Sunday, March 29, 2020

Ride: The Rock Island Trail

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Rock Island Line was a mighty good road for getting between Chicago and a variety of locations in the central United States.  But by the 1980s, the line had been shut down and its equipment sold to other companies.  Today, the old Rock Island Line right of way through Lincoln, Nebraska is a mighty good way to travel north and south through the city.

The rail company that was destined to become the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad was incorporated in 1847, and construction of its first stretch of track began in 1851 in Illinois between Chicago and Joliet.  It continued to grow to the west and to the south, eventually servicing much of the central United States: Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City, with branches into Texas, New Mexico, and other surrounding states.  But, like most other railroads in the United States, freight and passenger service began to decline in the second half of the 1900s, and the Rock Island Line ceased operations in 1980.

One of the Rock Island Line's stops was in Lincoln, where it made a long sweeping arc from the southwest corner of the city into downtown before continuing on to the north.  Today, two clear reminders of the railroad remain: the old depot building at 20th and O Streets, and the bike trail bearing the rail line's name.

The Rock Island Trail starts out in the north at the Lincoln Children's Zoo, near the intersection of 27th and Capitol Parkway, and is accessible via its connection with the Billy Wolff trail.  The trail heads south through the Antelope Park and Memorial Park greenspaces, curving gently to the west as it heads through parks and neighborhoods.  After about two and a half miles, the trail intersects with the Helen Boosalis and Tierra Williamsburg trails and crosses over Nebraska Highway.  From there, it continues to the southwest through more neighborhoods, eventually ending at Densmore Park soon after crossing Old Cheney Road.  At this point, you can turn around and ride the five miles back to your starting point along the same trail, or you can take the SouthPointe trail to the east until it links up with the Tierra Williamsburg trail, which will take you back to the bridge over Nebraska Highway.  

Whichever route you take, the Rock Island Trail is a nice 10+ mile out-and-back or semi-loop.  You can start planning your route on the Wireless Bike Map.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Ride: Los Alamos Back Gate

Los Alamos, New Mexico sits in the Jemez Mountains on the edge of the Valles Caldera, a giant ancient volcano.  Well known for its role during World War II, today the town serves as the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory and as a tourism destination for history buffs, skiers, hikers, and bikers.  The town has a variety of on- and off-road biking routes, most of which require some level of climbing up hills.

In the 1940s, Los Alamos was a secret town on the mesatops west of Santa Fe.  At that time there were checkpoints on the roads into town, and only people with authorization could enter or leave.  The town opened up and grew over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, with the laboratory moving from what is now downtown Los Alamos to its current location one mesa to the south.  As the town became more open and the laboratory's mission changed, the previous guard booths on the eastern and southern entrances to town became obsolete.  Today, what remains of them are the guard tower that can be seen on highway 502 and the small guard building at the back gate on highway 501.  These are now both public highways that take you into town and out the Caldera and Bandelier National Monument, respectively.

The ride from downtown Los Alamos to the back gate is about six miles each way, ranging from around 7300 feet at its start to around 7800 feet as you head toward the old guard shack.   A good place to start is at Ashley Pond, right in the middle of downtown.  From there, head west down Central Avenue, making use of the painted bike lane.  When you get to the high school, turn left onto Diamond Drive, following it south past the hospital.  The painted bike lane ends at West Road, so that's a good place to get up onto the wide sidewalk to cross Omega Bridge across Los Alamos Canyon.  On the other side of the bridge, keep following the path until it hits West Jemez Road. 

West Jemez Road runs through Los Alamos National Laboratory, and it is generally pretty deserted on the weekends.  The next mile of the ride is a long, slow climb up 400 feet until you  get to the vehicle access point on the  west edge  of the Laboratory.  From there the road curves south and turns into rolling hills until  you get to the back gate.  You'll first  see the old guard building from the top of the last hill, just as you descend into Water Canyon.  After climbing back out of it, you'll have earned your rest when you reach the old building and the intersection with NM4.

At this point, you can turn around and head back to the pond for a 12-mile out-and back.  Be sure to stop at the vehicle access point on the way back - they should acknowledge you and wave you through.  But if you want to extend your ride and do some more climbing, you can make your ride into a loop by heading east on NM4, riding through the town of White Rock, and then riding back to Los Alamos via the truck route on East Jemez Road.  This makes a loop of approximately 30 miles, including 1000 feet of climbing between White Rock and Los Alamos.

Los Alamos, New Mexico is full of rides.  Explore the trails and the roads on the Wireless Bike Map.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Ride: Montreal

Montreal, QC is sometimes referred to as "the most European city in North America", and when you're wandering around Old Montreal it is easy to see why.  The architecture, the street layout, and the language all hide the fact that you are less than 50 miles from Vermont.  This heritage is also evident in its biking infrastructure, which is much more in par with European cities than fellow North American cities.

Montreal takes up much of the Island of Montreal, a large island surrounded by the St. Lawrence River and the Rivière des Prairies.  Th settlement that is now called Montreal was founded in the mid 1600s by French colonists, and its history included many invasions by European and North American forces.  These culminated with its surrender in 1760 to British forces, which eventually led to its inclusion in the country of Canada.  It has grown into an economic hub over its long history, and it has hosted world-class events such as a World's Fair in 1967 and the Olympics in 1976.

Montreal has some of the best biking infrastructure in North America.  While it is hard to cover an entire city in one post, it's easy to cover a few aspects of what makes its bikeability great.

Downtown Protected Paths

Montreal's city center and the surrounding areas are covered with street-side protected bike paths and other bike lanes.  While the lanes themselves are sometimes roughly paved, the wide coverage makes it easy to go long distances within the city without resorting to sharing lanes with cars.  

In-city Recreation and Commuting

The Lachine Canal was build across the Island of Montreal in the early1800s to bypass the Lachine Rapids.  The canal was made obsolete in the 1950s with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which was larger and enabled more modern shipping.  The canal is still used by smaller recreational watercraft, and paved biking path runs along its length.  Starting out in the north on the southern edge of Old Montreal, the trail follows the canal its full length, ending at René Lévesque park.

Remote Riding Within the City

The Saint Lawrence Seaway's main navigation channel is separated from the rest of the Saint Lawrence River by a thin strip of land, and the path on top of this separator makes for a long, easy ride within sight of Montreal itself.  Starting out at Parc Jean-Drapeau, the path heads south before turning west toward the RécréoParc at Sainte-Catherine.  You can turn around and ride back from there, making an out-and-back of around 21 miles.  Alternatively, you can head back to town via the ice control structure that crosses to Nuns' Island.  Winding through some neighborhoods from there leads to the Lachine Canal path, which will take you back north to Old Montreal.  A quick trip past the architecturally interesting Habitat 67 will then lead back to Parc Jean-Drapeau, making a scenic loop.

Montreal is a great city to explore by bike.  Start your trip by exploring it from overhead at the Wireless Bike Map.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Ride: The I&M Canal

In the early days of Chicago, you could get from the Gulf of Mexico all of the way to the outskirts of the city via water: first the Mississippi, and then the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers.  But a rise in the land prevented any rivers from going all of the way to Lake Michigan, resulting in a stretch where goods being shipped via river had to be ported over the land.  In the mid 1800s, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was built to allow shipping all of the way to Chicago and Lake Michigan, and today a bike path runs along two thirds of the path of the original canal.

The I&M Canal was built between 1836 and 1848, connecting the Illinois river near Peru, Illinois with the Chicago River at Bridgeport.  When it was completed, the canal was 96 miles long, had 15 locks and five aqueducts, and transported boats up and down the 141 foot elevation change between the Illinois and Chicago rivers.  A towpath on each side allowed mules to pull boats up and down the canal's length.  Since mules could cover about ten miles a day on the route, towns grew up along its path at about that interval.  For decades, the canal was the easiest way to get goods to an from the growing city of Chicago.

By the late 1800s, new technology was starting to make the canal obsolete.  The steam engine had been perfected, and railroads were taking over as the primary means for moving goods and people.  Traffic along the canal dropped year by year, and the canal started falling into disrepair.  Meanwhile, the much larger Sanitary and Shipping Canal was being built along a parallel route, making the I&M Canal redundant.  Finally, the canal was officially closed in 1933 when the Illinois Waterway project provided an alternate path that could handle much larger and more modern shipping equipment.

Old transportation paths tend to make great multi-use recreational trails, and the I&M Canal is no exception.  Today, there is a 62-mile crushed limestone path that runs from Channahon in the east to Peru in the west, following the original towpaths along the canal.  Along the route, you can see much of the canal infrastructure still in place: locks, locktenders' houses, and aqueducts.  While the entire 62 miles can be ridden, it is also easy to access the trail from any of the towns along its path or from a few other access points.

Starting at the highest point on the route in Channahon State Park, the main trail heads southwest.  The first major sight is also one of the best: the Aux Sable aqueduct, lock, and locktender's house, which is about eight miles from Channahon.  The next real stop is six miles further west in Morris, where Gebhard Woods makes a nice place to stop for a rest.  More towns mark your progress as you continue west: Seneca after 10 miles, and Marseilles after another six miles.  Each of these has their own sights and amenities.  After crossing the Fox River Aqueduct, another six miles down the road, you'll end up riding through the edge of Buffalo Rock State Park six miles farther.  From there, it's another 10 miles to the end of the trail at Peru.

While the trail can be busy when it passes through towns, the stretches between towns are generally devoid of other users.  The trail's many access points make it easy to pick up and ride for shorter distances, but it also makes a great bikepacking trail: several on-trail campsites are easy to find on the western edge, and more are available in state parks that are near the trail.  You can start planning your short or long trip at the Wireless Bike Map.

Ride: The Keystone Trail

Omaha, Nebraska is a very hilly city, and the smoothest way to get from one end of town to another is usually to follow one of the streams t...