Asked to name the nation's top cycling destinations, most bicycling enthusiasts would probably include the snow-capped Rocky Mountains towering over Boulder, Colo.; the wine country of Northern California; the back roads of Vermont; just about anywhere in Maryland . . .
You bet. Featuring nationally known attractions such as the C&O Canal Towpath, a 184-mile trail stretching from Georgetown to Cumberland, the Old Line state is high on most experienced cyclists' list of places for a great bicycle ramble.
And no wonder. With its natural beauty and diversity of terrain packed into a small area, Maryland has long been a popular destination for savvy cyclists.
Yet Maryland also offers a wealth of great bicycling for casual riders in search of quiet roads and great scenery. From the sandy beaches of Assateague Island on the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Plateau in Garrett County, Maryland offers an astounding range of easy cycling. And it's all within a day's drive of Baltimore.
Need more proof? Maryland has so much cycling diversity that bicycle touring is now a big business in the state.
"Both local and out-of-state bicycle touring companies operate in Maryland, and there are inn-to-inn tours that draw visitors," says Blair Barton, president of Barton Dame Inc., publisher of Best Bike Routes in Maryland, a map guide. "And within the state, cycling is a booming sport for all ages."
The recently published 10-map guide features the state's safest and most scenic cycling routes. Plus, the maps pull together a wide range of cycling information for cyclists looking for a great -- Maryland escape: off-road trails for mountain bikers, a compilation of Maryland bike laws, safety information, prohibited routes, bed and breakfast inns, and the location of bike shops.
The guide also includes a chart that lists attractions, including the best cycling routes for enjoying Maryland's variety of ocean, bay, river and lake views.
For the casual cyclist equipped with a map, a bike (tires pumped, chain lubed) and a beautiful spring day, what are some of Maryland's creme de la creme cycling destinations?
Start pedaling nearby
Let's start close to home: Northern Baltimore County and the beautiful horse country in Worthington Valley. Using convenient
Oregon Ridge Park (just off Interstate 83 near Hunt Valley) as a starting point, cyclists can explore many country lanes that meander through the rolling countryside.
A favorite destination is located on Belmont Road, about four miles west of Oregon Ridge: white-fenced Sagamore Farms, once the home of Native Dancer, the race horse that won the Preakness in 1953. In summer, grazing thoroughbreds dot the fields.
Other sights on a Worthington Valley ride include the villages of Butler and Boring -- great stops to grab a cold drink and browse for antiques. Western Run, a small stream that winds through the valley, provides several cool, shady places to stop and relax on a sunny afternoon. And keep an eye peeled for equestrians in jodhpurs.
For a more sedate ride -- no traffic, no hills -- try the North Central Rail Trail, a 20-mile rails-to-trails conversion that starts near Paper Mill Road in Cockeysville and continues north to the Mason-Dixon Line.
The former railroad right-of-way passes through scenic countryside, with frequent views of Gunpowder Falls, farmland and forests. The old railroad right-of-way is also historic -- Abraham Lincoln rode the North Central to deliver his Gettysburg Address in 1863.
Eastern Shore trips
For more easy spins, turn your attention east to everyone's favorite part of the state -- the Eastern Shore. When it comes to scenic, easy bicycling, it can't be beat. The wide, lightly traveled roads transport the cyclist to a world of Colonial charm, watermen tonging for oysters from skipjacks and migrating waterfowl.
The No. 1 cycling destination on the Eastern Shore is a circuit ride through the town of Easton and the villages of St. Michaels and Oxford. The loop can easily be extended to include the Chesapeake Bay fishing village of Tilghman Island.
Where else can you get views of farms and waterfront and ride across the Tred Avon River on the Oxford-Bellevue ferry -- all in a 15-mile, virtually hill-less loop? An insiders' hint: Plan your trek to include a lunch stop at the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, a restaurant featuring great crab cakes and a view of sailboats docked in the harbor. And when passing through St. Michaels, be sure to visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
South of Easton in Dorchester County awaits another spectacular cycling destination -- the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Riding a bike along its narrow roads that wind through marshes and past tidal pools reveals a world where the bay and the Eastern Shore merge. Don't forget to take binoculars -- the refuge teems with birds and wildlife.