From coastal New England towns to major Atlantic-region cities to rural Southern vistas, the East Coast Greenway connects nature and cycling enthusiasts up and down the seaboard through a series of trails totaling more than 3,000 miles.
While this may be hard to imagine, there could be a day when you will be able to walk, bike or run on a continuous connected path that stretches the entire 3,000 miles of the East Coast from Maine to Florida. Such is the ambition of the East Coast Greenway, a project founded in 1991 by a group of cyclists who dreamed of connecting existing trails to create a completely car-free path. “Over the years, towns, counties and states have invested in the Greenway in a segment here, a segment there,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, in Durham, North Carolina. For example, last year, 44 miles of Greenway were added in 24 different sections in 10 different states, thanks to funding from state investments and federal grants. The goal: to add as many miles as possible each year to the Greenway’s diverse trails, which wind through serene small towns and cut through high-energy cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“We want this to be the most popular park in America,” Markatos-Soriano says of the trail system, which attracts more than 10 million annual visitors. He hopes to see that number climb to 100 million. “This is the kind of thing that brings America together. Whether you’re from a rural community or from a big city, everyone needs a safe place to walk, bike or run.”
– Lambeth Hochwald
Greenway Explorer: Michael Austin
Journey: Portland, Maine to Old Orchard Beach
Even before I reached the far side of the Casco Bay Bridge, the undulating road that connects the heart of Portland, Maine, to quieter South Portland, I felt what Maine fishermen surely have known for centuries that few sensations can snap you awake quicker than some water on the face. I received my dose courtesy of the sky, not the sea, as I pedaled the fire-engine-red bicycle that was poised to carry me from the cobblestone streets of the city all the way to the sand of the ocean. Luckily, the rain passed quickly, and the clouds parted for the sun. This was more like it. I was here to feel the air on my face, to feel the endorphin whoosh of a heart-pumping ride through the stunning scenery of coastal Maine.
As I pedaled, the forested canopies gave way to open sky, and the bent yellow grass of marshland reached to the horizon like a scene from an Andrew Wyeth painting. It was an easy 15-mile ride to Old Orchard Beach, where I straddled my bike frame at the top of the street that descends to the beach, the soaring boardwalk, the Ferris wheel and the rest of Palace Playland, New England’s only beachfront amusement park. I coasted down the hill and pedaled straight to my seaside hotel, The Edgewater Motor Inn.
A few steps later I was on the sand, watching a surfer carve “S” shapes on the waves. Old Orchard is a classic beach town, a family-friendly destination with candy shops and ice cream parlors offering towering cones. I, however, needed something more substantial to refuel. I found just the thing at Old Orchard stalwart Joseph’s By The Sea, where I savored a hearty bowl of clam and corn chowder.
By the next afternoon, I was on Portland’s big curvy bridge again, sun and bright sky leading me to the colonial brick buildings and city steeples ahead. I pedaled to the Portland Museum of Art, home to classic New England works by Homer, Hopper and the three Wyeths, and other masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir and Picasso. Hungry, I journeyed for a lobster roll at the old-school, wood-adorned J’s Oyster, “where the fishermen eat,” according to a bellhop I overheard at the Portland Harbor Hotel. It was excellent. I mean, it’s Maine – they’re going to do a good job on the lobster rolls. They’re going to get their picturesque cities and towns right, too, and their sun-dappled forests and wild Atlantic seascapes. If you have a bicycle, or a pair of good walking shoes, the Greenway can take you directly to the heart of this beautiful state.
Greenway Explorer: Marissa Conrad
Journey: A 6-mile run along the Potomac River
A few years after college, I learned about Ragnar Relays, a series of 200-mile team races for (adventurous!) runners, held in beautiful destinations across the country. Teams typically split the distance among 12 members, who run clutching turn-by-turn directions printed out from the Ragnar website.
I’ve done seven Ragnars in the last 10 years – one in Cape Cod, another in the Adirondacks, a few in the Midwest and one that started in Maryland and ended in the heart of Washington, D.C. The terrain is always different, but race organizers steer runners to idyllic off-road trails as much as possible.
My favorite run of all my Ragnars was on just that type of trail. I was on my final leg of the D.C. race, running along the Potomac River and starting to feel drained, when I saw it: the Washington Monument, stretching majestically up to the sunny sky. Then, the ivory dome of the Jefferson Memorial, and a hint of the Lincoln Memorial, peeking above trees. I felt a burst of emotion that can only be described as wow. Here are these iconic structures, things that many people get to see only in movies, and this trail was taking me past them all.
I later learned that the path is part of something even more wonderful – a network of trails called the East Coast Greenway. Sounds like I’ll have to get my Ragnar band back together for an even bigger adventure: running the whole thing.
Greenway Explorer: Lisa Watts
Journey: Key West, Florida to Amelia Island, Florida
For 30 years, I’d dreamed about biking the entire East Coast Greenway — a dream that only intensified when I joined the alliance as communications manager in 2016. My best friend since 1984, Deirdre Bird, and I had done a number of weeklong bike trips and marathons together and wanted this to be a celebration of our friendship.
On May 4, 2018, we started in Key West, Florida. That first day, we rode for six to seven hours, for about 50 miles. At the end of it, we pulled into a place called Porky’s Bayside BBQ and bellied up to the bar for cold Cokes, which tasted like heaven. Biking through Florida took eight days – it’s a long state, and we covered 600 miles of it. On day six, we biked our longest stretch of Greenway yet, in Brevard County. The wide, brand-new path took us maybe 20 miles north and doesn’t have a lot of shade. Luckily, we met local Greenway enthusiast Gary Norman, who told us that a woman in Mayville had set up an honor system rest stop in front of her house. When we saw the blue tarp and picnic table, it was like an oasis. There were cold drinks in a cooler and healthy snacks in a basket, and a coffee can for donations. I put some ice on my head, and we drank Gatorade and water in the shade. It was priceless.
Two days later, on our way to Amelia Island, we had our most stunning ride in Florida. We were feeling stronger, getting accustomed to the heat, and didn’t have any headwinds, which had been a challenge. We took a ferry from Mayport across the St. Johns River to Fort George Island and biked the protected Greenway from Little Talbot Island to Big Talbot Island. On that path, you have huge views of the ocean, can smell the salt air and see beautiful wildflowers along the edge of the bike lane. It was wide enough for us to ride side by side in the otherwise empty park. We crossed a bridge to head toward Amelia Island and rode into a retreat – winding greenways under Spanish moss and our first full day off.
– As told to Nicole Kwan