Author Topic: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!  (Read 8443 times)

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Offline whitebirch

Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« on: April 16, 2015, 10:18:04 pm »
Hi everyone!

First post in a long time! My wife and I have a daughter who is currently 8.  We're looking into a cross-country tour in 2017, when she'll be 10. We did a 3 1/2 month tour of Maine, Atlantic Canada, and Quebec when she was 5 (using a Weehoo) and it went great. Then a 2-week tour in Quebec last summer where she was on her own bike w/ a Follow Me attachment for hills/heat/moods.  We expect in two years she'll still be small enough to use a 20" bike and Follow Me, although there's a chance she would graduate to 24" tires in which case the Follow Me won't fit and she'd be completely on her own.

Now we're dreaming about the Big One, and I'd love any thoughts on our preliminary route.  Some background and context:

-- We take our time.  In 2012 we averaged 25 miles/day, five days a week.  Although that pace would be painfully slow for most, we found it just about right for a 5-year old.  For the 2017 trip we would aim for 30 miles/day, 5 days a week, or 150 miles per week.  I suspect that across the plains we'll do better than this, but in the mountains maybe slower.  This means that for a 3,500-mile crossing, we would need about 23 weeks.  We plan to have 6 months off, so that works out just about right.  We'll have 26 weeks or so from March 1 to the end of August, which includes getting back home to Maine.
-- We're especially slooooow on hills, and we have a history of knee problems.  So although we'll take a hilly route if it's a standout (such as the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, one of the highlights of our last trip), all else being equal or nearly so, we'll take a flat road over a hilly road.
-- We like trails, so our daughter can ride without as much supervision or caution.  We did Montreal to Quebec City last summer, almost all on trails, and we had a blast.  I know trails can slow us down, and be dispiriting in the rain, and sometimes you miss cool towns or areas and feel like you're in a green tunnel.  So if we're having those experiences we might switch to nearby roads.  But in general I like the idea of working in as many trails as possible.
-- We are heat-averse.  It's not that we like being cold, but we'd rather be a bit cold than bake in a heat wave.
-- We (I) are history buffs, and we're also birdwatchers and all-around naturalists.
-- If we're way behind, or in a long-term rut, we're keeping the option open of hopping on a bus or train to get across the plains.  Basically if our daughter isn't having fun, no one around her will be having fun.  So we won't punish her and ourselves with a forced march approach.

Ok, given those parameters, here's what I've laid out:

-- Start at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware around March 1.  Ideally we'd start April 1, but in order to get back in time for school the following year, March 1 it is.  If it's a late winter and the nights are still cold, we'll keep camping to a minimum and try Warmshowers, friends, hotels.  If the days are still cold, then we'll just delay or hole up somewhere and wait it out.

-- Bike to DC.  Only drawback is that we have to take a bike shuttle over the Bay Bridge to Annapolis, but we really want to start at the ocean, not the Chesapeake Bay.  And we want to get to DC to pick up the...

-- C&O and GAP to Pittsburgh.  You all saw this one coming, right?  347 miles of off-road bliss?  I've read that the C&O can be muddy in the spring.  If so we'll consider a work-around.  Could also be cold in the Appalachians in March, but we'd rather be cold for a couple weeks in March than baking in July in the midwest.

-- Pittsburgh to Ohio Amish country, and then pick up the Ohio to Erie Trail (which I think is also the Underground Railroad Trail) to Cincinnati.  About half of this segment would be on trails.

-- Cincinnati to St. Louis across southern Indiana and Illinois.  Southern Indiana sounds pretty neat, although maybe a bit hilly in parts.  Southern Illinois sounds a bit more mundane, but flatter!  Any route suggestions in either state would be much appreciated!  I've done a fair amount of research (state bike maps, other trip journals, etc) and have some ideas, but welcome any thoughts.

-- 170 miles or so of the Katy Trail to New Franklin, MO.  From there, cut NW across Missouri to get to Iowa border at Blanchard, where we pick up the...

-- Wabash Trace Trail into Council Bluffs, Iowa.  63 more miles of trail!

-- Follow L&C up the Missouri to at least Sioux City.  Then either cut across northeast Nebraska to Valentine, or else stay on L&C into part of South Dakota and then drop down onto Route 12 in northern Nebraska.

-- Route 20 across northern Nebraska.  I keep reading all sorts of great things about cycling through Nebraska, and this route seems especially promising for low traffic.  We might have to go all day to get from town to town, but that's ok.

-- Wyoming.  This one's a bit of a puzzle still.  We'd cut through Lusk, Douglas and Casper to Shoshone.  Then I can't decide whether to (a) cut north through the Wind River Canyon and Thermopolis to hit Cody and enter Yellowstone from the east, or (b) pick up the Trans Am to go through Grand Tetons and enter Yellowstone from the south.  Anyone know about the first route?  I tried some searches but can't seem to find many reports of this route, although I read on a car-based site that it's a neat road and it doesn't look too bad on the Wyoming DOT Bike Map.  In any case, hoping to reach Yellowstone in early July, before it's too hot on the plains and the crowds are too thick at the park.

-- From Yellowstone NP, head out through the north and take 89 and other roads to Bozeman, then Helena, then maybe Missoula and eventually on to Mullan, Idaho, to pick up the...

-- Coeur d'Alenes Trail.  71 miles of trail bliss?  Really excited when I found out that this is more or less on our route.

-- Cross the Palouse in eastern Washington State, then get to Ellensburg, where we'd pick up the Iron Horse / John Wayne Frontier Trail for 100 miles or so.  Then combination of roads and trails to our endpoint in Seattle.  If we have time, we'd make it all the way to the Pacific at Olympia National Park. 

Ok, that's quite a bit to read through.  If you're still with me, I'd love any feedback!  Any parts of this route you've done and loved?  Done and regretted?  Anything obvious I'm missing? 

Thanks so much!



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Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #1 on: April 17, 2015, 08:31:11 am »
A lot to digest here, but I will note at this point that the Big Savage Tunnel on the GAP usually does not open until some time in April. As the official trail web site points out, there is no easy workaround.

Offline Pat Lamb

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #2 on: April 17, 2015, 10:46:49 am »
A few more notes to think about:

First, if your daughter wants to do this ride, I think age 10 is mature enough that she should be able to handle riding on low-traffic roads. (If SHE doesn't want to do the ride come February 17, fuggitaboutit!)  Also, it seems like most of the viable towns in Wyoming and Montana, and then west from there, are spaced at about 50 miles apart.

Your "southern" Yellowstone route has a huge plus, IMHO: the view from  just west of Togwotee Pass looking to the Tetons is the most spectacular scenery I've seen.  It also has a few minuses: (1) it's a 50 mile ride from the Jackson Lake (last settlement in the Tetons) to West Thumb (first store/grocery/restaurant/campground in Yellowstone); (2) from the Yellowstone gate up to Lewis Falls is a decent climb, with no shoulders, and a steady flow of traffic; and (3) the southeastern corner of Yellowstone has the least to see.  But you'll be close to Old Faithful, and to get out through the north gate, you'll end up riding past plenty of geothermal features and some nice, scenic ridges.  If you stick to 25 miles a day, you can probably grind those miles out starting at dawn and miss most of the tourist traffic in Yellowstone.

Offline whitebirch

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #3 on: April 17, 2015, 11:28:18 am »
Whoa, thanks for the heads up on the Big Savage Tunnel, indyfabz!  My first thought was "Nooooooooooo!  The whole trip is ruined!"  Then I got off the floor, went on the googlewebs, and found out that it's only a 9-mile closed section with an 11-mile detour and a shuttle option.  That sounds very work-aroundable!  So the trip is back on!

Come on, what else you got to throw on me?  Is that the best you can do?    :)


Offline John Nettles

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Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #4 on: April 17, 2015, 12:18:26 pm »
Sounds like a great family trip!  A possible thought (not a suggestion but maybe something to look into) is to finish the Katy Trail in Clinton, take county roads over to Osowatomie, KS, and do the trail to Council Grove, KS then north to Norfolk, NE via county roads and some rail trails.  The New Franklin to IA border will be somewhat hilly but it would be shorter overall.

You do know the Cowboy Trail basically parallels US-20 in Nebraska, correct?

I would suggest the McKelson rail trail in South Dakota and take some time around the Black Hills.  Really nice.

Whatever route you choose, wishing you have a great time!

Offline whitebirch

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #5 on: April 17, 2015, 01:20:14 pm »
Hi John,

Thanks for these ideas.  I hadn't really noticed the Kansas trail possibilities and I'm going to add it our list of possibilities.  That said, I like the idea of heading north from mid-Missouri, as that's the time when we'll be getting more into summer, and as I said before we are heat averse.  I've heard that on average Nebraska (especially northern Nebraska) is a few degrees cooler than Kansas and just as if not more scenic. 

And yes, I've been intrigued by the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska, but from everything I can tell it's still pretty rough going.  I suspect we'll want to make some miles through Nebraska and 20 itself won't be too crowded to bike safely.  Of course, we can always decide when we get there.

I've also given the Mickelson Trail some long looks, but ultimately I think we won't have time to head into the Black Hills and then cut west.  Primarily because then we'd have to cross Wyoming via what seems to be a much hillier route through the Bighorns. 

Thanks again for the ideas and the good wishes!


Offline roadrunner

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #6 on: April 19, 2015, 02:09:41 am »
Like you, whitebirch, I enjoy incorporating trails into tours and minimizing climbing when feasible.  I’ve done some tours which include some of the trails you mentioned and possible alternative routes. 

About 600 of a 1,200-mile tour from Baltimore, MD, to Davenport, IA, were on trails (BWI, Baltimore & Annapolis, and Washington, Baltimore & Annapolis trails in Maryland; the C&O and GAP to Pittsburgh, the Montour and Panhandle trails around Pittsburgh to Ohio; the Kokosing Trail in Ohio; and the Kankakee River, Illinois & Michigan Canal, and Hennepin Canal trails across almost all of Illinois.  That route goes north of the route you’re considering, but it avoids the hills of southern Ohio and Indiana (there was only one day of significant hills in eastern Ohio).  To avoid heavy traffic near D.C., we rode the Metro train from Bowie, MD, into D.C.  I could have continued across Iowa from Davenport to Council Bluffs, much of the way on rail trails.

A nice route west from Council Bluffs is to follow the Platte River to Kearney, NE, where the Oregon Trail route joins the river and follow the Oregon Trail to Portland, OR.  The 2,400-mile trail (I started in Kansas City) minimized hills by following rivers - the Platte and North Platte in NE, Sweetwater in WY, Snake across ID, and Colombia in OR. Numerous historic sites and landmarks line the trail.   Wyoming is the only state where towns are widely spaced.

If you go through Missoula, there are about 150 miles of rail trails between there and Spokane, which I rode last summer – Route of the Olympian, Hiawatha, Coeur d’Alenes, North Idaho Centennial, and Spokane Centennial.  Most of I-90 west of Missoula can be avoid by taking US-93, MT-200, and MT-135 to St. Regis, MT.

Some challenges on your proposed route:
The Katy Trail is a great ride, but from the trail north to Iowa is hill after hill after hill.
 Yellowstone is a terrific park, but has narrow roads, lack of shoulders, heavy traffic, and significant hills.
Journals from riders on the John Wayne/Ironhorse Trail state that much of it is loose ballast.

If you’re interested in details of the routes I mentioned riding, contact me at, and I can send you itineraries and journals of the tours.

Offline OldDogBC

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Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #7 on: April 19, 2015, 10:32:49 am »
Good Morning John,

Great trip and a fantastic experience for your daughter. I have a recommendation for you at the Montana / Idaho border. Before you jump on the Coeur d'Alene Trail in Wallace, do not pass up the Hiawatha Trail. Visit their site for details but it is worth the effort and a day's adventure. I took my kids there last summer (15, 13, 11) and it was really fun. Gravel road / converted rail bed so you do need the right bike set up (I rode my touring bike with Schwalbe Marathon 700 x 35 tires and I was fine). 15ish miles of gentle downhill with a shuttle to take you back up. Amazing tunnels and trestles.

You would have time to do this and then get down into Wallace, ID in a day. The Coeur d'Alene Trail from there down is really an amazing piece of real estate. Perfect riding with a great asphalt surface.

« Last Edit: April 19, 2015, 10:35:13 am by OldDogBC »

Offline adventurepdx

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Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #8 on: April 19, 2015, 02:04:55 pm »
A nice route west from Council Bluffs is to follow the Platte River to Kearney, NE, where the Oregon Trail route joins the river and follow the Oregon Trail to Portland, OR.

One thing to note if you follow the Columbia westward to the Pacific through the Columbia Gorge: The wind blows predominately from the west in the summer, creating quite a fierce headwind if you're heading westward.

Some challenges on your proposed route:
Journals from riders on the John Wayne/Ironhorse Trail state that much of it is loose ballast.

I got the impression that the OP will be heading west on the Iron Horse from Ellensburg WA to Seattle over Snoqualmie Pass. This is the well-maintained gravel section of the trail, and people regularly ride it on road bikes. The section of the John Wayne east of the Columbia River to the Idaho state line is the unimproved section that has loose ballast and closed trestles.

Offline whitebirch

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #9 on: April 19, 2015, 09:55:37 pm »
Thanks for all the feedback and ideas, folks!

In no particular order:

Yes, we'll be picking up the Iron Horse Trail in Ellensburg, where it's supposed to be in better condition.

I like the idea of a side trip on the Hiawatha, and didn't know about the shuttle!  Too good to miss, indeed!

Hill after hill in northwest Missouri.  Hmmm.... Might have to rethink that.  The Wabash Trace Trail sounds great, but maybe it's not worth it if it means hitting tons of hills first.

I think I ruled out the Columbia River Gorge because of the headwinds and also because it sounds pretty busy.  Beautiful, but busy. 

I go back and forth about Yellowstone.  I've read all the pros and cons.  Ultimately I think it's too hard to pass it right by, especially with our daughter seeing it for the first time.  But we might do some hitchhiking to see the geysers, and not try to bike to everything.  And hopefully we can ride early and late to avoid the heaviest traffic.

I originally considered the Oregon Trail route, but the lure of the mountains and beauty in Montana and Idaho are proving too strong.  I also have family in Seattle, so that's a more natural endpoint for us. 

Thanks again to everyone who's posted so far.  I'd love to hear any other thoughts!


Offline cheesehawk

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #10 on: April 24, 2015, 07:33:21 am »
Wisconsin offers a wealth of trails. Following Jane Adams Trail from Freeport Illinois, you can direct connect to the Badger State Trail through to Madison, various trails through Madison to near Sauk City, and then take back country roads to Reedsburg (and pass through Wisconsin Dells along the way - "The Waterpark Capitol of the World," if you are less commercially inclined the Dells themselves are spectacular if you get out in a boat), where you can take the 400, Elroy Sparta (the granddaddy of them all), and La Crosse River State Trail to the Minnesota border. From there you can then head west from La Crosse and catch the Root River Trail, which I just rode last summer and found to be beautiful. The La Crosse-SE Minnesota region is not flat, but things flatten out appreciably just a bit west of the Root River Trail. Due west from there would take you through the Badlands and Black Hills.

This is all a bit north of your current proposed route, with correspondingly cooler weather. Depending on when you would roll through that could be a plus or a minus. You might want to consider mapping out a couple of alternative routes and then flexing north or south depending on the weather.

Offline whitebirch

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #11 on: April 24, 2015, 12:02:35 pm »
Thanks for these ideas, Cheesehawk!  I was vaguely aware that there are lots of trails and good riding in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but it's great to see you link some of them up in this way. 

And it's helpful to have this in the back pocket if we get the urge to head north sooner.  I think we'll probably stay further south to do the Katy Trail and to follow more of the Missouri and L&C routes.  But who knows how it will all shake out.  On our last trip, we were quite clear that we weren't going to do the Cabot Trail because it was so hilly and we wouldn't have time.  But then as we got closer and were in a groove, we went for it and it was one of the best decisions of the trip. 


Offline rickpaulos

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #12 on: April 26, 2015, 12:37:14 am »
-- 170 miles or so of the Katy Trail to New Franklin, MO.  From there, cut NW across Missouri to get to Iowa border at Blanchard, where we pick up the...

-- Wabash Trace Trail into Council Bluffs, Iowa.  63 more miles of trail!

I've done just that.  Those 2 trails are good but FYI, NW Missouri (okay, ALL of Missouri) is VERY hilly once you leave the Katy Trail and the Missouri river bottom.  You will want the lowest gear ratios you can get on your bikes.  A 22t chain ring is no joke.  Proper length crank arms are important too for such endless and steep hills.  (really riding in the Rockies was much easier). 

As someone suggested, the trails across Illinois (I&M and the Henipin canal path) to the Quad Cities, then across Iowa may be a much more enjoyable route.  There are 44 years of Ragbrai routes you could follow in reverse across Iowa.  Just keep off the main highways like US34, US30, US20 and US6 near the bigger cities.  Iowa has roads nearly every mile e-w and n-s with about 20% paved.  Most don't show up on the regular maps and mapping software/sites don't show road surfaces.  Large scale maps will show great roads with nearly no traffic.  That's what Ragbrai typically follows.  From Davenport, take 130 to Tipton, then west to Solon, then Ely.  Or from Davenport, take 22 to Muscatine for some riding along the mighty Mississippi, then west on G28 to the shards of the Hoover trail.  The Cedar Valley Nature trail from Ely to Cedar Falls is quite nice.  Then across the rest of Iowa heading west to north west.  That route will avoid most all the hills in Iowa  (NE, SW, SCentral).

About the Katy Trail.  The rail trail is on the north side of the Missouri river.  Most of the towns are on the south side of the river.  To get to those towns requires a ~2 mile dash across old narrow bridges in traffic.  The tour books recommend calling a cab.  Sure.  Fit 3 bikes in the trunk?  I always just waited for a clear gap in traffic and rode as fast as I could across and I always got caught in traffic.

Offline skibum77

Re: Cross-US Trail-Based Route - Feedback Please!
« Reply #13 on: August 05, 2015, 11:26:43 am »
I'm a little late to this thread, but I wanted to make a little correction about the KATY Trail.  The bridge at Washington, the first crossing west of metro St. Louis, is pretty dangerous for bikes.  However, the crossings at Hermann, Jefferson City, and Boonville all have bike lanes to get across the river.  FWIW, the Washington crossing is scheduled to be replaced with a bridge that has a bike lane, but construction is not scheduled to be finished until 2018 or 2019.