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.
Distance: 60.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,272 feet
Starts From: San Francisco, CA
Champlain Islands, Vermont
Why Go: Just north of the crunchy northern Vermont mecca of Burlington, the bucolic Champlain Islands bob in the center of Lake Champlain, where they’re shielded by the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains to the east. Farm stands and creemee (that’s Vermont for “soft-serve”) shacks sprout along quiet, pancake-flat roads here, and dramatic views of mountains tumbling down to the lakeshore are almost nonstop.
Road Notes: From downtown Burlington, it’s an easy ride north along 10 miles of the Island Line Trail — including three incredible miles on the narrow Colchester Causeway — before you reach “The Cut.” A dedicated bike ferry will deliver you across the 200-foot-wide break in the causeway, delivering you to the southern end of the islands.
Distance: 82.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,503 feet
Starts From: Burlington, VT
Around Acadia, Maine
Why Go: Because it’s home to Acadia National Park, Mt. Desert Island is the best place to explore Maine’s ruggedly beautiful granite coast. Between the miles of traffic-free carriage roads, well marked trails down to seaside tide pools and the panoramic view atop Cadillac Mountain (the highest point on the Atlantic Coast), this is a cyclist’s coastal dream trip. Of course, the profusion of postcard-perfect fishing villages with fresh-catch lobster pounds make it worthwhile off the bike.
Road Notes: We put Cadillac Mountain’s summit just six miles into the route, so early birds can catch the sunrise up top. But also so you can bail on it, shaving eight miles and 1,100 feet of climbing from the ride, if you’re not feeling it. We’ve also included 14 miles of crushed stone carriage roads. Bypassing them in favor of Rte. 3 would be a shame, but it spares your legs eight miles and 250 feet of hills.
Distance: 80.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,245 feet
Starts From: Bar Harbor, ME
The Katy Trail, Missouri
Why Go: The Katy Trail runs 237 miles across the Missouri countryside along the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad right-of-way, making it the nation’s longest Rails-to-Trails project. More than two-thirds of it hugs the banks of the muddy Missouri River, cruising on flat terrain beneath towering river bluffs and past farmland and vineyards. And despite its intrepid, middle-of-nowhere feel, dozens of would-be Mayberrys dot its length every few miles, offering rest and refuel options.
Road Notes: The smooth crushed-limestone trail passes through no fewer than 15 towns between Rocheport and McKittrick, so finding lunch and refilling water bottles shouldn’t be a problem.
Distance: 77.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 677 feet
Starts From: Rocheport, MO
Road to Hana, Hawaii
Why Go: In less than 50 miles, the Hana Highway wiggles its way around 600 hairpin turns and over 50 bridges as it traces Maui’s wild northern coast from the hub of Kahului to the little seaside village of Hana. Passing through lush tropical rainforest and studded with waterfalls and spectacular seascapes, it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime ride.
Road Notes: This is Hawaii’s most famous stretch of road, and sometimes attracts the bumper-to-bumper traffic you’d expect. As you’ll be navigating hundreds of sharp turns and nearly 50 one-lane bridges with all of those cars, it’s critical that you’re very comfortable riding with traffic. Also, factor in much more time than you think you need for food stops (Halfway to Hana and Braddah Hutts BBQ are favorites), refreshing waterfall dips and the wildly undulating topography.
Distance: 44.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,654 feet
Starts From: Paia, HI
The Pinky Traverse, Michigan
Why Go: With its rolling vineyards and cherry orchards, historic lighthouses, sandy beaches and charming ports, Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula comprises one of the most scenic stretches of the Great Lakes’ so-called “Third Coast”. Take in Lake Michigan’s pristine shoreline on a flat pedal from the vacationland of Traverse City to the oversized sandbox of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore.
Road Notes: This relatively flat route traces the “pinky” of the Lower Peninsula’s “mitten”, following 26 miles of dedicated bike trail and quiet byways with sweeping shoreline views. Time it right and you can watch sunset over Lake Michigan from Sleeping Bear’s 450-foot-high Lake Michigan Overlook. From there, it’s an easy pedal into Empire.
Distance: 70.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,968 feet
Starts From: Traverse City, MI
Delmarva Dawdle, Maryland
Why Go: The Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) is a bucolic, 170-mile-long peninsula that separates Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic. A crazy quilt of fields, small towns, coves and sinuous tributary rivers, it’s the perfect place for a laid-back, low-speed ramble along the Eastern Shore’s low-country back roads.
Road Notes: If you start from historic 17th-century Easton, you can be in St. Michaels, seated on the waterfront patio at The Crab Claw in time for lunch — steamed blue crabs with Old Bay and a side of pickles and cheese — with a view. Then it’s on to Bellevue, where a ferry ride delivers you across the Tred Avon River to Oxford. From there, it’s am easy 13-mile pedal to Easton past cornfields and horse farms.
Distance: 31.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 639 feet
Starts From: Easton, MD
Covered Bridge Metric Century, Pennsylvania
Why Go: Covered bridges and horse-drawn buggies are the hallmarks of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country surrounding Lancaster, where the Amish and Mennonites have been farming the rolling countryside for centuries. These are the same low-traffic rural roads where a young Floyd Landis — himself raised Mennonite — cut his teeth before becoming internationally infamous.
Road Notes: This ride, which traverses six covered bridges and countless rollers, isn’t technically challenging, but it will wear you down. Luckily, there are plenty of local shops — our favorite is Udder Choice in Ephrata — selling rich, creamery-fresh ice cream to power you along the way. This ride closely follows the route of the Lancaster Bike Club’s popular annual Covered Bridge Metric Century.
Distance: 64 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,455 feet
Starts From: Lancaster, PA
A Good Ride Near the Badlands, South Dakota
Why Go: The ruggedly beautiful topography of South Dakota’s Black Hills presented highway engineers with some unique challenges. They responded by constructing two “impossible” roads — the Needles Highway (Rte. 87) and Iron Mountain Road (Rte. 16A) — that thread their way through the mountains using steep grades, one-lane rock-walled tunnels, hairpin curves and photogenic spiral “pigtail” bridges. This ride, which traverses both (and swings by Mount Rushmore), is as beautiful as it is challenging, crossing wide-open meadows and deep canyons that are home to abundant wildlife including elk, bison, antelope, coyotes, mountain lions and bighorns.
Road Notes: Beyond the aggressive topography, all of those switchbacks and one-lane tunnels do present risks for cyclists. Dress brightly and beware blind curves. Plus, there are so many scenic overlooks that it’s hard to get into a rhythm.
Distance: 68.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 7,329 feet
Starts From: Custer, SD
Little Switzerland, Texas
Why Go: With its rolling karst topography, award-winning vineyards and dazzling springtime wildflower blooms, Texas Hill Country features some of the state’s best rural cycling. These hills, while not Swiss Alps caliber, were one of Lance Armstrong’s primary training grounds.
Road Notes: This ride is a Hill Country classic that leaves from the cycling capital of Fredericksburg, a quaint village founded in the 1840s by German immigrants. It’s likely a combination of that continental heritage and a Texas-sized imagination that led to locals naming this route “Little Switzerland” — there are hills with names like Mt. Crabapple, Swiss Miss and Grinder, but none are taller than 300 feet.
Distance: 41 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,233 feet
Starts From: Fredericksburg, TX
Grand Rounds Loop, Minnesota
Why Go: Though it’s only recently become recognized as a cycling paradise, Minneapolis’ best bike route — the over-50-mile Grand Rounds Loop, which traces natural features including lakes, creeks, riverbanks and wetlands in a massive circle around downtown — has been around since the 1930s.
Road Notes: While the full trip includes complete laps around each and every lake, this ride comprises a practical, 31-mile route around the Grand Rounds from the University of Minnesota campus and knocks most of the climbing out of the way in the first dozen miles.
Distance: 30.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,191 feet
Starts From: Minneapolis, MN
Jackson Hole Circuit, Wyoming
Why Go: With its profusion of singletrack radiating from town into the Gros Ventre Range, Jackson is better known for its mountain biking than its roadie culture. But the 48-mile-long valley of Jackson Hole, framed as it is by the saw-toothed Teton Range and the Gros Ventres, is a wonderfully dramatic setting for a road tour.
Road Notes: This circuit climbs steadily into Grand Teton National Park at the base of the Tetons, where it traces the shores of Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake. At Moran, it turns south and follows the Snake River back downhill toward Jackson through beautifully stark, wide-open terrain.
Distance: 75.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,262 feet
Starts From: Jackson, WY
The Fruit & Wine Byway, Colorado
Why Go: Not every ride in the Centennial State features lung-searing alpine climbs. On the Rockies’ Western Slope, where the Colorado River emerges from the Book Cliffs near Grand Junction, the little farming town of Palisade is a relative flatland of peach orchards, lavender gardens and, recently, an up-and-coming wine industry.
Road Notes: This laid-back route, which traces rural farm roads along the Colorado River, encourages our favorite kind of agritourism: wine tasting, as it passes more than half a dozen vineyards, and at least as many farm-fresh fruit stands. It’s no Napa, but with its lack of pretension and the dramatic backdrop of 11,000-foot Grand Mesa, it might just be better.
Distance: 24.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 884 feet
Starts From: Palisade, CO
Down Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona
Why Go: Perched on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, just beneath the San Francisco Peaks at 6,910 feet, Flagstaff is a mild-weathered, Ponderosa pine-studded outdoor wonderland. Immediately south of the city, though, you can roll down the Mogollon Rim — a 2,500-foot escarpment marking the edge of the plateau — via Oak Creek Canyon to Sedona’s otherworldly red rock desertscapes.
Road Notes: State Route 89 descends rather sharply into Oak Creek Canyon via a series of hairpin turns between miles 14 and 16. From there, the descent mellows, meandering through the narrow canyon alongside Oak Creek. This fast, mostly downhill ride leaves plenty of time to enjoy the canyon’s natural beauty on your way to Sedona. Cool off in a natural waterslide at Slide Rock State Park, or explore one of more than a dozen hikes.
Distance: 29.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 884 feet
Starts From: Flagstaff, AZ
Down the Delaware Coast, Delaware
Why Go: Diminutive Delaware may not have the kind of dramatic topography that characterizes most great cycling regions, but it does occupy some of the nation’s best oceanfront real estate. This ride takes in 38 beginner-friendly miles along its most famous Atlantic strands, from Rehoboth Beach (not coincidentally, home to Dogfish Head Brewery) down to Fenwick Island and back.
Road Notes: This route is dead-simple to follow: take Bicycle Route 1 south (ocean on your left) past white-sand beaches, boardwalks and dunes until you reach downtown Fenwick Island, then head back (with the ocean on your right). Bring a lock, and spend some time exploring the various beaches — in order, Rehoboth, Dewey, Delaware Seashore State Park, Bethany, Fenwick Island State Park and Fenwick Island — each of which has its own special character.