Trip tales: Ocean City to Key West

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I discovered I was more capable, physically and mentally, than I had ever thought."

Alex Siegel was looking to take his first long bike trip and learned about the East Coast Greenway. Knowing much of the route is still on roads, even some small highways, he followed the Greenway through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Along the way he discovered coastal beauty, small-town charms, challenges, and the kindness of strangers. Fellow travelers, please keep in mind that South Carolina and Georgia are two of the four states where the Greenway is less developed — a status we plan to change soon as our new South Carolina & Georgia trail coordinator begins in February 2017.  

By Alex Siegel

It was time. I’ve been wanting to do an extended cycle tour for quite a while, and it was finally time. Ever since I was about six I was riding bicycles of one sort or another. It wasn’t until I reached the ripe age of 28 that I started really pushing myself out on the road, riding 15, 30, 66, 90, and eventually 100+ mile days. I learned that I am capable of so much more than I used to know, and the idea of bicycle travel overtook me. I put the time and preparation in and made it happen.

Planning the route

I live in the very seasonal beach town of Ocean City, Maryland. When I moved here eight years ago I quickly learned that I could live in the area without a car, so a year or so later I ditched it. I learned how to build and maintain a small fleet of bicycles for all types of purposes — from casual beach cruisers to performance road bikes. I tinkered and toyed and taught myself how to maintain all types of bicycles. With the help of the good old worldwide web, I watched videos, read articles, learned, obsessed, and eventually decided I could do a tour of my own. Then I learned about the East Coast Greenway. Lo and behold, here’s a bike route already laid out for me! I’d been on portions of the route through Baltimore and Annapolis, I just never knew about much more of it. I became an East Coast Greenway email subscriber and got so many updates, learning of all the new trail segments and planning for new portions that it seemed I could do this fairly simply. The route I would take would lead me to so many areas that I had wanted to see along the coast. Living in a beach town and doing some light traveling to the Outer Banks in North Carolina and North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I wanted to experience more beach towns and communities. I would be creating my own route out of Delmarva and into Virginia, then along the coast of North Carolina until I reached Beaufort, where I would officially pick up the East Coast Greenway route.

A learning experience

The immediate route was challenging.  There are not a lot of options for routing through the Carolinas and Georgia. Look at a map of that region — the route is about as good as it can get. Stick to the route! It gets tremendously better. The portions that look like they are out of the way and almost unnecessary turn out to be all worth the while. As you cruise over causeways into seaside towns such as Topsail Island or Isle of Palms, your excitement builds. Traversing through busier cities such as Wilmington, NC, leaves room for improvement, but getting down to Carolina Beach and crossing the ferry to Southport totally makes your day. Follow the route into South Carolina — you'll realize there is literally no other way. The twisty route to get to the Grissom Parkway Trail in Myrtle Beach is worth the confusing navigation.

You’ll have to get comfortable riding on highways with no shoulder in South Carolina; you can thank SCDOT for this lovely feature. But there is no other way. Take the side roads on the route, you will be treated to amazing and quiet scenery, forgotten communities, almost no cars, and near silence. These detours make up for the sometimes hair-raising highway shouldering and debris-dodging, so make yourself visible and be alert. Oh, by the way, you are going through Charleston and Savannah. So if you’ve never been to these cities, take your time here, contact some Warmshowers hosts, and stay a little longer. The routing through these cities is quite simple and both cities are very bikable. The Greenway will begin to link up with more and more local trails, bike paths, and bike lanes and become a lot more comfortable. Especially in southeast Georgia, this is where the traffic dies down a lot. You’ll experience so many cultures, communities, friendly folks, and — for me — great beach towns, islands, and waves.

Make sure you plan a stay at The Hostel in the Forest outside of Brunswick, GA. It may change you! You may meet more cycle travelers like I did. They’ll ride with you for a day and you may meet them again in Florida, like I did.

500 miles to go

Once you get into the Sunshine State, it all begins to really make sense. After all of the crazy routing, shoulder and island hopping, crumbly roadway, dirt roads, and sidewalk bridge crossing, you have now entered Cycling Heaven. When you reach Amelia Island at the very northeast corner of Florida, you pick up the A1A. It’s like someone made a bike path just for you all the way to the southernmost point in Key West. Time your entry just right and you will experience tailwinds, t-shirts and shorts in December (unheard of in Maryland), and a plethora of local riders.

Camping at state parks is great, so spend time at these, engage in conversation and meet other travelers, and you may find yourself with a place to stay in the Keys (like I did). The linking with local trails through state parks is fabulous and joyful here. The bike lanes are ample, and the drivers are quite courteous. Follow the route carefully though places such as New Smyrna, Titusville, and Cocoa, and you’ll notice that more and more bicycling infrastructure is being installed and totally worth the ride. You'll find an abundance of Warmshowers hosts here, and they are all very welcoming. Ask questions and you will learn more about the areas you travel through and the people who live in this region of the country.

Continue along the coast southbound into hedged, multi-million-dollar communities and large groups of local cyclists. Check for parks and take a lunch stop at one of the many quiet vistas along the shore. Some of these are worth the time to stop and read about and explore. Enjoy these because you’re about to enter south Florida, and it becomes more urbanized the further south you travel. Here’s where the next level of touring continues. Put all of your traffic navigation skills to work here as you dance along the bike lanes and crosswalks, skirting high-rise condos and hotels. Take a quick stop at Haulover Park before crossing over into Bal Harbour to check your route closely. Here, it will guide you along the boardwalks, bike paths, and ocean drives as you continue into Hollywood Beach, leading right into hectic Miami Beach pedestrian paths. There’s all kinds of things happening along this stretch: runners and walkers, Citi bicyclists, KOM racers, skaters, tourists — try not to hit anyone! Follow the ECG signs right to the point. Exit along the A1A, as the Venetian Bridge can be raised for extended periods of time. You’ll have to navigate downtown Miami carefully as you find the beginning of the M-Path. From here, it’s all you and the M-Path for 30 miles. It is very fun. Homestead is at the other end, where you can find a good place to prepare for the next and last leg, the Florida Keys.

Overseas Heritage Trail

The next 120 miles are the most exciting part of the ride. Prepare for nearly 20 miles along the US 1 route into Key Largo. It is long and straight, and if you have a headwind it could be trouble. More than likely you will breeze into the Keys with a tailwind but don’t count on it entirely. The trail starts almost as soon as you enter Largo. Careful crossing access and side roads as there are many, and many motorists turning on and off the roadway. Most of the route you will find to be highly enjoyable because you will have a separate bike path, separate bridges, and isolated spots strictly for trail users. It is amazing crossing the 7 Mile Bridge with a full tailwind!

Find yourself becoming more and more excited as you cross into many small keys flanking Key West, then skirt the south bike path all the way to the Point. You have arrived! Get the iconic picture, it is mandatory! Now, what you do in Key West is entirely up to you, and how to get back out of there is yours to decide as well.

I discovered I was more capable, physically and mentally, than I had ever thought. I learned that there are downright good-hearted people everywhere in the world. I became a stronger solo traveler, and I honed my roadway navigation and cycling skills. The East Coast Greenway gave me the route and the direction for me to follow with ease. I hope you, too, can enjoy a similar experience.

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