Bicycle Tours – Riding the TransAmerica Trail Across the USA

By far one of the best known cross country bike routes, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail famously began as an informal ride coined the “Bikecentennial”. Nearly four thousand riders gathered to ride the newly established trail in 1976, kickstarting the bike touring movement in the United States. Nowadays, the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), founded in part by the original organizer of the Bikecentennial,  provides maps for close to thirty U.S. routes, from long distance ventures to more local loops.

The TransAm remains the most popular way to cross the states by bike, and the route is lined with small businesses and resources that support the hundreds of riders who roll through each year. Along the way, you’ll find a well preserved archive of decades-long touring history; notebooks, photographs and souvenirs left behind by travelers decorate many of the route’s cycle-friendly businesses.

The TransAm route

Running between the Pacific Northwest and the Atlantic Coast, the TransAm is the best way to experience a different slice of North America’s diverse landscape each week of your trip; you’ll be pedaling through mountain chains, national parks, woodland, and even high desert before reaching coastal climates. The route totals about 4,200 miles, meaning that most will need two to three months to complete it (this may vary based on your average daily mileage).

Though the route usually sees a higher number of cyclists heading west to east, the TransAm can be ridden in either direction, starting in Astoria, Oregon or Yorktown, Virginia.

Weather conditions

Though you’ll likely be doing the route during summer, always stay one step ahead of the weather, especially in mountainous areas and prairies prone to tornado warnings.

Expect low nighttime temperatures and possibilities of hail, freezing rain, and even springtime snow in parts of the Appalachians and Rockies. If you’ll be on the road into autumn, be prepared to wear layers and bundle up in a sleeping bag rated for low temperatures.

Early summer to early fall is prime touring season so expect to see plenty of fellow bike tourists going both ways on the route. Exchanging tips, stories, and gear is one of the best things about a historic route like the TransAm; every small interaction keeps the spirit of the route alive for generations to come. ACA’s route map set is a crucial resource for anyone traversing the country by bike for the first time; the twelve maps will guide you to camp sites, restaurants, bike shops and cyclist-only resources to keep you safe and stocked up during your trip.

Look out for “76” signs throughout your route; in honor of the original ’76 ride, these signs mark most of the tour and will guide you along with the physical maps.

If you’re a first time bike tourist, a route like this can be a huge undertaking, and you might not know exactly where to start. Getting comfortable on shorter, local multi-day rides can help you be better prepared for a long distance ride. Check out these tips on how to begin bicycle touring for more advice.

The TransAm route in detail

Starting in Yorktown, Virginia, you’ll jump right into a capital of colonial American history. Say goodbye to the coast by visiting Yorktown’s Revolutionary War sites before you get ready to pedal west. With the Chesapeake Bay in your rearview, you’ll head inland via gently rolling terrain. Expect greenery and Civil War history as you pass cities like Richmond and Charlottesville. Just past Charlottesville, you’ll begin to climb the Appalachian Mountains, starting with the Blue Ridge Parkway. Famous as a scenic drive, the parkway is a thrill to ride by bike, with views of the Blue Ridge peaks, high altitude forest, and a coasting downhill at the very end.

Following your descent into charming Roanoke, you’ll be well on your way to the Kentucky border via Breaks Interstate Park. Representing true Appalachian culture, Kentucky will be both beautiful and taxing; take in the dense foliage and hollows, but watch out for stray dogs as the area’s furry friends have a reputation for chasing down unsuspecting cyclists. After a steep uphill at Bighill (it’s all in the name!), you’ll reach Berea, a quiet college town that marks your exit from the Appalachians as you continue on to the Midwest.

Just before the town of Sonora, you can turn slightly south for a detour into Mammoth Cave National Park. Stay at the park campground and visit part of the longest cave network in the world. Mammoth Cave is one of the state’s natural treasures, and since it’s probably not every day that you’re deep in the heart of Kentucky, don’t miss the chance to stop by and spend some time off the bike before continuing on to the Ohio River. 

With your bike safely onboard the Cave-in-Rock ferry at the state border, a five minute boat ride across the river will drop you off in Illinois.

Though you’ll only be crossing a small swath of the state, Carbondale, Illinois will be a highlight; another small and friendly college town, Carbondale is a great spot to take a rest day or two before moving on to the Mississippi River at Chester.

From here, you’ll cross the Chester Bridge into Missouri (be aware of possible flooding and bridge closures). Missouri’s Ozarks will have you on what will seem like an endless series of ups and downs; the terrain is steep and surprising.

The area is heavy on recreation, so expect weekend traffic as well as plenty of tourist- friendly fun to take part in. Riding into Kansas, you’ll notice the dramatic change in terrain; the state will be the flattest portion of your trip. Sit back in your seat and relax; the scenery won’t be changing for a while. The sparse country will follow you into Colorado and onwards to Pueblo, another larger town that makes a good rest day destination.

By Pueblo, you’ll have completed exactly half of the TransAm; the Rocky Mountains coming into focus on the horizon will cement that notion. Climbing the Colorado Rockies will not be easy; however, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the challenge having traversed the Appalachians.

The Continental Divide at Hoosier Pass stands at over 11,500 feet, and will be one of your greatest Trans Am accomplishments. Surrounded by white peaks, this is the highest point of the whole route. Descending into Breckenridge and finally Kremmling, you’ll gradually leave the alpine landscape and enter the high desert of Wyoming.

Uninterrupted and unforgettable, the part of the route that crosses Wyoming has longer stretches between resources, so plan ahead and always carry extra supplies. Heading steadily northwest from Rawlins, you’ll ride into Grand Teton National Park, sitting just below Montana’s Yellowstone National Park. You’ll be riding out through one park and into the other, crossing the state border as you go. The two parks encompass some of the Mountain West’s most dramatic natural beauty, and you’ll want to stay an additional day or two to experience it all on a deeper level.

Montana means Missoula, and if you’re not familiar with it, Missoula means cycling haven. The ACA headquarters is located in this university town, along with tons of bike resources, restaurants, and creative businesses. Make the traditional visit to the ACA headquarters before moving on to Lolo Pass.

A sliver of Idaho will offer gorgeous riverside riding, and before you know it, you’ll be in Oregon; the final state of the route. At odds with general perceptions of the lush Pacific Northwest, this section of Oregon features more high desert; dry sagebrush and rocky terrain will make this stretch feel lonesome but nonetheless beautiful. Pioneer history is strong here, and Baker City can teach you all you need to know about the infamous Oregon Trail.

Distant views of the Cascades will accompany you as the landscape changes into a much greener Western Oregon. If you have no plans to make a mad dash for the finish line, both Sisters and Eugene are eclectic towns with vibrant communities to take some time to explore. Just past Eugene, you can make the choice whether to continue northwest to Astoria, or make a slightly shorter detour and meet the Pacific in Florence, Oregon. After weeks of desert, steep alpine ascents and remote riding, the rugged coastline will be a warm but bittersweet welcome to the final few miles of your cross country tour.

Conclusion

Despite the various challenges the TransAm is sure to throw your way, you’ll be certain to encounter extraordinary kindness on the road, whether it be from supportive drivers, fellow cyclists, or locals who run the many restaurants, campsites, cyclist lodgings and other business along the route.

Make sure you sign every cyclist log you come across as you flip through entries from riders who took the same path twenty or thirty years ago.

As the first established cross country bike route, the TransAmerica trail is a symbol of cycle touring as a community; completing the trail, or even a section of it, makes (and your rig) you a part of living history.