The East Coast Greenway Connects Maine to Florida, So It's Unlike Anything on Your Bucket List

Photo credit: East Coast Greenway Alliance
Photo credit: East Coast Greenway Alliance

In 1991, eight bicycle advocates and urban planners—who had met at a bicycling conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts—gathered in a hostel in New York City to make a plan.

Their goal? To create a long-distance, protected trail that would link states along the East Coast. The trail would go through all the major cities, connecting rural areas from Maine to Florida. By the end of the day, the group had mapped out a vision: for the East Coast Greenway Alliance (ECGA).

Today, 30 years since that meeting, that vision has developed into the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile bikeway and walkway stretching from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Florida. It connects 15 states and 450 communities, and it’s growing at an impressive rate—both in terms of protected trails, and in terms of usage. Many sections of the greenway have seen a huge increase in use during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people have searched for safe outdoor activities. That has boosted the need for even more support for the greenway.

One thing that makes the East Coast Greenway so dynamic is how much distance it covers and how many cities, towns, and communities it goes through. People can take advantage of it in so many different ways. Some might use a few miles to commute to work while others make a weekend outing with the family. Serious adventurers can bike their whole state, or even take on the entire length over the course of several weeks.

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So far, the East Coast Greenway has more 1,000 miles on the route—about 35 percent—built out and entirely protected, and the ECGA is working with city leaders and community planners to continue to build so everyone can enjoy it safely. Some states are much farther along than others.

Plan your route on the East Coast Greenway using this interactive map.

“It’s not like we started in Maine and built it down like a railroad. What we’ve done is work with individual communities and governors, and they’ve invested in completing the greenway in their neighborhoods,” Dennis Markatos-Soriano, the current executive director of the alliance, told Bicycling.

With over 50 million visits in 2020 alone, usage grew by 50 percent across the board, and in some places tripled, according to the ECGA. It became the most visited park in America. And Markatos-Soriano said it’s crucial to keep building on the boom over the last year.

“As New York Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver—who is on our advisory board—said, these routes, like city parks, are havens of health and sanctuaries of sanity,” Markatos-Soriano said.

Photo credit: Cathy Jordan
Photo credit: Cathy Jordan

The ECGA has done tremendous work with local leadership, but there are still gaps to the infrastructure, which not everyone may feel comfortable navigating. It’s important to the alliance that the greenway is seen as something that’s in place for everyone to use.

“We want to make sure that those who aren’t willing to take risks when they ride—and that’s a majority of the population—that those people have space to get around and enjoy the outdoors,” Markatos-Soriano said. “And it’s not a bypass around cities—it goes through the heart of cities—because the goal was always to change the way people move. To transform lifestyles away from sedentary to active.”

As more and more people continue to use the greenway to get outside, one thing that’s helped the effort is having leadership in the communities, Markatos-Soriano said. The ECGA has staff in each of the states through which the greenway passes, along with a group of volunteers.

“They’re seeing the mental health benefit and the physical health benefit,” Markatos-Soriano said. “But this bike boom that we’re in will only continue if we invest in the infrastructure that makes it possible.”

Markatos-Soriano said that now is the time to make sure that biking facilities are part of the focus when it comes to keeping the momentum going. He is encouraged that so many have had pandemic realizations around biking becoming part of their daily lives.

If you are interested in a bike trip along the East Coast Greenway, Timberline Adventures will host the first ever, fully-supported end-to-end ride this fall. Cyclists can sign up for one of four segments, or do the entire trek over the course of two months. The adventure tour includes all kinds of amenities such as meals, snacks, hotels, support vehicles, and mechanics on hand. According to their COVID-19 procedures, Timberline will be “ensuring a 20-foot separation of non-household guests while cycling” and encouraging the use of cloth masks when passing other people. They also have a number of procedures in place to ensure safety while in hotels, restaurants, and other indoor spaces.

Barb Hoyt, owner of Timberline Adventures, says that riding the entire length of the East Coast is such an amazing experience, with such a variety of scenery—from rural farm and marsh lands, to some of the largest cities in the country. From day to day, riders are encouraged to go at their own pace and just enjoy the journey.

“At the very beginning, there’s about 80 miles on a rails-to-trails path—hard-packed dirt and gravel—[called] the Down East Sunrise Trail. That section feels like you’re just in the middle of nowhere, and it’s so beautiful,” Hoyt said. “But then you match that with the urban areas—New York City, Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Miami—where you have the greenways that go through those urban areas. You’re in the middle of these cities, but there are greenways where you’re completely away from [vehicle] traffic.”

Photo credit: East Coast Greenway Alliance
Photo credit: East Coast Greenway Alliance

Hoyt said the East Coast Greenway trips, which start in September 2021, are great for a variety of ages and abilities because much of the distance is completely flat.

According to Markatos-Soriano, several people have taken on the entire length on their own. “When people are thinking about biking the whole route, it’s an adventure ride,” he said. “We’ve had around 100 people bike the whole route [on their own], but there are still some stretches that are sub-optimal that we want to work on—we want those sections to be safer.”

The ECGA has several itineraries that they recommend—day trips, weekend trips, and week-long adventures, that highlight some of the best sections.

“Think about the New Haven route, going north in Connecticut, the D&R in New Jersey, and right here in North Carolina [where the ECGA headquarters is] between Durham and Raleigh, is a fantastic route—97 percent protected greenway for 75 miles.”

Mile by mile, the greenway is growing and serving more people.

“I like to think about the young kid who might end up being an Olympic cyclist, if they just have a safe place to do their first mile,” Markatos-Soriano said. “We need to give them that opportunity. Everyone deserves that safe space.”

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