Short Tours and Day Rides Meet at Lake Erie
This is an account of a trip taken in 2010. I wrote an early version of this as a possible magazine piece, but didn't pursue that very far. The road route taken in Ohio was different from the trail connections suggested in these pages, and used busier routes such as 88 and 303 through Freedom and Windham. The Headwaters trail was rough in those days and I was riding a road bike with skinny tires, so that now-favored connection was omitted.
The rural rail trail was deserted and the cherry-red sunset was done, having passed barely glimpsed through the dense woods. Now the well shaded path was quickly turning into a dark, chilly tunnel of black tree canopies and asphalt. I had gotten a late start on my ride up to Ashtabula and stopped to pull out some wimpy lights I’d packed “just in case.” The last 10 miles to the motel were ridden alone in silence except for the light footfalls of curious deer and the furious flapping of a spooked wild turkey. A quick left into traffic and within a few hundred yards there was a jarring transition to the noise and lights of a major interstate exit. But this was not unwelcome, as the traffic and neon signs meant the motel and a warm bed were near.
This was the end of the first leg of a two-day, 150-mile trip from Northeast Ohio with my wife, Judy, in the extensive vineyards along the Lake Erie shorelines of Western New York. Well, not exactly. She was actually back at the house getting ready to teach the next day and packing to meet me for a much shorter 25-mile trip. Confused yet? I like long days in the saddle, often solo. She enjoys shorter social rides punctuated by other interesting activities. My long ride - to go on our short ride - is our “compromise.”
Lots of us find that family or friends have different expectations of cycling. You may want to ride long and hard, but your cycling partner is just not that into the whole idea of pedaling for 6 hours a day into eternity. But they’d appreciate a shorter adventure. Merging the plans results in a long weekend everyone can enjoy. After a couple of long days of riding TO wine country, I’m relaxed (OK, exhausted) and more than ready for a leisurely ride IN wine country with many stops for photography, beach exploration, bird watching, and wine tasting. Perfect.
The grape harvest coincides with the end of the warm weather riding season, so this ride is a perfect finale to summer. I can travel light on these trips with a credit card and just enough extra clothing to overstuff a trunk bag. Judy loads the car with a bike rack, luggage, and luxuries, so we have whatever we need for maximum relaxation on our days together. The return trip by car is an exploration of country roads and covered bridges, filled with the conversations for which we rarely find time during long overlapping work weeks. This is a good getaway for groups as well, and we’ve also made the trip with our adult daughters and friends.
Home is Kent, Ohio, a mid-sized university town. Our county is a mix of farms, large rural lots, and bedroom communities for Cleveland to the north, Akron to the west, and Youngstown to the east. While the area is bicycle-friendly, I see few cyclists while wandering our inviting country roads. Perhaps it has something to do with the overabundance of bone-shaking potholes and chip-n-seal. More riders frequent the area’s many bike trails, two of which are used on route to our Great Lakes destination.
The start of this mid-September ride was not typical. Instead of leaving early, I worked most of that Thursday, then left the driveway at mid-afternoon, hoping to avoid the boredom of sitting around the hotel room all night. On a previous version of this trip, I had an enjoyable evening as the only customer of a first-time bartender. But my digs for this year were elsewhere and no frosted mugs could be found nearby.
I started my zig-zag route northeast along the fringes of Kent State University. Those wanting to start a tour here will find plenty of hotels nearby, and like most college towns, the nightlife is rich. As the zigging continued, I eventually intersected The Portage Hike and Bike Trail which links Kent and Ravenna, our county seat and home to the Ravenna Balloon A-Fair.
Most long rides feature sharp transitions and this one was no exception. “The Portage” rail trail arrows through the old industrial section of town, eventually kicking you out onto major roads that skirt the north side of the 34 square mile Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center, known locally by its historic name, “The Ravenna Arsenal.” This reservation was an ammunition production and storage facility during WW2, Korea, and Viet Nam. Large rural properties and farms flanked the mostly gentle rollers, and although the traffic was moving fast, and the shoulders were narrow, I began to relax and enjoy the scenery. On this day the views included some spectacular thunderheads. Leaving the state roads, I continued northeast through the shady Eagle Creek and Mahoning River bottomlands. I was happy to have invested in armored tires as a lack of recent maintenance on these quiet back roads meant there were short stretches with more holes than pavement. I found some quick dinner in Champion, and then located the Western Reserve Greenway (WRG) trailhead at W. Champion Ave. From here, the paved trail runs 43 miles north to downtown Ashtabula.
My late departure was fortuitous. This trail is already lightly used beyond its endpoints. By 7 pm on this late summer weeknight it was positively deserted once I’d traveled a few miles north. The bad weather was finally rolling in, and I was already losing daylight when I stopped at the Mosquito Creek State Wildlife Area to watch waterfowl settle in for the evening. The ominous clouds were providing an amazing sunset, so I frequently stopped to take photos on the approach into Orwell, which is the most varied food stop near the trail. A smattering of Amish farms also borders this segment of the WRG, and detailed signage along the Ashtabula County portion of the trail highlights the history of the Underground Railroad in this region. By the time I reached Rock Creek, where the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route joins the WRG, it was getting dark, and that’s when I pulled out my cheap lamps and continued into the night. My convenient stopping point at day’s end was the Austinburg interchange of Rt 45 and I-90, a few blocks off the greenway. A late-night delivery pizza ended the long day.
The next morning, I waited out some light rain and rejoined the WRG as the thermometer peeked above 50°F. I ran into the first of the day’s detours within 5 minutes. The repair of a railroad bridge had closed the trail temporarily and the unhelpful crew suggested I follow the greenway detour signs…which didn’t exist. Many turns later I found my way back to the WRG and continued into Ashtabula. In past years I’d ridden directly north to Lake Erie from here (see a suggested route on these pages), but wanted to attempt a different route through some hopefully picturesque river valleys including an historic covered bridge. That plan lasted another 20 minutes or so, until after climbing out of deep valley, I discovered that another bridge was out. The Great Recession was a recent event and the Stimulus Package was clearly at work here. Cursing my useless-for-navigation Blackberry, I gave up on the new route and jogged north on State Street, which I’s previously used to take me to Lake Erie. I had an immediate surprise encounter with the Smolen-Gulf covered bridge, a large, modern “chapeau” to the county’s many historic wooden bridges. After passing through an industrial area north of town, I had my first views of the lake along Rt 531. The ride east to Conneaut hugged the shore. Sunset and Conneaut Parks provided quiet places to stop and enjoy the lake.
The Lake Erie shoreline is wine country, and a few Ashtabula County wineries are easily accessible from this route. It was too early for tastings, so I found lunch in Conneaut and then crossed the Ashtabula River via Rt 20 and continued east. Once across the Pennsylvania line, I diverted north onto Rt 5 (West Lake Rd), following PA Bike Route Z, which is also part of the Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern Tier and UGRR bike routes.
At Avonia Rd, I detoured to the lake to see if the steelhead trout were running. The tiny stream, park and beach at the end of the road are unassuming, but load up with hundreds of migrating fish in September and October. As a biologist this migration of a transplanted Pacific Ocean fish never ceases to amaze me. Steelhead are not self-sustaining without restocking. The Avonia locks allow returning fish to enter a pool where they can be collected and moved to a nearby hatchery. Ironically, Trout Run is likely named for native Lake Trout, which largely disappeared from Lake Erie a half century ago. They fell victim to the sea lamprey, a leech-like parasitic fish that entered the upper great lakes through the shipping canal that bypasses Niagara Falls.
Back on Rt. 5, it was clear I was approaching Erie, PA when Bike route Z veered north within sight of the airport control tower, and again at 6th St. Turning left at Peninsula Road I coasted down a hill under an unexpected roller coaster and entered Presque Isle State Park. This long spit of glacial deposits features 14 miles of dedicated bike lanes and paved bike trails that wander through seven ecological zones. Presque Isle is an amazing place at peak fall color, and the yellow cottonwoods along the dunes are especially striking against the white sand and blue lake. It is also a prime bird watching area during seasonal migrations. I was too early for all of that, but would return with Judy on a fall weekend specifically to savor these experiences. The peninsula was a base of operations for the Battle of Lake Erie, during the War of 1812. The Perry Monument commemorates the victory of the small American fleet. If you have time to linger, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center at the park entrance is also worth a visit. This large, modern facility focuses on the ecology and history of the area.
Passage through the City of Erie was remarkably easy. Returning to route Z, I left city streets at a small park and hopped on a paved bike path that parallels the Bayfront Parkway. Marinas, restaurants, an observation tower at Dobbin’s Landing, and the Lake Erie Maritime Museum are within a stone’s throw of the bike path. When it is in port, Admiral Perry’s restored relief flagship, the U.S. Brig Niagara, can be viewed here. On this particular trip I happened upon a Tall Ships event that crowded the harbor with vintage sailing vessels. It was a good day to be on a bike path as the city streets were gridlocked with tourists. Leaving Erie eastbound on westbound sidewalks designated as route Z, the road quickly transitioned back to a more rural byway. I rolled into the Lakeview on the Lake motel, nine miles from Erie, with plenty of time to hit the showers before watching a Lake Erie sunset from their beachside bluff. This small strip motel and cabins have been lovingly restored into comfortable lodging for the weary cyclist. The rocky beach can be reached by a long winding stairway thru a wooded ravine. The Pines Motel and Cottage about 10 miles further down Rt 5 is another good lodging spot, you’ll just need to walk a little further to enjoy that sunset.
Judy arrived late on this Friday night after a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kent. Once she rendezvoused with me at Lakeview, the personal endurance contest ended and the relaxation began: time to break out the wine glasses. We drove for morning and evening meals, but a couple of these local restaurants were also on our winery loop ride. The Freeport Restaurant is five miles east of Lakeview, and is a great destination for a casual breakfast, lunch or dinner. Homemade sausage, fresh fish, and rich soups are specialties. Another convenient spot for lunch, dinner, or cocktails is the CrayZ Parrot, located on the backside of the North East Marina main building a few more miles down Rt 5. The deck overlooks the marina and is another prime sunset-viewing location.
Day three didn’t start early. We slept in, enjoyed a substantial breakfast at “The Freeport” in nothing resembling spandex, and then peddled out of the motel parking lot at 10:00 AM. Our clockwise route was fairly simple: we headed east on Rt 5 for about 10 miles until we entered New York State, jogged south to Rt 20 west, and then looped back to the motel. There are more than a dozen wineries on or near this route, and we targeted a half dozen. We responsibly enjoyed limited tastings, often splitting a single batch of samples. We lingered to chat with the staff or owners, and stopped often to snack, hydrate, sightsee and take photographs. We made a 24-mile ride last until late afternoon.
Climbing out of the first valley on Rt 5, there were some scenic views across vineyards that descend towards Lake Erie. To our southeast was the high escarpment formed by the edge of the Allegheny Plateau. The ridgeline is the divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainages. Wineries on our route (in order) included Penn Shore Winery and Vineyards, South Shore Wine Company, Mazza Vineyards, Sparkling Ponds Winery, Quincy Cellars, Heritage Winery, Arrowhead Wine Cellars, Courtyard Wineries, and Presque Isle Wine Cellars. South Shore was the only winery we visited that was not on the main loop. To reach it, we turned north at the Freeport Restaurant, which is located in a little river valley, and climbed Rt 89 for a half mile. Our reward was the area’s oldest winery location, reopened and refurbished by the Mazza family starting in 2007. The wine shop was located down a flight of stairs in the original arched stone wine cellar. There was also a café on site. Backtracking down the hill, we crossed Rt. 5 and continued to the beach. Our electric orange and hot pink safety jerseys nicely complemented the traditional purple garb and red headgear of a group of Red Hat Ladies that had also paused here between tastings. Continuing east, we turned right on Shortman Road, which I call the “Zombie Exit” on I-90 because nearly all the businesses have been abandoned. We then headed west on Route 20, which follows the Beach Ridge, the former shoreline of ancient lakes that formed between the receding glaciers and the escarpment. The well-drained beach soils help make this wine region possible. After visiting the wineries, the easy way to complete the loop back to Lakeview on the Lake was via Moorheadville, Lewis, and Shomont Roads, avoiding some hilly lakeside ravines on Rt. 5.
Each winery had its own unique atmosphere. Other than South Shore, some that were memorable include: tasting in the converted living room of a newer home where one wine was said to have “a tomato aftertaste that would stick with you for days” (yum?), a curved, industrial concrete bar in a wood-beamed barn cellar (Quincy), and self-service tasting of a large selection in a tiny “general store” atmosphere (Heritage). Each winery we visited had some good, or at least unusual, wines. By September many of the good reds had sold out, so plan an early season ride to taste more varieties. Our palates particularly favored the local Chardonnays and Cabernet Francs. Dining opportunities on southern part of the loop include a number of options in downtown North East, PA.
We opted not to purchase any bottled wine while biking (no panniers, too heavy, and not compatible with the whole “relaxing” concept). So, after a nice dinner, quiet night, and another slow breakfast, we made a quick circuit in the car and grabbed our favorites on the way back to Kent. We were both suitably exercised and relaxed. I logged some extensive bike time, and that planning experience would inform my route on a future longer trip to the Erie Canalway Trail. Afterwards Judy and I enjoyed a casually-paced winery circuit, a welcome respite from our busy careers. It was a wine-tempered, but whine-free weekend.