile. The East Coast Greenway can make us richer — and saner.

To learn more about the East Coast Greenway and how to support it or plan a trip, visit greenway.org or call 919-797-0619. You can order maps and turn-by-turn instructions for your state’s portions of the greenway.


Before the East Coast Greenway

In 1982, long before the East Coast Greenway existed, a friend and I cycled from Key West, FL, to Calais, ME. Hugging the coast, we often traveled roads without shoulders, constantly vigilant for inattentive or even hostile drivers. Major waterways proved especially challenging: we hitchhiked over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and cycled Staten Island’s Outerbridge Crossing illegally.

Amenities were auto-only. Today is it a pleasure to find food stands, bed and breakfasts, and bike shuttles along cycle paths, to experience the rejuvenating effect that cycling has had on local economies.

Still, cycling then was mostly quite pleasant, with light traffic and a somnolent pace. Except for major coastal cities, our route was scenic and bucolic. It was easy to find good camping spots: by the ferry to the Outer Banks, outside of a county fair in Massachusetts and in a cemetery in rural Maine. I miss the spontaneity and freedom afforded cyclists in those less structured times.

For the “interested but nervous” majority who would probably not bicycle except on protected paths, the greenway is a godsend. But for me, it’s a mixed blessing. We’ve traded the thrill of not knowing what lies ahead for safety and certainty. We have introduced more people to cycling but narrowed our sense of exploration.

At the root of my freedom-versus-security conundrum lies the fact that there’s just so darned many of us nowadays. In the ’80s, it was easy to find out of the way places; today, few uncrowded coastal spots remain.

I wouldn’t trade my early experiences for anything. Along today’s gridlocked coast, though, the East Coast Greenway provides the best chance of serenity and safety. And that’s pretty darned good.

— By Bill Nelson, a hiker, cyclist and an adjunct lecturer in environmental studies at Salisbury University