Crossing America on the North Tier

I don’t seem to be quite able to get this idea out of my head at the moment. Perhaps it’s because it is so cold out and our roads are frozen and so we can’t get out on the bikes at present.  I revisited the Adventure Cycling site tonight and came away with this overview of the route:

“The western end of the Northern Tier begins at  sea level and offers large expanses of mountains, the Great Plains, and some beautiful farmland areas in between. The route can be ridden from late spring to late fall. Due to snow, State Highway 20 east of North Cascades National Park in Washington is only open through certain dates. The same is true for Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park in Montana, which is usually closed until mid June. Even in the height of summer in July, cyclists must be prepared for cold nights and occasional snow in the higher elevations during storms. Due to changing local conditions, it is difficult to predict any major wind patterns, though tornadoes can be common. They slice across the heartland each year, generally heading north and east, and mostly occur in May and June in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. The Midwest and Great Lakes summers can be hot, especially inland. Along the Great Lakes, breezes provide cooling and are sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe.

The Northern Tier begins in Anacortes, Washington, which is located on a peninsula in Puget Sound. Anacortes is also the jumping-off point for folks going to the San Juan Islands, a favorite cycling destination. At the start, the combination of lush forest and ocean feeds and moistens the soul. Heading eastward along the rushing Skagit River, you carry that feeling up to the top of Rainy and Washington passes in the Cascade Mountains. Descending to the east side of the Cascades brings you into the drier part of the state and the widely known orchard country of the Okanogan Valley. Leaving this valley, you’ll be climbing and descending several more passes full of ponderosa pines and finding many sleepy farming communities along the rivers you cross. The river valleys tend to run in a north-south direction across the northwestern part of the United States, and because the route travels west to east, you will be working your way up and down. There are plenty of towns, rivers, lakes, mountains and forests in eastern Washington, Idaho, and western Montana until you reach Cut Bank, on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

The spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park is a hard climb but well worth it for the scenery. The route takes a jump into Canada to access Waterton Lakes National Park, and then you’ll head back into the States at Del Bonita, a little-used border crossing. Cut Bank is the beginning of the Great Plains, and from here on you’ll start praying for tailwinds. Supposedly, heading eastward, tailwinds predominate in the summer. The route uses U.S. Highway 2, the main road through central and eastern Montana along the railroad, so camping spots can occasionally be somewhat loud. Wherever possible, side roads are used to relieve the monotony of being on the highway. Afternoon thundershowers are a constant companion out on the Plains. You’ll follow the Milk River from Havre, Montana, eastward. The plains of Montana eventually transform into the green rolling hills of western North Dakota. From Glendive, Montana, to Bismarck, North Dakota, the route follows the I-94 corridor, alternating between the freeway and parallel county roads.* Sunflowers are everywhere, and they become the crop of choice as the terrain flattens out in eastern North Dakota. Fargo is located on the banks of the Red River, on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota.

*Oil and gas development in the Bakken Oil Shale Field of western North Dakota and northeastern Montana prompted a change in routing in 2012 to avoid the area around Williston, North Dakota. Because many roads with minimal to no shoulders now have high levels of truck traffic, and are felt to be unsafe for bicyclists, the route was moved to go through southern North Dakota. 

Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa stand out as some of the greenest and lushest of all the states along the route. From either direction, this greenery proves to be a relief from the giant plains to the west and acres of farmland to the east. You’ll learn a lot about the history of the Mississippi River as you follow it southward.

Heading east from Fargo and Moorhead in the Red River Valley, you begin to slowly leave the Great Plains. Lakes and hills become the standard scenery, and the resident mosquitos increase in number. The birthplace of the Mississippi River is in Lake Itasca State Park, in northern Minnesota. This area is so full of forests, lakes, and rivers that it draws many recreationalists during the summer months. The route utilizes many rail-trail facilities as you ride south until it heads east around the cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and surrounding towns. There is a spur into Minneapolis-St. Paul that ends with access to the airport. Along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, the towns are older and the buildings much more historic. At Prescott, Wisconsin, the St. Croix joins the Mississippi, and the route again follows that river southward for 175 miles. You’ll leave the river occasionally on less-traveled roads, but these also mean climbing and descending the bluffs along the river. As you enter Iowa, you may think that the terrain is going to flatten out, but the hills continue after leaving the river. Small laid-back farm towns are abundant through Iowa. Muscatine is an old industrial town located on the Mississippi River. 

East of the river, the route traverses the large prairie farms of central Illinois and the smaller farms of Indiana and Ohio, eventually reaching the shore of Lake Erie at Huron, Ohio. Here a side trip can take you to nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park, which features the greatest number of the most pulse-raising roller coasters in the country. Or you can take a ferry to one or more of the Lake Erie islands and visit the area where Admiral Perry defeated the British fleet in the War of 1812. Heading through busy Cleveland, you’ll pass the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Science Center and its IMAX theater, a retired Great Lakes iron ore freighter, and a World War II submarine.

Along the lake shore in eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, the route passes through small towns, where tourists flock to the shore during summer. In Erie, Pennsylvania, you can explore the miles of sand beach at Presque Isle State Park and the replica of the sailing ship Niagara, Admiral Perry’s flagship in the War of 1812 Battle of Lake Erie. Leaving Erie, the route enters the fruit and wine region of Pennsylvania and New York and hugs the relatively rural lake shore to the outskirts of Buffalo, New York. Views across Lake Erie of the Buffalo skyline and Canada usher the cyclist into the bustle of the southern end of the metropolis. In the suburbs to the Peace Bridge, ride carefully through the city streets. The route takes you to the lakefront Buffalo Naval and Military Park with World War II vessels open for visits.

After crossing the Peace Bridge into Canada you’ll follow one of the most scenic recreational trails in North America along the Niagara River to Niagara Falls. Take the cable car ride across the Whirlpool Rapids and visit the other attractions along the trail. Then you’ll cross back into the U.S., enjoying the view of the Niagara Gorge. Heading east, the route uses the Erie Canalway Trail for 85 miles along a waterway dripping with history. Take the time to explore the towns along the canal. At Palmyra, the route turns north to Lake Ontario, where it follows the lake shore to Sodus Bay, dips inland to Fair Haven, and then leaves the Great Lakes to cross the Adirondack Mountains and arrive at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain. A visit to Fort Ticonderoga will give meaning to Revolutionary War history.

After a short ferry ride over the lake, you are in New England, cycling through Vermont farmland, forested hills, and picturesque villages. In New Hampshire, the route follows the Connecticut River, passing through the villages of Orford with its ridge houses and Haverhill, a classic New England village with its fenced village commons and old homes. The route crosses the White Mountains, the backbone of New Hampshire, on the famous Kancamagus Highway. Mt. Washington, noted for its fierce weather, is just a few miles north, and the Kancamagus shares some of its weather reputation. Be prepared, even in summer. Entering Maine, you’ll traverse forests and fields, arriving at Rockport on the coast. Allow time to savor the quintessential ambiance of the coastal towns. Before crossing the Penobscot River, stray off route to visit Ft. Knox, an exceptionally well-preserved unused Revolutionary War fort. Finally, don’t end your trip without cycling the gravel carriage paths of Acadia National Park and viewing a sunrise from atop Cadillac Mountain. The park is near the town of Bar Harbor, at the end of the route.”

Big challenge – even bigger prize?

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