Medium-Distance, Car-Free Bicycle Trips from Boston

Maybe you travel around the city using a bicycle, and maybe you have spent weekends along the river or on bike trails. When you are not biking, you use the T. You like the exercise, you like the idea of traveling without overusing energy or contributing to pollution, and you like the freedom and the pace of seeing the city on two wheels. Now you would like to try something a bit longer. You don't have to get a car and a bike rack, to enjoy some of the countryside outside of Boston. With a bit of planning, you can use a combination of public transportation and pedal power to see the Cape and the Islands, the North Shore, and beyond.

You currently do not need to get a "Bikes on the T" pass. You will want to carry schedules for lines that go into the area you choose. Schedules are on the web at http://www.mbta.com. Remember that you can't take bikes on the T inbound during the morning rush or outbound in the evening rush. The rush hours are indicated on the schedule (I have seen some conductors allow bikes on during the rush, but I wouldn't count on it. The T as an organization is not overly friendly to bikes, but the conductors are very helpful, and riding the train with a bike is a comfortable experience. When you board, go to the conductor on the platform and he/she will direct you to a good location in the car to sit with your bike.

You might also want to get books and bike maps from any local bike store. The bike maps list phone numbers for ferrys, which are good transportation for bicycles. Buses can also be used, but call the company first, as rules vary. Amtrak is rather hostile toward bikes. You can bring them only on trains with baggage cars, and those are few these days. The old Train 66 overnight from Washington to Boston and the 67 in the other direction had baggage cars and a sleeper. It was expensive but a great way to travel.

Whatever else you bring, be sure to bring a spare tube, and also a few tools, plenty of water, and a change of clothing. There are plenty of bike shops around, but they may not be opened when you need them, and a flat tire can be a very minor irritation indeed if you have a spare tube and the ability to install it. Water... You can never have too much water. I use a Camelbak with two liters, and there are times when I finish it before finding a place to fill it. Clothing adds weight so don't bring too much, but remember that one of the nicest feelings in the world is that of putting on a clean dry long-sleeved T-shirt when you get on the train feeling a bit chilled, sweaty, and tired, after a day of biking.

Use the technology. Riding the bike is about getting a bit close to nature, but you'll really be glad you had a mobile phone with you when one of your travel companions says, "There are only five of us now and we started with six." Also, a hand-held GPS can clip onto your handlebars. My GPS is a Garmin Etrex Legend, which mounts on the handlebars with an optional mounting bracket, and is great for guiding you and keeping a record of where you have been. See the Cape Cod map below, where the green line is our track from July 16-17, 2005. It has basic maps with major roads, but not the details of the back roads I enjoy using. It is possible to load more detailed maps of a small area, but I have not found the need for that. I load in waypoints from a map before the trip, and it makes navigation in unfamiliar areas much easier. Still be sure to bring a map, as you might need it if you get off course, or if you enter a waypoint incorrectly.

Old technology: For the maps below, I used a combination of DeLorme StreetAtlas 6.0 or 2006, and . maps.google.com The DeLorme software allows you to plan a route, and transfer it to the GPS, and maps.google.com lets you check it against satellite photos, and gives you an idea of what you will see. The DeLorme software doesn't really do what I want it to, and I actually prefer the older version 6.0 to the 2006 version. I have modified the speed tables to be consistent with bicycling. In 6.0, I could keep two speed and swap between them with a DOS command so I could use the same software for planning car trips and bike trips. I haven't figured out how to do the same in 2006. My GPS uses a serial port instead of USB, and I had some trouble getting it going (defective com port on the computer), but it did finally connect to the mapping software. On the software side, there is a lot of room for improvement. This type of travel seems to fit in a niche between hiking and car travel, which no one has tried to fill. If anyone knows of something better, let me know.

More on GPS. More recently, I've converted to Linux, and found gpsbabel to transfer data from the GPS to my computer, and two websites for generating maps.

First is gpsvisualizer which is very simple to use, but gets a bit more complicated if you want to save the map. Gpsvisualizer has a nice feature in that you can input a url (which could be a link to a Google map, and convert to .gpx. Plan your route with Google maps (use the bike option but then turn off the bike features on the map to show route numbers. For some reason they disappear when in bike mode). Alter the route if you wish. Then click the "link" button to make a short url link to the map. Go to gpsvisualizer, use that link as source, and convert to gpx. You can then save the .gpx file and upload to your device.

The second is www.everytrail.com , which requires registration and a bit more work, but gives you filespace to save your maps. This site doesn't allow you to plan a route, although you can display a planned route by uploading the .gpx file created in gpsvisualizer. Here are the Cape Cod track from our 2006 trip, and the Cranberry Ride from 2005. Click on the text above the map to see a bigger map. When you do, you can get a full-screen map, or even plot the elevation along the trip. You can drag these maps around and zoom just as with any Google map. There are some photos on the 2008 trip.

Big Map of Cape Cod Trip
Big Map of Cranberry Ride

Here are a couple of thoughts before you start. Drivers of cars will often be better behaved than you expect. You will hear a horn or two in a trip of 60 miles, but most drivers will either pass you safely or wait behind you until they can get by in the opposite lane. It is best if you make the decision; Claim the whole lane by riding in the middle when you feel unsafe being passed. In most of the towns along the way, there is plenty of food, and we have found restaurant and snack-bar people willing to fill our water bottles, and to provide help with directions. They are not so generous in sharing their potties, however. Any time you have an opportunity to "go," take it! Look at beaches, etc., but don't be surprised if some public rest rooms are locked at all times except the middle of the summer season.

Here are some rides we have taken. All of these assume that you will ride up to about 50 miles per day. With these as guides, you can make changes to suit your taste in scenery, distance, lodging, etc. You can find more of my trips under my name at EveryTrail.

Cape Cod: Plymouth-Provincetown

This is my favorite trip, and one I've done with friends, students, and former students, every year since 1999.

Take the train to Plymouth (or Kingston) Station. Route 3A is mostly through the sprawl of Plymouth, but has occasional scenic spots. It's just about 20 miles from the Plymouth railhead to the Sagamore Bridge. Cross the bridge (Walk, don't ride), and after the shopping strip on the left, take a hard left. Go as far as you can, and turn right. You will shortly rejoin 6A.

Alternately, if you are hungry already, ride 6A (big 4-lane undivided road but only for a short distance) just a bit beyond the bridge, to a pizza shop on the left. This used to be Anthony's Pizza with good calzones, pizzas, espresso, and Italian pastry, but it was sold in the winter of 2008.

If you continue another 10 miles or so, there is an ice cream place on the left that also has good lunch food. I'm looking for a better choice at this time

Then ride to somewhere around Brewster along Route 6A. Most of Route 6A is easy riding, and the drivers are reasonbly considerate, although it seems they get a bit more testy toward the end of the season. The scenery looks like mostly former farmland, with some roads to the left leading to the beach. Food is plentiful, as is good espresso. The road is narrow, so claim the lane when you need it. Plymouth to Brewster is about 55 miles. There are B&B, motels, and camping in the area. Reservations are recommended. It may be hard to get a room for only one night, but it is possible.

We have had good luck at the Hostel in Eastham. It makes the first day's ride a bit long and the second a bit short, but that just leaves more time for the beach on the second day. There are plenty of places to eat within a mile, and the staff can help with directions. http://www.usahostels.org/cape/himc/index.shtml . A note about directions: After the center of Brewster, at milepost 31 on 6A, you reach Nickerson State Park. This would a a good spot for camping. If you are continuing to the Hostel, or starting the second day from a hotel in Brewster, turn into the park, turn right and head back along the parking lot. There are restrooms with water there Then turn right and cross under 6A on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. The rail trail fizzles out for a while near Rock Harbor. For the Hostel, ride to the left, to Rock Harbor, and then along the Rock Harbor Road to Bridge Street.

From Brewster or Eastham, we rode the rail trail to Lecount Hollow. I'm told it gets crowded, but on a Sunday morning, it is usually not. It is a fun, fast ride with a few street crossings. Frequently we stop at Marconi Beach, which requires a detour of about 2 miles each way. There is a bike rack, changing facilities, restrooms, and water, at the beach. There is no food. Lecount Hollow is followed by a bit of a climb which is rewarded with a great view of the ocean, and then we return to the bay side of the Cape, continuing for the most part along local roads and then route 6A into Provincetown. If you get there early enough, you can spend some time at the beaches before returning for the ferry to Boston. Go through town to Herring Cove, which has restrooms, water, and changing rooms with showers. There are many places to eat in Provincetown, and plenty of time for a nice dinner before boarding the boat. Total travel was about 110 miles in 2 days.

This is not a really difficult ride, but it does involve some longer distances, with a few hills, and I would not recommend it for a first ride, simply because "There is no Plan B." If you encounter bad weather, have mechanical trouble, or become tired, there is little choice but to proceed. The intercity busses do not take bikes, it's almost impossible to get into a hotel room on short notice, and there are few other transportation alternatives. Recently, a local bus service has started on the Cape, from Barnstable to Provincetown, and these busses have bike racks, so it might in fact be possible to get to the boat at Provincetown from somewhere along the route. Nevertheless, if you have doubts about your ability to finish the trip, it would be wise to start with another trip. We encountered Hurricane Charlie in 2004. After waiting out the worst of it, we shortened the route a bit by using US Route 6 from Lecount Hollow to North Truro. That saved perhaps 4 miles (and maybe a few hills).

Check with Bay State Cruises for ferry service from Provincetown to Boston. Reservations are recommended.


Plymouth-Falmouth-Martha's Vinyard

Start out the same way as the previous trip. Then, head down the bike path along the canal (get there from Route 6A in Sandwich... Turn left after the shopping places after the bridge, go behind the post office, and over or through the fence), and then head toward Woods Hole. The Shining Sea Bike Path is short, and often crowded but very enjoyable, as it takes you from Woods Hole to Falmouth. Total from Plymouth is about 52 miles. There are numerous hotels and other lodgings for any budget in Falmouth.

Plan to take the early morning ferry (Martha's Vineyard Ferry Island Queen ) to Oak Bluffs. From there, we took the North Road and Lambert's Cove road down to Menemsha. There are several places for lunch, ranging from deli to clam shack. There is a small bike ferry ($4.00 per bike, 6 at a time as of 1999. The Boston Globe reported it still running in an article on 16 July 2006.), to Gay Head. Ask anyone in Menemsha where to get the bike ferry. It runs on demand during the day, and is a very short ride. We rode around to the Gay Head light, and back up the Middle Road, around the airport, and back to Oak Bluffs. Total distance here was about 55 miles. Then, we caught the evening ferry back to Falmouth for dinner, and returned to Plymouth the next morning. Total travel was about 160 miles in 3 days.




Ipswich-Newburyport-Andover


June 2009: Note that the Parker River Bridge on Route 1A is now opened. It was closed in the summer of 2008, and reopened ahead of schedule. The trip map below shows our route in 2008. The very straight line is along Route 1, to detour around the brige that was closed at the time.

East Side: Route 1A from Ipswich to Newburyport is wide, quiet, flat, and scenic. The route shows some side streets off of 1A, but the main road is so sparsely traveled, and so scenic, that we didn't take them. Newburyport is a way-too-cute New England seaside town, almost a theme-park replica of itself, but a good coffee stop. You might even consider buying something for lunch later, as food stops are few and limited along the way. On the north end of town, on Water Street just north of State Street, just past all the cute little touristy shops, there is a white wooden building with restrooms where you can refill water bottles. There are restrooms in the basement of the arts center, but the sinks have automatic faucets that only dispense warm water.

Option 1: The first time, we head west along some back roads, including some dirt, (The street signs in this area are few, and it is easy to get lost.), eventually ending up in conservation land in West Newbury. The map indicates a road, but if it ever was one, it was dirt, and it's now just a path. After heavy rains, it might not be passable by bike, but it follows the Merrimack River and provides some excellent views.

Option 2 (better): More recently, we take the track shown, which goes along the north side of the river. Going out of Newburyport, we continue along Commercial Street to the Chain Bridge. We cross over, and then take the first major left, and follow River Road (be careful of early left turns into local roads) down to Rocks Bridge, where we return to the south bank at West Newbury. There is a portion of the road which is closed to cars, but still open to pedestrians and bikes.

West Side: From there we go down to Groveland, West Boxford, and North Andover, and into Andover for the train back to North Station. Eating places are a bit limited, and are mostly pizzerias. Don't hold out for better food further along the route, as it really doesn't get any better. There is a ``bad-stuff store'' near the train station in Andover. Total for the trip is about 42 miles if you don't get lost. We have also done this trip in reverse, to accomdate train schedules. It's a bit tricky beteween Groveland and Andover, and the GPS really helps. This is a nice ride with alternate stations. In the forward route, you can cut off about 10 miles by going from Groveland to Haverhill instead of Andover. There are some nice coffee places in Haverhill near the train station. In reverse, you can terminate at Newburyport or Rowley.
Ipswich to Andover, MA at EveryTrail


Rockport-Ipswich-Newburyport with Plum Island


June 2009: Note that the Parker River Bridge on Route 1A is now opened. It was closed in the summer of 2008, and reopened ahead of schedule.

Here is a simple 34-mile trip from the railhead at Rockport to Newburyport, with a detour out to Plum Island. This trip is noteworthy for good scenery at any time of year, mostly wide roads with good shoulders and few hills, and moderate traffic. Directions are very simple. From the Rockport railhead, turn right out of the parking lot and then turn right on 127. You may want to go the opposite way on 127 and explore the town and beaches first. The town is all a little too cute for my taste, but the beaches are nice. Route 127 takes you into Gloucester, past the Seaman statue and across the bridge to Route 133. Turn north and continue to Ipswich, where 133 joins 1A. When 133 turns off in Rowley, stay with 1A, to the traffic light at Rolfes Lane just before the Newburyport town line. Turn right on Rolfes, and right again at the end. Head out past the airport to Plum Island. You can continue down to the southern end of the island, adding about 14 miles to the trip. If you are a birder, don't miss that area, which is among the best in the state. Returning to 1A, head north and quickly turn left on Parker Street for a short ride up to the Newburyport railhead just beyond the rotary on route 1. If you choose to stop in Newburyport, State Street also goes to the rotary.

There are many other variations on this basic trip. You can shorten the trip by starting in Gloucester or West Gloucester (See West Gloucester to Haverhill trip below), or you can shorten it even more by starting in Ipswich. You can add any number of side trips such as Crane's Beach (Look for Castle Neck on the map), from a road just south of Ipswich. Get a map and pick almost any side road going east.


There are a number of roadside eating places along the main route, including the famous Ipswich Clam Box, a couple miles north of the center of town.


There are not too many trains going this way on the weekends, so plan carefully. However, this is a good starter trip, with lots of alternative train stations. Take your bike map and commuter rail map. One variation we have done was from Ipswich to Rockport by way of Crane's Beach. After Rockport we had some extra time and rode 127 down as far as Manchester.

West Gloucester to Haverhill


Here's another variation on the Northside rides above. This one goes from West Gloucester (Remind the conductor to stop, because it is a flag stop. If the train doesn't stop, it's only another 3 miles or so to Gloucester.). This one has easy directions, and plenty of "Plan B" stations. You can end at Ipswich, Rowley, or Newburyport. After that, you are committed to going at least to Haverhill. You can add another 10 miles by continuing to Andover following the Ipswich-Andover route above.
West Gloucester to Haverhill, MA at EveryTrail

Map created by EveryTrail: GPS Community


Cranberry Ride: Middleboro to Plymouth or Kingston

This is a relatively flat, 32-mile ride on mostly lightly travelled roads through some very scenic cranberry country. In several places, the road is adjacent to lakes, ponds, cranberry bogs, and other scenic vistas. Start at the Middleboro/Lakeville railhead, and after a couple of miles of rather ugly intersections, malls, and other assorted unpleasantness, you are on Rocky Gutter Road, and you will not see much traffic again until you are well into Plymouth near the end of the ride. Rocky Gutter Road is unpaved (It is conservation land, and is closed to motor vehicles), and may be a bit difficult on a street bike with narrow tires. I had no trouble on my hybrid. In any event, the unpaved portion is only about 2 miles. Things got a bit confusing around Popes Point Road and Eda Avenue, and we ended up going a bit astray, but the extra cost was perhaps a mile or so. Just before South Carver, there is a nice sandy-bottom town beach. There are no restrooms or changing area. Heading up into the Miles Standish State Forest, you will find quiet roads with many kettle ponds, including College Pond which has a nice beach with changing facilities, restrooms, and water. When Andy and I did this trip in 2005, the bridge was out on Clifford Road. This was no problem, as we simply followed Sandwich Road north until it joined Route 3A. If you are running late, this is actually a bit of a shortcut. The one thing we lost was the chance to stop at Plymouth Beach, for a quick swim in the Bay. This beach also has restrooms and food. From there, it's a short trip on rather uninteresting suburban roads to the railhead at Plymouth or Kingston. Trains alternate between these stations on weekends, so pay attention to the schedule and be sure you know which station to use.

Steve and I did this trip in late September 2007, and got to see a bit of the cranberry harvest. Arriving a bit early, we stopped for a while a Plymouth Beach to pass some time before train time.

This is perhaps one of the most rural of the routes on this page, and there are limited opportunities for food, water, or restrooms. Make sure your bottle is full when you leave Middleboro. The road signs are, like most of those in Massachusetts, a bit sparse. We had very good luck by entering the waypoints shown on the map to a GPS. The waypoints are named for the street onto which you turn, and are deliberately a short distance along the street so that the GPS will point you in the right direction at the intersection. The Lakeview Road waypoint, coming from Route 58, seems to be incorrectly located, by a couple tenths of a mile, but it is the only obvious road, and there is a sign. The train schedule is quite sparse on weekends, so plan carefully. With a major swimming stop and a couple of shorter stops we made it comfortably in a total of 4 hours, averaging 12MPH when moving. There is nothing at either of the train stations, so if you arrive too early for the train, stop in the center of Plymouth for refreshments.

For a beginner, it's an easy ride, but the directions are a bit complicated without a GPS, and there are few alternatives to shorten the route.
Cranberry Ride at EveryTrail


Fells Loop

Here's a short ride if you don't want to deal with the trains. There are not many ways out of the city that are pleasant to ride, but this is one that has relatively short stretches of dense traffic. From Porter Square, head out through Somerville, up the Mystic Valley Parkway along the three Mystic Lakes. Sandy Beach looks good for swimming although I haven't actually tried it yet. The loop around the Fells Reservation has a couple of modest hills. Most of the route follows roads that are lightly traveled by cars, and have wide enough shoulders. There are a number of variations on this trip to explore, going further to the east, out near the Stone Zoo, etc. There are commuter rail stations in Winchester, Melrose, and Medford, for the beginners, who want to shorten the trip. Fells Loop at EveryTrail

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