Breaking Away

Explore these bike-friendly destinations for a summer getaway full of fun and fitness.
By Cara Lucas, Brooke Holmgren, and Amy Vergin

Summer is finally here, and the warm weather invites you to venture out and explore the outdoors. While lazy days by the water might appeal to your inner beach bum, integrating some physical activity while you’re away can make you feel good inside and out.

There’s not a much better, all-around economical, and healthy way to travel than by bike. And, honestly, you don’t have to be an extreme cycle enthusiast to enjoy the benefits of a bicycle. There are numerous types of bicycles fit for every body—from comfort bikes to racing bikes, mountain bikes to road bikes. There are tandem bikes, hand bikes, folding bikes—the list goes on and on! So whatever your needs are, more than likely, there is a bike for you.

Many great vacation destination spots have some sort of pedal-powered two-wheeler available to rent and ride on site. It is truly one of the best ways to explore a new area, especially if there is a lot to discover. And, while you’re at it, you can whittle down your bucket-list by touring some of the most scenic areas in the nation. Make your getaways count; the following cities offer much in the way of accessible bike routes, scenic views, and great places to visit, dine, or shop.

Destination #1: Mackinac Island, Michigan

National Geographic Traveler magazine touts our first location as “One of the Top Ten Sustainable Islands in the World,” one of the top five best-rated islands in the world, and one of only two American islands that even made the top-ten list. It sounds like a mouthful of awards, but one visit to this pristine gem of a place and you’ll see why.

Have you ever seen the famous movie, “Somewhere In Time?” Well, it was filmed right here on Mackinac Island, in the regal Grand Hotel. This no-car island surely acts like a time machine and allows you to employ all of your senses to soak up a relaxing, yet stimulating, vacation experience. Surrounded by clear, blue Great Lake Huron waters, the island is a tranquil escape from a fast-paced, harried world.

Since this island is automobile-free, biking is a great option for transportation in between all of the nearby activities. It truly allows you to fully enjoy all of the island sights and sounds, and become an integral part of the laid-back island activities.

There are numerous bike rental shops around the island that offer plenty of riding options. Bringing kids along? These shops have children in mind as they offer bike seats, burleys, and tagalongs for your child to enjoy the trip with you. All ferry services allow you to bring your bike for a fee that varies depending on the particular ferry service you use. The main road that goes around the island is flat and paved, and offers cool breezes from Lake Huron accompanied by beautiful scenery. The average time it takes to make the loop just depends on your pace and stops along the way. For a break, make a pit stop at The Cannon Ball Drive Inn for a drink or snack.

Another great biking option is to grab a locator map and some drinks, and bike to Fort Holmes, which is located on the highest point on Mackinac island and offers great scenic views. On the way, be sure to check out the great landmarks and state park trails. With over 61 miles of roads and trails within Mackinac State Park, they offer much for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. In the winter, some of the more groomed trails are great for cross-country skiers.

Besides being an ideal spot to bike, there are copious amounts of other activities to take part in. If you are looking to fill your schedule up with fun events, try parasailing for a bird’s eye view of the island; horseback riding through the state parks; participating in an intimate, private horse-drawn carriage ride tour; checking out the wide variety of free flying butterflies from around the world at Wings of Mackinac or The Butterfly House; and exploring Fort Mackinac and what it was like to live during the 1800s with demonstrations and cannon firings daily. You can also try kayaking at Mission Point, swimming at British Landing, or taking a fishing charter out on Lake Huron.

Rental Shops on Mackinac Island:

Island Bicycle Rental

906-847-6288

mackinac.com/islandbicycle

 

Lakeside/Streetside Bicycle Rental

906-847-8259

arnoldline.com/bike_rental.htm

 

Mackinac Island Bike Shop

906-847-6337

bikemackinac.com

 

OrrKids Bike Shop

906-847-3211

mackinacbikes.com

 

Ryba's Bicycle Rentals

906-847-3208

rybabikes.com

 

Destination #2: Santa Cruz, California

Located approximately 70 miles south of San Francisco and 40 miles north of Monterey, on the sunny side of the bay is the laid back, progressive city of Santa Cruz, California. It is the smallest county in California, next to San Francisco County, but houses some of the most diverse landscapes. Via bike, you can literally travel from coastal redwood forests to the ocean in a matter of minutes.

Santa Cruz boasts 29 miles of beaches and has something to offer everyone—surfers, swimmers, fishers, sailboarders, and families. One of their more popular features is the 100-year old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a seaside amusement park that was built in 1907 as the West Coast’s version of Coney Island. Visitors can walk down the steps from the famous boardwalk to enjoy the mile-long Main Beach, complete with summer lifeguards and golden-oldie tunes drifting over the sand.

Between Natural Bridges State Beach (which is great for tidepool exploration) and the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf is a two and a half mile scenic path overlooking the bay skirts along West Cliff Drive. The path offers breathtaking views and is popular for exercise seekers—a great place to start a beautiful bike ride. Along the route, you’ll find the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum housed inside the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse. And, since Santa Cruz is known as the birthplace of mainland surfing, be sure not to miss the surfer statue, dedicated to surfers everywhere. Just off the point from the lighthouse, fearless surfers ride the waves at Santa Cruz’s legendary surf spot, Steamer Lane, while novice surfers test their mettle at nearby Cowell Beach.

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos is another tribute to nature's resilience. This dense, redwood paradise was clear-cut as recently as 1923, but today, towering second-growth redwoods populate the hillsides. The 10,000-acre park offers miles of trails for mountain biking, as well as walking, running, hiking, or horseback riding.

Mountain biking opportunities abound within the newly restored historic Meder Farmhouse at Wilder Ranch State Park—located about a mile north of Santa Cruz. It is a hands-on living history museum where visitors can experience the details of daily life on a turn-of-the-century dairy farm. This park offers 34 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails that skirt the cliffs, and more challenging trails that climb the steep hills and meadows overlooking Monterey Bay.

Other popular places for mountain biking include Pogonip Park, Soquel’s Demonstration Forest, and Delaveaga. For road biking, the roads at UC Santa Cruz and San Andreas Road and Freedom Boulevard are favorites.

For more information about Santa Cruiz, please visit santacruz.org.

 

Destination #3: Key West, Florida

This bicycling vacation is as close to pedaling in paradise as anyone can get in the United States. An angelic blue sky with the Gulf of Mexico to match, lush palm trees, warm sunlight, and of course, unique bike paths. The entire island of Key West can easily be traversed via bicycle (it’s only 7.4 square miles!). Here are a few Key West hot spots you may want to check out on your adventure.

Little Hamaca Park is located off the beaten tourist path. While popular and much admired for its beauty, Little Hamaca Park allows you to get out of the bright-colored urban kitsch of Key West and into nature. Florida, the most “tropical” state in the continental US, is home to many unique plants and animals, particularly around the Florida Keys. Although most of the trails are unpaved, they’re leveled and topped with compacted mulch. The shady mangrove trees provide shelter from the hot sun. Little Hamaca Park is ideal for a leisurely, nature-filled bike ride.

Pedal your way to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, a Civil War-era fort on the National Historic Landmark list. Construction began in 1845, so check out a piece of Key West and American history. If military history or historic places aren’t your cup of tea, the connected park and beach are famous for their beauty. In fact, the Truman Annex Beach is known as one of the most clean, well-kept, and beautiful beaches in the state; remember to pack a swimsuit! Since Fort Zachary Taylor is a state park, there is a $2 admission fee for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Since Key West is such a small island, visiting is almost like taking a step back in time. Sure there are all the modern conveniences of 2012, but the architecture and city layout of Old Town is reminiscent of 1950s America. Think brightly painted houses, shutters, porches, narrow streets and alleyways think of the word “quaint.” Pedal down Southard and Fleming Street in Old Town to explore the lovely Key West Cemetery.

That’s right—the Key West Cemetery is lovely. As eerie as it may sound, this 19-acre historic cemetery constructed in 1847 feels more like a park than a resting place for the dead. In fact, guided tours are available through the Historic Florida Keys Foundation. While many of the grave markers, mausoleums, and monuments are beautifully ornate in design, what’s so interesting about the Key West Cemetery is the rich history of the people who reside in it. From Civil War soldiers and Cuban missionaries to important political figures and ordinary people, the cemetery is full of fascinating stories. Oh, and you are allowed to ride your bike throughout the cemetery—on paths, of course.

If you’re looking for a laid back, Sunday-drive-paced bicycle cruise, Key West is the destination spot for you. From gorgeous sunsets to warm weather, friendly people, and unique surroundings, Key West has something fun for everyone.

 

Destination #4: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Known as the “steel city,” Pittsburgh has gone out of its way to become bike-friendly, especially with the help of Bike Pittsburgh. This organization is making it their mission to keep Pittsburgh a city that is safe and accessible for the biking community. And for travelers everywhere, we thank them!

With over 400 bridges containing sidewalks, many Pittsburghians have already switched from driving to biking for their morning and evening commutes. New companies have even started to use innovative parking: retrofitted shipping containers to store bikes vertically. Between the riverfront bike trails and the hilly neighborhoods, vacationers will find a plethora of trails to fall in love with.

One downtown trail is the Eliza Furnace Trail, also known as “Jail Trail” for its end point near the Allegheny City lockup. This trail has helped make downtown Pittsburgh a popular destination. From downtown to Oakland, the trail covers 3.5 miles and takes you across the Ohio River and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. With Mount Washington to the Southwest, the bluffs to your right, and the Birmingham Bridge in sight, this trail will continue to surprise you with its beauty.

The Steel Valley Trail is an urban-meets-scenic route. Reaching almost 19 miles in length, Steel Valley Trail connects with the Three Rivers Heritage Trail system and passes through Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in the Monongahela Valley. The valley was once the heart of the Pittsburgh steel empire and is ideal for any age and level of biking experience.

There are several parks to choose from when looking for a more scenic ride. One, in particular, is North Park. This area is said to offer the most ideal combination of trails, along with a beautiful overview to enjoy. Each part of the 15 miles of trails has a natural single track easy enough for all levels of riders. For the more skilled biker, North Park has paths with fast descending hills that will definitely pump up the level of intensity.

Are you a skilled rider looking for that perfect cycling challenge? Bavington Mountain Bike Trails is a system of 27 miles of single tracks that runs through Hillman State Park. Many mountain bikers have come to know this place as the most beloved mountain biking trail near Pittsburgh. With tight winding tracks through forests of pine trees, and a few steep climbs, this trail will keep you on your toes. Make sure to stop and really take in the beautiful scenery within the park!

Websites like probikeslic.com give a full list of trails and parks that have beautiful and historic bike trails. The Bike Pittsburgh page, bike-pgh.org, includes great insight into the biking side of the city as well as fun riding trails in and around Pittsburgh. Most bike shops, such as Iron City Bikes, are great resources for bike rental information and trail ideas.

While in Pittsburgh, be sure to ride to the elegant restaurant, Habitat. Known for their strong emphasis on fresh local foods, Habitat works on making sure their ingredients are sourced from within a 100-mile radius of Pittsburgh. Their menu has dozens of unique and international-styled meals, and a delicious dessert menu. Also try the family-owned, award-winning restaurant, The Carlton, which is a Pittsburgh staple in fine dining. For other delicious dinners and events to attend, go to visitpittsburgh.com to find everything you need to make your trip complete!

 

Destination #5: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minnesota may seem like an unexpected place to plan a biking excursion, yet the largest city in this northernmost state provides 81 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street trails across the metro area. Known as the “City of Lakes,” Minneapolis has 22 lakes accessible to the public for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, or just admiring. Better yet, all can easily be visited via popular bike routes.

If you love the feel of big cities, Minneapolis has something in store for you. Neighboring St. Paul (located just east across the Mississippi) boosts the metro area to the 16th largest in the United States. Simply put, Minneapolis and St. Paul, known together as the “Twin Cities,” provide both an urban yet welcoming feeling.

Check out the Mill Ruins Park in downtown Minneapolis; it features the ruins of the famous old flour mills situated along the Mississippi river that put Minneapolis on the US map and contributed to Minneapolis’ other nickname, “Mill City.” From sandstone riverbanks to derelict (yet beautiful) brick buildings, the Mill Ruins Park is a novel piece of Minneapolis history. A bike trail runs right through it, too!

Next to the Mill Ruins Park is St. Anthony Falls, famed for being the only natural waterfall on the Upper Mississippi River. Now the falls are part of a lock and damn system (the first on the Mississippi), but is located in a cute, quirky, and artsy neighborhood (St. Anthony main) filled with unique cafes, restaurants, an independent film theater (St. Anthony Main Theatre), and numerous family-friendly parks.

The biking culture in Minneapolis is as diverse as the weekly local forecast. Just as the locals adapt to abrupt weather changes, they accept all forms of biking—from groups of cyclists training for races, folks riding for fitness, daily commuters, and casual riders—everyone is welcome.

The city also hosts several bicycle advocacy programs and committees to ensure safety and fun. From the Bike Walk Ambassador program, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, and the Midtown Greenway Coalition—active participation from the bicycling community means that it’s not just city legislators who have a voice in how the city’s bicycling lanes and trails are planned, but also the bicycling community.

If you want to get out of the city and explore the rest of Minnesota, there are numerous paved, state trails. The Willard Munger trail will bring you up to Duluth, located about three hours north of Minneapolis. Located on Lake Superior, Duluth is a popular (yet relaxed) summer getaway spot for many Minnesotans. The Gitchi-Gami trail in northern Minnesota runs along abandoned portions of Highway 61 (which Bob Dylan made famous with his album “Highway 61”), totals 25 miles, and runs along the scenic north shore of Lake Superior.

Minneapolis is also home to numerous bike shops, including the Hub Bicycle Co-Op, a worker owned and operated business. Natural Solutions spoke with Brandon Wells, a worker-owner of the Hub. To read this interview, log on to naturalsolutionsmag.com and search for “The Power of the Pedal.”