Some people are happy to wander aimlessly in a new area, discovering serendipitously what is around them. Others like to know exactly where they are at all times and how to get to the next place on their itinerary. No matter where you fall in on the continuum between these extremes, a map can be a useful tool. Personally, I like to wander around new cities, but also have a map to show me how to get back to my hotel or find major landmarks.
When bicycling in a new place, or just in finding new routes in your home city, cycling-specific maps can be very useful. Websites like MapQuest and traditional road maps are best suited to finding driving directions, but may not be as useful for cycling (unless you like riding on major highways). Cycling-specific maps will help you find routes that are bicycle-friendly, and often contain a host of other information useful to cycling tourists such as campground locations, restaurants, hostels, and so on.
A recent web search for “bicycle maps” resulted in hundreds of hits. A search can be refined by specifying the city, state or region in which you’re interested. The hard part is then sorting through and finding the most relevant websites. Of course, like any internet search, the more specific your search terms are, the fewer hits you’ll get.
Some on-line mapping websites seem to becoming more cycling friendly. For instance, if you click on the bicycle icon on Google Maps you’ll get more bicycle-oriented routes, where available. MapQuest did not have that feature at the time I looked. For most sites that weren’t originally bicycle-specific, this feature is under development and may not give you the best information. They are, however, a place to start.
One excellent source of bicycle touring maps is Adventure Cycling Association. According to their website (www.adventurecycling.org), they have mapped over 40,000 miles of cycling-friendly routes throughout North America (most are in the contiguous 48 United States). The maps ACA sells are waterproof and sized to fit in a handlebar bag window or jersey pocket. They include an incredible amount of information including a variety of service symbols; turn-by-turn narrative instructions; contour lines and elevation profiles; updated addenda available on-line; and much, much more. These maps can help you plan anything from a day ride to a multi-week tour across the country.
A superb source of trail maps and information is Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (www.railstotrails.org). This organization has published a set of guide books to regional rail-trails across America, and also has an online resource called TrailLink.com. On this website you can search for trails by trail name, city or state. Results include both rail-trails and other trails. A variety of other search parameters are also available.
State, city and other local transportation departments may also be good sources of bike route maps. If they don’t produce local area maps themselves, they may know who does. Many U.S. cities have produced excellent maps showing cycling friendly street routes.
As always, local bike shops are great resources for all things cycling related, including maps and insider route knowledge. Many sell books and maps of local routes, and may also be able to direct you to good websites for more information. They’ll also likely know which areas you should avoid, where the best mountain bike trails are, and what highways are the most dangerous. If you’re just mining them for information, however, and don’t plan to buy anything, please be polite, don’t monopolize their time, and let them take care of paying customers first.
Whether or not you intend to plot every mile of your ride, good maps of your intended route can help you avoid problems and aid you in having a safer, more enjoyable experience.
Ride safe and have fun!