Although they lag behind their European counterparts, American cities are becoming more and more bike-friendly. A growing number are launching bike sharing schemes—New York and Chicago being the latest—and bike lanes continue to grow in mileage nationwide.
While bike lanes are nice (when they’re not blocked by double-parked cars, that is), nothing quite puts cycling on par with driving like a dedicated bike path. A great path can make city cycling a truly different experience: you can skip traffic, commune with nature and see the city from a new angle. In some cases, paths can even get you out of town as fast as you can pedal.
Some bike paths, naturally, stand out for truly elevating the quality of life in their cities. The 19 we found—some of which we’ve ridden ourselves—ought to be celebrated and emulated, and even built upon and improved.
To determine which ones meet this standard, though, we first had to ask what makes a great bike path.
For starters, many on our list are important commuting arteries that give cyclists direct access to business districts while avoiding city traffic and making few street crossings. A few, like Boston’s Minuteman Bikeway or Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail, were even designed, in part, to bring commuters in from the suburbs where they’d otherwise be out of reach of mass transit.
Almost all are paved, and those that aren’t are well surfaced with finely crushed rock and graded for ease of riding.
Most importantly, though, a great bike path is separate from traffic for all or most of its length. Our selections, for the most part, are rail trails, which are former railway lines that have been paved over and converted for non-motorized use. With one exception that was too good to leave out—San Francisco’s Embarcadero, in case you’re wondering—these paths are only occasionally broken by segments where cyclists have to share the road with cars. (All but one are multi-use, though, meaning they’re open to pedestrians, inline skaters, and, in some cases, horses.)
They also happen to be exceptionally beautiful. All but three of these bike paths run alongside a body of water, and almost all are bounded by parkland, giving cyclists a decidedly non-urban respite from the stress of city riding.
We also looked at other factors: Does the path offer exceptional views of, and access to, the city? Is it good for recreational riders and tourists? Does the city take pride in it?
While there’s no objective way to say one bike path is the best, we will say these are all strong contenders and there are doubtless many more we missed. Let us know in the comments.
Click here for America's 19 Best City Bike Paths.
Lake Monona Bike Path—Madison, Wisc.
The 13-mile paved loop around Lake Monona isn’t separated from traffic for its entire length, but it will take you through downtown Madison, one of the most bikeable cities in the country. Because there are relatively few hills, you can take in the entire lake in only an hour to an hour and a half, during which you’ll get plenty of views of the Capitol and pass by a popular picnic spot, the University Arboretum, and other paths in Madison’s extensive network.
Mount Vernon Trail—Northern Virginia
While not technically in the District of Columbia, this 17-mile paved path starts a footbridge away from Washington’s Theodore Roosevelt Island and gives a panoramic view of the city’s monuments from just across the Potomac. Before ending at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate, the trail grazes Reagan National Airport and Arlington National Cemetery, and passes through the city of Alexandria. The southern part takes cyclists through a wooded, marshy nature preserve, so riders can fill up on peace and quiet before heading back and taking one of the connecting paths into the capital.
The Embarcadero and Golden Gate Bridge—San Francisco
If you’ve ever wondered how this famously hilly city consistently ends up on lists of most bikeable cities, look no further than its network of low ground-seeking bike lanes and paths. The city’s most scenic bike route also follows this pattern, tracing the shoreline along the Embarcadero for just over two miles—beware, this section is only a bike lane—before feeding into SF Bike Route 2 (yes, there are numbered bike routes here) and then eventually, the Golden Gate Bridge, the west sidewalk of which is for bikes only. Not only does this path circumscribe a generous portion of the city, but it showcases the best of San Francisco: you’ll pass Fisherman’s Wharf, the sea lions at Pier 39, and Telegraph Hill, all while taking in gorgeous views of the bay.
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