The Washington area is blessed with many great places to bike, but few can compare with the Northern Central Rail Trail for history, charm, natural beauty and hassle-free cycling.
Never heard of it? It's only about an hour away. And hundreds, perhaps thousands of cyclists flock to it every weekend in spring, summer and fall.
For most Washingtonians, though, it's not on the mental map for a simple reason: The city of Baltimore lies between us and the starting point. Once you realize how easy it is to reach, and how lovely a ride it is, you'll want to add the trail to your list of weekend outings.
The rail trail follows the route of the Northern Central Railroad, the nation's second oldest railroad, chartered in 1828. Running north from Baltimore to York, Pa., it brought agricultural products and raw materials to Baltimore and returned with imported goods and manufactured products.
It also ran passenger trains. It was the route Abraham Lincoln took to get to Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863. He took it from Baltimore to Hanover Junction, before heading west. Two years later, his casket made the same journey on its way home to Illinois. In one of the sadder spectacles in American history, Americans lined the tracks by the thousands and, in dozens of towns, stopped the train so they could pay their respects.
After nearly 150 years of service, the Northern Central was on its last legs financially when Hurricane Agnes delivered the final blow in 1972. Damaged beyond repair, the route was purchased by Maryland and converted to a trail -- making it a pioneer yet again, this time of the rails-to-trails movement. In the three decades since, some 800 conversions of railroad track beds to linear parks have taken place around the country.
Biking the Northern Central, and a new Pennsylvania extension called the York County Heritage Trail, can be either a day or a weekend trip. Our group -- my wife and I and our 11-year-old son -- left Washington early on a Saturday afternoon and started biking at about 2:30. Biking north from the trail's southern terminus 25 miles to the town of Glen Rock, Pa., we spent the night there and returned the next day.
Within five miles of the start, we hit upon one of the trail's real treasures: Monkton, Md. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Monkton's buildings mostly predate the Civil War, and the old train station has been converted to a visitor center with information on the trail. A little grocery sells sandwiches and snacks, and a bike store rents bikes and does repairs.
There are a few cars and a parking area, but most of the traffic is on foot or bicycle. The world seems very quiet.
We stayed in Monkton for a half-hour, then headed off, knowing we'd have another chance to visit on the way back. The next 15 miles were absolutely beautiful. The trail follows a meandering trout stream, the Gunpowder Falls, passes a waterfall (where a sign says "Caution: Snakes"), touches several small communities that are potential rest stops, crosses the Mason-Dixon Line and arrives at New Freedom, Pa.
The Mason-Dixon Line -- the Maryland-Pennsylvania border -- is not marked, leaving us with the odd sensation of having sneaked into another state through the back door. Another feeling we started having at this point: fatigue. Rail trails are wonderful for bicycles because of the absence of steep hills, but at the Pennsylvania border you realize that, steep hills or no, you have been going steadily uphill at a slight grade for nearly 20 miles.
The effect, when you reach the crest just south of New Freedom, is a wonderful surge of power. From here, anywhere is downhill! You're Rocky Balboa at the top of the steps. You're Super Biker. You're . . . hungry.
We celebrated at a nice little family restaurant, where we had trouble spending $20 on dinner for three.
At New Freedom, you pick up an active rail line running parallel to the tracks. The York County Heritage Railroad, with vintage rail cars, runs a dinner train from here to Hanover Junction, about 10 miles. The trail crosses from one side of the tracks to the other every mile or so, from here on, making a nice diversion.
Glen Rock, another five miles north, was our stop for the night. The Glen Rock Mill Inn, right on the trail, had a lovely restaurant and comfortable accommodations in a building that dates from 1838.
The town also features trail-side pizza and ice cream, and -- for those who can't go on -- a trail-side chiropractor. We were in better shape than that, however, particularly since we knew the next day would be mostly downhill.
The countryside around Glen Rock is hillier than that to the south, and the trail extends another five miles to Hanover Junction, through what looked to be beautiful hills. The scenery called me north.
My family called me south, however, so I placed those five miles in the Future Experience file. This was not hard to do, in a way, because the trail itself has future experiences lined up for me and other riders. Last summer, the trail opened an extension that takes it another 11 miles to the north, bringing it to a new terminus in York. The new section includes Howard Tunnel, the oldest railroad tunnel in the United States.
So, after glancing north, we flew down the trail to Monkton, where the trail's last major treat awaited: tubing the Gunpowder Falls.
The bike shop in Monkton rents inner tubes as well as bikes. On a warm summer day, tubing the Gunpowder Falls is perhaps the perfect complement to a trail ride. We parked our bikes, rented tubes and spent an hour and a half floating downstream before regaining our bikes and pedaling the last five miles.
Jim McCarthy is co-editor of the fifth edition of the "Greater Washington Area Bicycle Atlas," which covers this ride and more than 60 others.
WAYS & MEANS:
GETTING THERE: The southern end of the Northern Central and York County Heritage Trails is about an hour from the Beltway. Take I-95 north to I-695 west, the Baltimore Beltway's inner loop, following it to I-83 north. Take I-83 to Exit 20, Shawan Road. Go east one mile to York Road. Turn left and follow York Road 1.3 miles to a right turn on Phoenix Road. Proceed 1.6 miles to trail-side parking.
BEING THERE: No bike? No worries. Bikes (and inner tubes) can be rented at the Monkton Bike Shop, which opens in mid-March (410-771-4058, www.bikestuff.net). Contact York County Parks and Recreation, 717-840-7440, for rail trail information.
WHERE TO EAT: Food (mostly sandwich fare) is available in Monkton, Parkton, New Freedom and Glen Rock. Lamotte's (717-235-4662) in New Freedom features 10-ounce crab cakes.
WHERE TO STAY: Highly recommended: the Jackson House B&B (717-227-2022, doubles start at $70), just across the Pennsylvania line in the town of Railroad. Built as a hotel in 1859, Jackson House has been lovingly restored by Kathy Lore, among the friendliest innkeepers you could meet. If you want to make more than a bike trip out of your stay, Lore can suggest wineries, antiques shops, fishing and more. The Glen Rock Mill Inn (717-235-5918, doubles $75, including breakfast), farther north in Glen Rock, has simple trail-side accommodations.
DETAILS: York County Convention and Visitors Bureau (717 848-4000, Ext. 017, or www.yorkonline.org) for information on the York County Heritage Railroad and other sites.
It was Contest #1, yes -- emphasis on the #1. Perhaps the vast "Escapes Trivia" research team learned a bit from this gig, too. The question was: "At which historic Virginia home did a young woman, who -- as the family story goes -- was less than thrilled with her impending nuptials, carve her married initials in a pane of glass with her diamond engagement ring?"
The answer we had in mind was Shirley Plantation, on the James River, where E.W. Byrd once carved her initials in a pane of glass with her engagement ring. As the family story goes, she was less than thrilled with William Byrd III's reputation as a womanizer and gambler and hoped to prove his diamond false. Alas, it was real; hence she carved her married initials. However, several well-traveled readers led us to discover that young ladies' initials or names were also carved with diamonds at Woodlawn Plantation, Bacon's Castle and Fields-Penn 1860 Museum House. Hmmm. Not sure if this tradition continues, but be careful out there, guys.
Those entries went in the hat with those who swore it was Shirley Plantation. Out came the name of: Stuart DeWitt of Fairfax, which is in Virginia, apparent birthplace of the monogrammed window. He wins a copy of The Post's getaway guide, "Escape Plans."
Contest #2, then (and please stay on the East Coast for this):
Hop into an original, refurbished cable car and ride a funicular up to a new observation deck with a magnificent view of a golden triangle. Name the city, the vehicle and the neighborhood at the top.
Deadline for Contest #2 entries is Monday, March 13, at 10 a.m. Send entries by email (firstname.lastname@example.org; put the word "Escapes Trivia" in the subject field), fax (202-334-1069) or U.S. mail (Escapes Trivia, Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Winners, chosen at random from among correct entries, receive a copy of The Post's "Escape Plans" getaway guide, or other prizes to be announced. One entry per person per contest. Employees of The Washington Post are ineligible to win prizes. Entries become the property of The Post, which may edit, distribute or republish them, including electronically.