Boulder Creek Path—Boulder, Colo.: Rising from the plains to the Rockies and bisecting this mountain town from East to West, the paved, 7.5-mile Boulder Creek Path epitomizes what makes Boulder one of the most active, outdoorsy cities in the country. It may not be as long as many of the other paths on this list, but few, if any, are as central to the life of the city as this one. Flickr/somerandomsequence
USA TODAY - Although they lag behind their European counterparts, American cities are becoming more and more bike friendly. A growing number are launching bike sharing schemes-New York and Chicago being the latest-and bike lanes continue to grow in mileage nationwide.
While bike lanes are nice (when they're not blocked by double-parked cars, that is), nothing quite puts cycling on par with driving like a dedicated bike path. A great path can make city cycling a truly different experience: you can skip traffic, commune with nature and see the city from a new angle. In some cases, paths can even get you out of town as fast as you can pedal.
Some bike paths, naturally, stand out for truly elevating the quality of life in their cities. The 19 we found-some of which we've ridden ourselves-ought to be celebrated and emulated, and even built upon and improved.
To determine which ones meet this standard, though, we first had to ask what makes a great bike path.
For starters, many on our list are important commuting arteries that give cyclists direct access to business districts while avoiding city traffic and making few street crossings. A few, like Boston's Minuteman Bikeway or Philadelphia's Schuylkill River Trail, were even designed, in part, to bring commuters in from the suburbs where they'd otherwise be out of reach of mass transit.
Almost all are paved, and those that aren't are well surfaced with finely crushed rock and graded for ease of riding.
Most importantly, though, a great bike path is separate from traffic for all or most of its length. Our selections, for the most part, are rail trails, which are former railway lines that have been paved over and converted for non-motorized use. With one exception that was too good to leave out-San Francisco's Embarcadero, in case you're wondering-these paths are only occasionally broken by segments where cyclists have to share the road with cars. (All but one are multi-use, though, meaning they're open to pedestrians, inline skaters, and, in some cases, horses.)
They also happen to be exceptionally beautiful. All but three of these bike paths run alongside a body of water, and almost all are bounded by parkland, giving cyclists a decidedly non-urban respite from the stress of city riding.
We also looked at other factors: Does the path offer exceptional views of, and access to, the city? Is it good for recreational riders and tourists? Does the city take pride in it?
While there's no objective way to say one bike path is the best, we will say these are all strong contenders and there are doubtless many more we missed. Let us know in the comments.
1. Midtown Greenway-Minneapolis
Exhibit A in why Minneapolis is considered the best bike city in America: the Midtown Greenway, a 5.5-mile bicycle highway through the center of town. Following a sunken rail corridor with no major breaks in traffic, this path is almost entirely separate from pedestrian traffic and is busy with commuters year-round. That's right: it's plowed in the winter. The Greenway is also lit at night, so it's functional 24/7, and has emergency call boxes, police patrolling on bike, and even its own suspension bridge.
2. Boulder Creek Path-Boulder, Colo.
Rising from the plains to the Rockies and bisecting this mountain town from East to West, the paved, 7.5-mile Boulder Creek Path epitomizes what makes Boulder one of the most active, outdoorsy cities in the country. It can be a thigh-blasting mile-high climb (followed by a thrilling descent, of course), a commuting artery through downtown and the university, and a leisurely ride along tranquil, park-buffered Boulder Creek. And everyone in town, it seems, uses it: joggers, hikers, tubers and kayakers, locals and tourists. The path also serves a city where bicycles have pride of place-nearly 10 percent of commuters use bikes. It may not be as long as many of the other paths on this list, but few, if any, are as central to the life of the city as this one.
3. Burke-Gilman Trail-Seattle
This former rail trail is a bike-obsessed city's pride-and as far as urban bike paths go, arguably the nation's. Its paved 27 miles begin on Puget Sound in North Seattle and trace the shoreline along the canal and up Lake Washington all the way to the town of Bothell. (A 1.5-mile gap in the Ballard neighborhood is the "missing link.") One of the most heavily ridden multi-use paths in the country, it's often called the "backbone" of Seattle's cycling infrastructure, and its flat terrain, beautiful views, and plentiful access points invite casual cyclists and alley cat messengers alike.
4. Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade & Springwater Trail Corridor-Portland, Ore.
Named the country's best biking city by Bicycling Magazine in 2012, Portland boasts one of the densest networks of dedicated bike paths, greenways, and "bike boulevards" around. For a one-two punch of Portland's best, take the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette River and switch to the Springwater Trail Corridor. The highlight of the 1.5-mile esplanade is a 1,200 foot "floating walkway"-the longest of its kind in the U.S. according to Portland Parks and Rec. After leaving Portland's heart, the path connects with with the 21-mile converted rail trail that heads all the way to the eastern suburb of Boring. On its way there, the tree-lined path follows the meandering Johnson Creek through wetlands, parks, a wildlife refuge and several of the city's colorful neighborhoods.
5. Cherry Creek Bike Path-Denver
Denver's numerous paved bike paths extend citywide and beyond, earning the Mile High City annual props on Bicycling Magazine's bike-friendly cities list. The standout (among many) is the Cherry Creek Path, which extends from the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in downtown, all the way to Cherry Creek Reservoir 12 miles to the southeast-you can keep going for dozens of miles in either direction if you want, though, since it connects with other trails. Due to its central location, smooth grading and infrequent intersections, the path is practically a commuter highway from Aurora and points in between. But lest the h-word scare anyone, Cherry Creek is also known for its natural beauty.
6. Minuteman Commuter Bikeway-Greater Boston
As with everything in Boston, function is closely tied to history. This 10-mile rail trail roughly tracks Paul Revere's famous ride (hence the name) and connects the Greater Boston towns of Cambridge, Lexington, Arlington and Bedford. This multi-use path terminates at the Alewife 'T' station where riders can park at the "pedal and park" facility before hopping on mass transit.
7. Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail-Austin, Texas
Although the Lance Armstrong Bikeway may speak in name to the Texas capital's love affair with cycling-and its most famous resident, recent unpleasantness aside-it's the Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail that has the city's heart. This 10-mile trail of easy-riding crushed granite loops around Lady Bird Lake (named for the late first lady, Lady Bird Johnson) right in the center of Austin. Popular among joggers as well as cyclists, the trail passes alongside Barton Springs, the aquifer-fed natural pool where Austinites love to cool off in the summer.
8. Lakefront Trail-Chicago
This paved, 18-mile path along scenic Lake Shore Drive is often packed with joggers, bike commuters and tourists alike. With spectacular views of the cityscape, a cyclist can go from one end of the city to the other while avoiding Chicago traffic and taking in beaches, Millennium Park, and other iconic Second City sights.9. Manhattan Waterfront Greenway-New York City
9. Manhattan Waterfront Greenway-New York City
The busiest bikeway in the U.S. can take you from Inspiration Point, at the northern tip of Manhattan, all the way to the Battery, and back around for a 28-mile, mostly unbroken, tour of the island. Sure, you'll have to hit the city streets for a few miles in Midtown and Harlem-don't worry, there are bike lanes-but that's part of the charm. You can dart back into the city at just about any point, making the path perfect for commuting, or you can marvel at just how much you get to see: the George Washington Bridge, the Palisades, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and, well, just about all of Manhattan.
10. Willamette River Trail-Eugene, Ore.
It's no mistake that Nike's hometown has miles upon miles of trails dedicated to running and biking. This outdoors-loving home of the University of Oregon is one of two cities on this list to feature a Willamette River-centric path. Running for a combined 12 miles on both sides of the river (there are four crossings), this paved path has quarter-mile markers and gives access to parks, the university and a mall. It's also within blocks of several of the city's famed breweries.
11. American River Bike Trail-Sacramento
A paved 32-mile route from downtown Sacramento to neighboring Folsom, this wide, multi-use path traces the American River through parks, scenic bends, wildlife areas, and even over a functional small-scale replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. With few road crossings, flat terrain (at least on the Sacramento end), and mile markers, this trail is a favorite for commuters and those looking to escape the city on a weekend ride.
12. Schuylkill River Trail-Philadelphia
Called the best bike path in Philly by Philadelphia Weekly, the 23-mile Schuylkill River Trail is a boon to commuters entering the city from Montgomery County, residents looking for a scenic shortcut through parts of downtown, and recreational cyclists making a weekend escape. The path winds unbroken, except for two short segments, all the way to Valley Forge National Historical Park.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)