A Bucket List for Bikers
The 25 Best Road Cycling Routes in America
There are 4,092,730 miles of public road in America. It’s the most extensive road network in the world, a great tangled mass of pavement, dirt, gravel and sometimes even cobbles, that fans out from wherever you are and takes you wherever you want to go, be it the next town over, Times Square or a lung-searing climb to the top of a 14,000-foot dead-end mountain road (imagine the pants-shitting descent, though). It’s no wonder we, as a nation, have been waxing poetic about the romance of the road for so long. Adventure lies around every bend, and endless possibility starts at the end of your driveway or in front of your stoop. The best way to experience those roads is, of course, on a bicycle, with the wind in your hair and just enough burn in your legs to remind you that you’re alive.
With such a wealth, it was almost impossible to pick just 25 rides. Those we’ve selected run the gamut: incredible rambles through the heartland, national park tours, coastal cruises and breathless mountaintop finishes; there’s elevation for the climbers, distance for the endurance freaks and a few easier routes for laid-back riders to find their legs on. It’s a big, beautiful country. Get on your bike and discover it.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana
Why Go: The climb to the 6,648-foot Logan Pass would be brutal, were it not for the Sound of Music views — toothy peaks, wildflower meadows, glacial lakes and rivers and often wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep — around every bend.
Road Notes: From the west entrance of the park, it’s 21 miles of easy, scenic spinning past Lake McDonald before things get lively. The next 11 miles feature 3,000+ feet of climbing as you make your way to the spine of the continent. Arrange for a shuttle to pick you up at the east entrance in St. Mary, or go for broke on the century ride of a lifetime.
Distance: 50 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,290 feet
Starts From: West Glacier, MT
Dirty Kanza Half-Pint, Kansas
Why Go: Whether you call it gravel-grinding, all-terrain riding or, our preference, adventure by bike, rattling over the rolling dirt roads of Kansas’ Flint Hills is no picnic. It is gorgeous, though, with sweeping views over the iconic grassy farmlands of our nation’s heartland. This is America.
Road Notes: This is Dirty Kanza territory, and in fact, this route is the “half-pint” version of the 2014 edition. If you insist on the whole 200-mile route (it’s available here), you won’t have time to enjoy it. It’s up and down, and with 60 miles of dirt before the first town, you have to be self-reliant. God help you if it rains.
Distance: 111 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,298 feet
Starts From: Emporia, KS
Mt. Evans Climb, Colorado
Why Go: The highest paved road in the US runs out on top of 14,271-foot Mt. Evans, where it overlooks wave after wave of Rockies in one direction and the seemingly endless Eastern Plains in the other. It’s a rare chance to climb for three straight hours, and what’s not to love about that?
Road Notes: From Idaho Springs, ride through aspen- and evergreen-lined Chicago Creek Canyon. Past Echo Lake, you’ll emerge from the tree line and be rewarded with those famous views. At the summit, check your brakes, don a jacket (trust us) and point your handlebars down for a hard-earned, feel-like-a-kid-again 28-mile coaster back to town.
Distance: 27.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,789 feet
Starts From: Idaho Springs, CO
Tour of the Battenkill, New York
Why Go: This ride through rural Washington County follows the route of the Tour of the Battenkill, America’s largest one-day pro/am cycling race, and its own shorter, hillier version of Paris-Roubaix. It rumbles through upstate dairy farm country and over covered bridges, railroad crossings and no fewer than eight stretches of rugged dirt road totaling 15 of the ride’s 68 miles.
Road Notes: It’s a bit gnarly out there, so if you don’t have a cross or gravel rig, consider wider tires (28s or bigger, if your rims can handle them). The climbs are short but punchy — 17 percent is the max grade — so be ready to break in your quads if you ride it during Classics season. As for us, we prefer it in October, with a side of fall foliage.
Distance: 68.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,423 feet
Starts From: Greenwich, NY
Why Go: The Oregon Coast is one of the most democratic (not to mention gorgeous) shorelines in America. Its tide pools, old-growth forests, waterfalls, cliffside trails and sandy beaches are free and open for the public to explore. But the best of these can only be discovered at a slow, steady cycling pace. Plan on good coffee and clam chowder lunches in between long, dramatic views to lighthouses and wave-crashed sea stacks.
Road Notes: Rather than send you entirely down Highway 101 (the famed “Oregon Coast Bike Route”), we’ve taken the liberty of routing you on quieter, more beautiful roads where possible. You’re welcome. There are hills, yes, but likely a tailwind, too, if you’re riding between July and September, our favorite time.
Distance: 86.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,291 feet
Starts From: Tillamook, OR
Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
Why Go: The parkway winds along the airy peaks of the Blue Ridge from from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering riders 469 miles of nearly uninterrupted scenic two-lane road through God’s country. Wildlife, waterfalls and panoramic vistas of rolling mountains are de rigueur.
Road Notes: The BRP has very few services located along its winding route, so we’ve routed you over 25 scenic miles between two of our favorite towns in western North Carolina, Asheville (great breweries) and Brevard (epic mountain biking).
Distance: 47.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,002 feet
Starts From: Asheville, NC
San Juan Islands, Washington
Why Go: The San Juans, with their quiet two-lane roads, artsy culture and incredible scenery, have long been considered a cycling paradise. Of the three largest islands, San Juan is the most populated (with fewer than 8,000 residents) and features a good mix of roller coaster hills and open country. Lopez is flatter and more relaxed, and Orcas offers challenges on Mt. Constitution and Turtleback Mountain.
Road Notes: From Friday Harbor’s Norman Rockwell-worthy downtown, pedal north through forests, farmland and vineyards on your way to Roche Harbor’s seafood joints and 19-acre public sculpture park. At Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse, keep your eyes peeled for killer whales as you look across Haro Strait to Canada.
Distance: 50.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,445 feet
Starts From: Friday Harbor, WA
Crater Lake Loop, Oregon
Why Go: According to the local Klamath tribe, Crater Lake was formed when a battle between the sky god and the god of the underworld destroyed volcanic Mt. Mazama some 7,700 years ago. Today, it’s sacred to them and all Americans, one of the world’s deepest, purest and most picturesque lakes. And it happens that a 32-mile strip of near-perfect pavement circles the ancient caldera.
Road Notes: The only water available on this challenging route is at Rim Village (mile 0) and Park Headquarters (mile 29), so plan on bringing at least two bottles, especially since you’ll dehydrate more quickly at this high elevation (6,400 to 7,700 feet).
Distance: 32 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,892 feet
Starts From: Rim Village, Crater Lake National Park
Gran Fondo New York
Why Go: You probably wouldn’t believe us if we told you that there’s fantastic cycling to be had — quiet, leafy two-lane roads that hug the Hudson River — a 10-minute ride from the frenetic streets of Manhattan. But it’s true, and it’s the reason Gran Fondo New York (whose route we’ve followed) has become one of the nation’s premier cycling events.
Road Notes: Carbo-load at Mike’s Bagels in Washington Heights before crossing the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey’s Palisades. From there, it’s a mostly uneventful spin north along the Hudson through little river towns until the 1,200 foot climb up Bear Mountain, where you can look south and see the glimmering towers back where you started. If your legs are cooked, cross over the river to Peekskill Brewery, where you can recover while you wait on the next New York-bound train.
Distance: 100.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 8,645 feet
Starts From: New York City
A Ride Through Time, Utah
Why Go: Utah’s State Route 12 traverses 122 miles of otherworldly landscape — chockablock with slickrock canyons, cosmic pinnacles and monolithic buttes — between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. We’ve carved out a more manageable (relatively, mind you) chunk between Bryce and Boulder that winds past petrified forests, stratified cliffs and ancient Puebloan granaries where you can peer into history.
Road Notes: From lofty Bryce (7,500 feet), the road drops down into the tiny farming towns of Tropic, Cannonville and Henrieville before climbing through Dixie National Forest and passing the granaries. After Escalante, the road is in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to Boulder. Stop to explore slot canyons, scope out the Escalante River or photograph the world-famous Hogback formation.
Distance: 74.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 5,096 feet
Starts From: Bryce, UT
Sea to Summit, California
Why Go: This feature-packed ride, which starts and ends downtown, highlights the sheer geographical diversity and scenic beauty that makes NorCal so special. From San Francisco’s touristy waterfront, it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, heads over the rugged Marin Headlands, hugs the Pacific shoreline through Muir and Stinson Beaches and climbs past redwood forests and flowering manzanitas to 2,574-foot Mt. Tamalpais.
Road Notes: The Headlands will present some challenges, but they’re nothing in comparison to Mt. Tam. It’s a stiff 9-mile, 2,500-foot climb from Bolinas Lagoon to the summit, but the wide-open vistas from Bolinas Ridge are worth it. You’ll want a rugged bike for this one, since we’ve routed you down a dirt-and-crushed-stone railroad grade to Mill Valley. From there, it’s on to Tiburon to catch a ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf.