By Molly Henry
The ECGA field office in downtown Providence, Rhode Island is lovely. A downtown corner office, it overlooks a rather lively commercial corridor as well as an on-road section of the ECG. I can glance out my window at any time and see streams of cyclists passing through town, pedestrians running errands, and students reading or socializing at their favorite café.
My secondary office is a little less quaint. It’s a grand 750-mile section of the East Coast Greenway stretching from Calais, Maine at the Canadian border to Greenwich, Connecticut.
In my field of work, sometimes the world of maps and spreadsheets just doesn’t cut it and I need to get out on two wheels. Last summer, I covered nearly 550 miles of the ECG from Calais, ME, to Providence, RI, pedaling to meetings, noting ECG signs and testing the new, downloadable ECG smartphone app and online Trip Planner.
This summer I set out to complete the rest of the New England section of the ECG from Providence to Greenwich. My friend, President of Recycle-A-Bike and fellow member of Women Bike RI, Perry Gast, joined me for the four-day adventure. Together we explored the birds, turtles, deer, and urban landscape of the ECG. We chatted with business owners and learned about the economic boost the trail has provided. We even rode with some of our most dedicated volunteers in the region. The following is a brief recount of the trails and tales experienced along the way.
Day 1 – Providence, RI to Putnam, CT (approx. 55 miles)
Perry and I got off to a late start. Thanks to our friends at Dash Bicycle, our mechanical issues were resolved and we were able to hit the road just after 11 AM. From Providence’s West Side neighborhood we headed west toward the Washington Secondary Bike Path, Rhode Island’s longest multi-use path.
After enjoying 19 miles on the beautifully paved multi-use path from Cranston to Coventry, RI, we stopped for a lunch and bathroom break at the Summit General Store, which claims to be “Rhode Island’s Only Real General Store.” After that we made our way along a relatively quiet and flat stretch of roadway for approximately 6 miles to the Connecticut border.
Almost 5 miles west of the Connecticut/Rhode Island state-line, we came across the Moosup Valley State Park Trail. It runs just under one mile into the village of Moosup in Plainfield, CT. We saw signs for 15-cent coffee outside Baker’s Dozen coffee shop and just had to give it a try.
Almost 6.5 miles along a quiet stretch of rural roads, we were delighted to hop on the Quinebaug River Trail in Killingly, CT.
The trail is tucked behind a residential neighborhood and down a short dirt path that leads to a 2.7-mile beautifully paved, riverside greenway. When we reached the end of the trail we jogged our way through quaint village of Danielson, CT, crossed the Quinebaug River over the dedicated pedestrian bridge and continued along rolling, country roads toward the Tracy Road Trail. We were grateful for the 1.6-mile side path that separated us from busy Tracy Road.
We also appreciated the wide shoulders along Park Road/Kennedy Drive as we continued pedaling to the Putnam River Trail. Once on the 0.6-mile trail, we were delighted to see the town had integrated an interactive story path, where pages of a storybook line the trail in sequential order, encouraging families to walk the trail to get some exercise while reading. We crossed the river over Putnam Road, greeted with a scenic waterfall and rocky landscape.
From Putnam, we pedaled along back roads lined with local farms, bird sanctuaries, conservation lands, rolling hills, and a few steep hills. We stopped for the night and set up camp just off the route at Mashamoquet Brook State Park’s Wolf Den Campground, eager for another day of pedaling.
Day 2 – Putnam to Hartford
Perry and I met up with Rob Dexter, one of the ECGA’s most dedicated Connecticut volunteers. Rob met us at the campground and the three of us headed out in search of the recently designated section of the Airline Trail North in Pomfret, CT. We entered the trail at Babbitt Hill Road and were pleased to see that the resurfacing work from Covell St. to Route 97 was near completion. It was a lovely ride.
We knew that Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) was working hard this summer on resurfacing the 16.5 miles of the trail from Chaplin to Pomfret (which we hope will become designated ECG by 2016). As expected, just west of Route 97 we were met with heavy machinery and muddy surface conditions. It was clear that the trail was being worked on, so we hopped back on the ECG’s on-road route and followed some rather hilly, yet quiet back roads through the woods.
With a few miles under our belt and no coffee in our system, we decided to make a pit stop at the Hampton General Store. We met two local women and a little girl who steered us in the direction of the nearest bathroom at a church across the street. They told us stories of other cyclists who passed through town on the ECG, including a cyclist who traveled with his dog in a trailer.
Caffeinated and ready to pedal, we pushed on towards Willimantic. Just north of there we met up with Beverly Duncan and Barbara Amodio, long-time ECGA members, Week a Year Tour riders, and members of the CT State Committee. The five of us rode the final stretch of the paved portion of the Airline Trail North and into downtown Willimantic, where we stopped for a tasty lunch at Cafémantic.
Bellies full and sunscreen reapplied, we took a quick diversion from the ECG route and explored the future trail connection behind the Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum. Down a gravel path and behind the museum, we learned that the Connecticut DOT is working hard to connect the trail behind the museum, along the Willimantic River, under Columbia Ave and towards Mackey’s in Willimantic. Eventually, CT DOT hopes to install a bridge over the Willimantic River and connect the Airline Trail with the Hop River Trail.
Once on the Hop River Trail we enjoyed an impressive 10.3 miles of wooded trail. With the exception of the first 2.6 miles from Kings Road to Hop River Road in Willimantic, the crushed stone-dust surface from Columbia to Bolton made for smooth riding. The Willimantic section was rough gravel, which was less pleasant and why it is not yet ECG designated.
We parted ways with Bev and Barb at the end of the Hop River Trail and headed for the Charter Oak Greenway, a nearly 8-mile paved trail from Bolton to East Hartford. We wanted to check out the northern section of the Hop River Trail to Bolton Notch, which is part of the future ECG travel route. We explored the 2.75-mile gap between the Hop River and Charter Oak in Manchester and Bolton. CT DOT is currently working to close the gap between these two popular trail systems and expects the two projects to be complete in the next few years.
Entering Hartford we were greeted by a belated Fourth of July festival. Barely able to bike through the crowds, we dismounted. We squeezed through large crowds gathered on the Founders Bridge and through the sea of pedestrians clustered in the Phoenix & Travelers Plaza. It was lovely to see Hartford so alive!
Afterwards we breezed through Bushnell Park, America’s first urban park, and landed in West Hartford where we stayed with Rob’s family for the night.
Day 3 –Hartford to New Haven (approximately 54 miles)
From West Hartford to Simsbury we traveled along a mix of local roads and a handful of state roads. Entering Simsbury the sun was shining bright as we climbed the famed ½-mile hill on Simsbury Road. The ECGA is working with the town of Bloomfield and the village of Tariffville to close this gap. Bloomfield has already started the designs for the section of this crucial off-road connector.
Wiping the sweat from our brow, we continued along the much-anticipated Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (FCHT), a developing 85-mile trail stretching from Northampton, MA, to New Haven, CT. The ECG utilizes approximately 48 miles of the FCHT from Simsbury to New Haven. Of that 48 miles, over 70% of the FCHT is complete. The other 30% is located on quiet, rural roads in Farmington, Cheshire, Southington, and Plainville. On my return I learned that the 2.7 mile gap in Cheshire is expected to go into construction by August 31, 2015!
At just past the halfway mark we were bound to run into some mechanical issues. A wobbly tire resulted in a pleasant pit stop at Renaissance Cyclery. The family owned shop had an ECG sticker on the door and our logo was visible throughout. The mechanic and owner, Stephen Cole, along with his wife, Kathy Cole, serve on the Plainville Greenway Alliance and have been long-time advocates for closing the 9.7-mile FCHT gap in Plainville. Needless to say, I came to the right place to service my bike!
Back on the road we pedaled along the FCHT to Southington, where we took a break from the heat to enjoy a delicious trail-side ice-cream cone at Zingarella Pizzeria and a quick stop at Carmody’s Farm stand, a seasonal produce stand in Cheshire. South of Cheshire, we continued on beautifully paved, winding trails through Hamden and New Haven, where we stayed with a friend for the evening.
Day 4 –New Haven to Bridgeport (approximately 30 miles)
With a 4:30 PM train to catch we thought it wise to get a jump-start on the day. Perry and I got up about 5:30 AM and were on the road by 6 AM. We were joined by New Haven’s Ray Willis, for the ride out of town. Ray serves on the Bike Walk Connecticut board and the ECG’s CT State Committee. He has been integral to installing ECG signs throughout the city. Signage is not yet complete in New Haven, though Ray is making it happen!
We wound our way through the Vision Trail, a rather difficult system to navigate with unclear signage, due to various land ownership issues. Ray and I determined a few key locations to install signs and I added a few more things to my homework list. We split from Ray at the New Haven/West Haven line and proceeded along the Savin Rock Trail where we caught our first glimpse of the beach! We continued following the coast into Milford, where I thoroughly enjoyed riding the new contra-flow bike lane on Shipyard Lane, a project accomplished by an ECGA and city of Milford partnership. Continuing on quiet back roads we meandered through Silver Sands State Park and onto a few busier roads in Stratford.
Due to a series of stops for inventory and note taking we had lost quite a few hours. We realized that we would not make it to Greenwich in time to catch our train. So Perry and I stopped in the Bridgeport public library to refill water bottles and enjoy the cool air-conditioning while discussing our options – which included taking a risk and catching the train in Norwalk or Stamford.
We decided it was best to play it safe and pick up the train in Bridgeport. Lucky for us, Bridgeport has a big public beach located right on the ECG! We spent some time picnicking at Seaside Park and dipped our feet into the cool ocean, before heading back into downtown to catch the train home.
Bonus Day – August 13th Greenwich to Fairfield (31 miles)
I was determined to complete my unfinished tour of the Connecticut ECG. So, when I was invited to a meeting in Stamford, CT with the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance, I saw my window of opportunity. A friend in Providence kindly lent me her Brompton folding bicycle to take on the Amtrak train to Fairfield County.
Along the way, I met up again with Rob Dexter, CT ECG volunteer extraordinaire. Together, we took inventory of missing signs. While Rob installed and replaced some damaged signs in Milford, I pedaled up from Greenwich. I was so pleased to see that not only were the signs accurately installed but the town of Greenwich had used their own posts! I wove through Bruce Park and along the Mianus River on delightful roads with little to no traffic.
Once in Stamford I was delighted to see that the city had a number of new sharrows (shared lane markings), bike lanes, and unique bump outs which act both as a separated bike lane and bus stop.
The experience of riding in Stamford was drastically different from Greenwich. The high rises and bustling streets make for a more urban riding experience. It is clear that the city put some thought into accommodations for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. I stopped in Cove Island Park to enjoy lunch before heading into Darien.
Once in Darien, the ECG mostly follows low-volume streets. The route included a short section where I was riding on Route 1. Post-travels, I looked at the map to figure out why we use Route 1 for that particular segment. The map made it clear that there is simply no other option because the surrounding residential streets don’t connect. I am reminded that sometimes the ECG is confronted with these challenges; waterways, highways, dead-end streets, etc. make it difficult to find alternatives to more congested roadways.
From the village of Rowayton through Norwalk I traveled on a mix of quiet residential streets and a few main arterials. The ride was pleasant. A few rolling hills. Once in Fairfield I was able to catch one last glimpse of the ocean. I was not surprised to see many other cyclists enjoying the scenery with me. With an evening meeting to get to, I wrapped things up in Fairfield and rejoined Rob at the Fairfield Public Library, just a few blocks off our route.
One important thing to note about riding in Fairfield County is how closely the ECG route follows the Metro-North Railroad. It was reassuring to know that at any point I could board the train and head home. The train stops in almost every town – Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, Norwalk, Fairfield and beyond. I’m glad I didn’t have to use the train on that particular day, though it’s nice to know it’s there and to see that ECG users have convenient access to transit.
The Big Picture
Today, the ECG in Connecticut is 34% complete, meaning off-road and completely separated from motor vehicles. When the state finishes the 16.5-mile stretch of the Airline Trail from Chaplin to Pomfret we will jump to 43% completion. Trail networks like the Hop River Trail, the Charter Oak Greenway and the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail are bringing post-industrial communities back to life and encouraging people to get out and move.
The Connecticut route offers a unique blend of rural farmland, lush forests, rolling hills, bustling urban centers, rich cultural history, white sandy beaches and an impressive network of developing multi-use trails. People travel from all over the region and beyond to enjoy these trail systems. Now I can say I truly understand why.
Committed volunteers like Rob Dexter are making way-finding easy. Thanks to Rob and CT DOT, nearly 99% of the CT ECG is signed. The luxury of looking around and seeing signs to follow rather than staring at maps makes the CT ECG a special experience, and one that we are working hard to replicate in the other 15 ECG states along the Eastern Seaboard.
With the conclusion of this tour I am happy to say that I have completed all 750 miles of the New England ECG. What strikes me most about these working tours is how they highlight the various puzzle pieces we’ve connected and those we still need to find. Some puzzle pieces may have fallen behind the couch or gotten swept under the rug. Still, it is clear how the pieces we have already put into place provide us a window into a promising future – an image of healthier and thriving individuals, communities, and planet. Finding those missing pieces and putting them into place is what the ECGA does. It takes persistence, passion and patience – and it’s worth every effort.