Judging by the brisk sales of two-wheelers, the bicycle has become the most desired object in the pandemic universe. And why not? Cycling gets you out of the house and into the open air. It offers a sorely needed change of scenery — all the better along leafy byways or dedicated bike paths. Here we recommend seven trails suitable for the whole family and largely free of automotive competition. See websites for maps and trailhead parking information.
1. Minuteman Commuter Bikeway | Cambridge to Bedford
One of the region’s most famous rail trails, this heavily used 10-mile route became the 500th rail trail in the country when it was completed in 1993. With more people working from home these days, the morning and evening rush hours have given way to day-long recreational cycling and in-line skating. That said, you’ll also find a lot of joggers and stroller-pushing walkers since the trail passes through some leafy neighborhoods in Arlington and Lexington. (The only tricky road crossings are also in Arlington Center and Lexington Center.) With such mixed usage, especially on weekends, it’s not a pathway for speedsters, despite sporting a smooth 12-foot-wide asphalt surface and clearly marked lanes. You might want to stop at Lexington Green for a remembrance of the Revolution, or in Bedford’s Depot Park to see an old rail passenger car. If you continue along the 4-mile, unpaved Reformatory Branch Trail to Concord, it’s an easy pedal to North Bridge. minutemanbikeway.org
2. Norwottuck Rail Trail | Northampton to Belchertown
A former railroad bridge over the Connecticut River marks one of the more popular trailheads of this quintessential rails-to-trails pathway. Expect easy pedaling along the almost dead-flat 11-mile route through some of the Bay State’s richest farmland. You’ll tunnel through long bowers of mixed oak and maple forest and occasionally emerge under open sky as you pass rich fields in the midst of the autumn harvest. Pre-pandemic, this trail got a workout as a commuter line between Northampton and Amherst, with large parking lots on each end. At Amherst, the route takes a turn into swampy conservation land. If you run into a wet trail at Lawrence Swamp near the Belchertown line, turn around and head back. But do stop at Maple Farm Foods in Hadley (just off the trail) for some local farm produce to take home. mass.gov/locations/norwottuck-rail-trail
3. Cape Cod Rail Trail and/or Province Lands Bike Trail | Cape Cod
Hard-core cycling enthusiasts extol the thrills of biking the 27.5-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail end to end — zipping past kettle ponds, shady woods, pretty villages, and even a marina bristling with masts of sailboats. But a 55-mile roundtrip can be a bit much. One less ambitious slice for a family outing starts at the Orleans parking lot (Old Colony Way) and heads north about 4 miles to the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Salt Pond Visitor Center. From there follow the Seashore’s 1.5-mile bike trail to Coast Guard Beach. For a wilder experience, drive out to the Province Lands Visitor Center in Provincetown. The 5.5-mile paved bike trail can be a challenging workout on the hills and hollows in the surreal dunescape, but the ups and downs have much the feel of riding the trick ramps in a skateboard park. Two extra miles of spurs can take you to Herring Cove Beach, Race Point Beach, and Bennett Pond. mass.gov/locations/cape-cod-rail-trail; nps.gov/caco/planyourvisit/province-lands-bike-trail.htm
4. Canalside Rail Trail | Turners Falls to East Deerfield
If you’re looking for a short and flat trail to pedal with small children, this 3.7-mile paved path along the banks of the old Montague Power Canal and the Connecticut River is just your ticket. The original canal around the “Great Falls” on the Connecticut was cut as a boat bypass, while the 1860s reconstruction of the canal supplied the water power to build a new mill town, now known as Turners Falls. The path is sandwiched between a fairly steep bank grown up in small shrubbery and the broad expanse of the canal. One island even holds the impressive hulking ruins of a defunct power plant. After a short detour on town streets, that final leg crosses an impressive iron rail bridge at the confluence of the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers before ending near the East Deerfield freight yards. If your kids are so small that their bikes have training wheels, you could consider skipping this last half mile. mass.gov/locations/canalside-rail-trail
5. Cheshire Recreational Rail Trail | Fitzwilliam to Keene, New Hampshire
The crushed gravel surface can be a little soft for street bikes, so you might prefer a hybrid model while pedaling this 19-mile path through the leafy woods. Although the trail parallels Route 12 from the Massachusetts state line to Marlboro Street in Keene, New Hampshire, it is surprisingly rustic the whole way, culminating in a quaint stone arch bridge across the Ashuelot River. For the best family trip, start at the trailhead parking across Route 12 from State Line Grocery & Smoke Shop in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. You soon pass the old railroad depot before heading into the woods en route to Troy at the 10-mile point, where another depot has been restored. If you’re pedaling with small children, this is a good place to turn around. Otherwise, it’s back into the maple and birch woods — read red, orange, and yellow fall foliage — before you cruise into Keene. There’s an in-town connector to a more challenging northern spur that goes another 23 miles to North Walpole, but you’ll want the brawnier tires and suspension of a mountain bike for that stretch. nhstateparks.org/visit/recreational-rail-trails/cheshire-recreational-rail-trail
6. Farmington River Trail / Farmington Canal Heritage Trail | Connecticut
Take advantage of two linked trails in western Connecticut for a 28-mile loop that offers some of the finest scenic and small-town cycling in New England. If you’re coming from Eastern Massachusetts, the best access point for the Farmington River Trail is probably the New Britain Avenue parking lot in Farmington. Once you’ve pedaled through Unionville, the broad car-free trail shoots along the Farmington River banks for a total of just over 7 miles into historic little Collinsville. The train depot here houses Lisa’s Crown & Hammer Restaurant & Pub, which offers outdoor dining. Are the youngsters huffing and puffing? If so, this is a delightful turnaround spot. If you continue, there’s a roughly 2-mile stretch on well-marked paved road before you reach Simsbury, arguably New England’s most bike-friendly small town. Follow signs to the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail southward for a nearly straight 11.2-mile return to your car. fchtrail.org/pages/default.asp
7. East Bay Bike Path | Providence to Bristol, Rhode Island
Even if it’s a warm fall day, you’ll enjoy a cool sea breeze on the 14.5-mile journey past the suburban communities along the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay. The wide paved route was completed nearly three decades ago and the lush natural world has filled in the margins nicely. Just south of India Point Park the path crosses several small estuaries, contrasting the industrial port of Providence on one side with preening swans and skimming swallows in the marshes on the other. Two bike path bridges (across the Barrington and Palmer rivers) are closed for construction, so you’ll have to walk your bike on the sidewalks of adjacent auto bridges. It’s worth the effort because the wetlands just north of Bristol are full of egrets and herons. Near the Audubon wildlife refuge, you might even spot a belted kingfisher diving off low bushes after minnows. (As of press time, Rhode Island was on Massachusetts' list of high-risk travel states. Check the state’s travel guidance before heading out.) dot.ri.gov/travel/bikeri/eastbay.php
EDITOR’S NOTE: COVID-19 travel guidance changes frequently. Check official websites before heading to a destination.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon are regular contributors to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.