Averaging nearly 4,300 miles, The Northern Tier Bike Route, as mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association, is a bucket list favorite among the global bike touring community. The coast to coast route links the Atlantic and Pacific shores of the United States, incorporating National Parks, trails less traveled, and polar opposite landscapes. The communities along the way have a thing or two to teach you about hospitality as you pedal through thirteen states, some of which won’t take more than three or four days to cross. Others seem eternal, introducing you to the storied vastness of the American West. The Northern Tier is a must for seasoned riders, and a spectacular challenge for those new to long distance touring; as long as you pace yourself and set aside ample time, you’ll have a whopping 4,300 miles under your belt (or fanny pack) before you know it.
Running from Maine to Washington, The Northern Tier is best attempted from Spring to Fall. A majority of riders begin on the west coast and head east, citing tailwinds, but riding east to west presents advantages of its own. Your direction is ultimately a matter of preference.
The Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern Tier map set is a crucial investment to make before departing. The twelve ACA maps clearly indicate the safest cycling route across the country, along with campsites, lodging, bike services, and cyclist-only accommodations.
You’ll need the right gear to complete the Northern Tier (check out this guide to bike touring for more details). Temperatures tend to fall on the colder side in the north, so pack accordingly. If you are planning to camp in spring or fall, keep an eye on the forecast in elevated areas like the Cascades or Rockies in the west and the Adirondacks in the east; snow, heavy rain and frost are not uncommon.
You’ll be starting in Bar Harbor, Maine, a quaint seaside haven on Maine’s rugged Atlantic shore. If you’re up for it, spend a few days cycling neighboring Acadia National Park before really hitting the road; the park has miles of carriage trails to get your legs pumping.
Heading west out of Bar Harbor, you’ll follow the general curve of the coast until New Hampshire, where you’ll traverse the White Mountains, New England’s claim to pride, via Kancamagus Highway. The views alone will propel you on to the steep grades and pastures of Vermont’s Green Mountains. If you can, make a detour to historic Fort Ticonderoga just past the New York border and step into a Revolutionary relic strategically overlooking the narrows of Lake Champlain. From there, enter Adirondack Park, considered the largest park in the lower forty-eight. The Adirondacks can have you exploring by bike for weeks, but the Northern Tier keeps you within the park limits for two to three days as you meander through boundless forest, steep climbs, and hairpin turns. Pit stops include Paradox Brewery on Paradox Lake, the Adirondack Buffalo Company, and the Adirondack Hotel, the crown jewel of Long Lake, New York. As you coast down the foothills to Blue Mountain, stop at the Adirondack Experience, a museum showcasing local culture, before heading to the town of Inlet. Riding along the Fulton Chain of Lakes, you’ll reach Old Forge, the Adirondacks’ southern gateway and your resource for any outdoor gear you might be missing.
After leaving Adirondack Park and descending into rural New York state, catch your first glimpse of open water along the shores of Lake Ontario before delving back inland towards Niagara Falls. This stretch follows the historic Erie Canal via the gravel Erie Canalway Trail. Dotted with communities that once flourished thanks to canal trade, the trail features numbered locks, some of which offer cyclist camping. In Niagara Falls, bike to the Canadian side of the falls or stick to the American lookouts, depending on border rules at the time of your tour. Cool off in the Niagara mist and head south through Buffalo and into Pennsylvania.
By now, you’ll be riding right alongside Lake Erie, astonishing in its ocean-like expanse and deep blue stillness. Trace the lakeshore through a sliver of Pennsylvania, and all the way to Cleveland,Ohio, one of the larger urban centers on the route where you can stop for bike service, stock up on supplies, and take a breather. Regenerate among the comforts of city life before tackling the Midwestern portion of the Northern Tier.
Ohio will be as flat as it is tranquil and your crossover into Indiana will be uneventful; the landscape won’t vary much. Riding conditions will remain level and green through Indiana and Illinois; that’s not to say the two states won’t be full of local character and idyllic pockets of rural life. Crossing the Illinois River in Henry will put you in a river state of mind as you near the Mississippi, which separates Illinois from Muscatine. Worth getting to know during a rest day, historic Muscatine hides a former glory; visit the quirky Pearl Button Museum to learn more and take your mind off the road.
From Muscatine, the route turns sharply north, veering into Wisconsin. Right before leaving Iowa, you’ll find yourself in Lansing, where the Safe House Saloon and Coffee on the River await weary cyclists. In Wisconsin, you’ll stay along the Mississippi in what is known locally as the Driftless area. Just past La Crosse, take the Great River State Park Trail for over twenty miles of uninterrupted riding. Brone’s Bike Shop in little Fountain City is a must-stop for friendly service, pointers and bike talk.The river will see you past Alma, Nelson, Pepin, and Stockholm; spend the night at the village campground in tiny Stockholm after exploring Swedish-themed shops, the Stockholm Pie and General Store and the waterfront.
Enter Minnesota at the town of Prescott, pedaling up the western bank of the St. Croix River. Take a detour to Minneapolis or stay on route to avoid the city and head further into the state of ten thousand lakes. One of Minnesota’s highlights is the Trails Detour that runs slightly off route from Bowlus, Minnesota to Fargo, North Dakota. This alternative joins the Soo Line and Central Lakes Trails, providing wooded, car-free passage through a myriad of small towns. Safe and relatively isolated trails like these are guaranteed to up your mileage and boost your pace, meaning you’ll be in North Dakota faster than you might have thought.
At just over 120,000 people, Fargo is North Dakota’s largest city, preceding long, remote rides through the rest of the state. North Dakota’s emptiness is essential to its natural beauty; out of Fargo, expect windblown prairie and rolling hills. It’s a lengthy 130 miles to Gackle, where you’ll find a small community with cyclist accommodations. After the cities of Bismarck and Dickinson, you’ll encounter Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park’s natural formations are less frequented but equally unforgettable as the South Dakota Badlands, their famous counterpart. Catch your first glimpse at the Painted Canyon Overlook off of Interstate 94, but don’t linger too long; the rugged hills and their otherworldly colors will be with you as you head further west. The town of Medora serves as the official park gate, and you can easily spend a day or two cycling around the South Unit. There is truly no place on earth like the Badlands, and experiencing the landscape by bike will bring you face to face with prairie dogs, an occasional buffalo and staggering ancient beauty.
After crossing into Montana via Interstate 94, you’ll have to reckon with the vast emptiness of the Mountain West while keeping an eye out for oases like the Sand Springs General Store between Jordan and Winnett. Heading north towards Cut Bank, don’t miss Folklore Coffee, a roastery making its mark in small-town Montana. With Glacier National Park on the horizon, you can decide whether you want to ride the famous Going to-the-Sun-Road or avoid the climb via Maria’s Alternate. The latter goes around the park, while Going- to- the-Sun leads straight through Glacier. The ride to Logan’s Pass Visitor’s Center, the highest point on the road is a long, arduous climb from either direction, so be aware of your capabilities before attempting it.
Montana has its store of surprises, and the next highlight to look forward to will be Lake Koocanusa. Long, narrow and sparkling, Lake Koocanoosa is stunning, especially when looking down from the elevated highway that runs along its rock walls and leads south to the state border.
Once in Idaho, spend the perfect rest day in Sandpoint. Swim in one of America’s deepest lakes, grab a bite on Main Street, and take it easy before getting back in the saddle.
You’ll be crossing the narrow Idaho panhandle, meaning it won’t be long before you reach Washington, which brings a final-stretch intensity to the table. Heading west across the state, expect forested lakeside campsites, steady climbing, and rapid change in elevation once you reach the Cascades. Riding through Cascades National Park means snowy peaks, difficult passes, and unpredictable weather. This third national park is possibly the most taxing thanks to its proximity to your finish line. Exhilarating and bittersweet, riding into Anacortes will be a once in a lifetime experience. Dip your feet in the Pacific to truly go full circle; chances are, you’ll already be planning your next tour.
Keep an eye on ACA’s ever-changing map corrections, which are updated regularly to reflect unexpected route changes.
Summer is wildfire season in the American West. Don’t hesitate to re-route if there are reports of a blaze in the direction you’re headed.
Carry extra food and water, especially in remote parts of North Dakota, Montana, and Washington.
National Parks require entry fees; some don’t accept cash, so call ahead! Many parks also have cyclist-specific rules. Glacier National Park, for example, restricts cyclist access at certain times during the summer. In the spring, however, vehicle access is restricted, making the park a rider’s paradise.