Trail of the Month: June 2008
May and June in Boston can be tough to predict weather-wise. But as soon as the chilly drizzles of winter dry out and the clouds peel apart, you can be certain of one spring ritual: restless legs start pouring out onto the city's many trails and pathways. And no stretch of asphalt feels the joyful tread of more heels and wheels than the 10.4-mile Minuteman Commuter Bikeway, which Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) recently named as the fifth inductee to its Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
The Minuteman passes through part of Massachusetts' Revolutionary War heritage along the old Lexington & West Cambridge Railroad Line. Its storied path marches from Bedford all the way to the Alewife "T" Station in Cambridge, where inbound commuters and visitors can ride right up to the parking garage, lock their bikes (or carry them along during off-peak weekday hours and anytime on weekends), and then take a $2.00 train ride to destinations all over downtown Boston.
This suburb-to-city slingshot helps explain the route's enormous popularity: An estimated 2 million people use it each year, making the Minuteman one of the busiest rail-trails in the country.
Timing, for visitors concerned with elbow-bumping crowds during commuting hours and sunny weekends, can therefore make a huge difference. Flexible travelers can take advantage of late mornings and early afternoons on weekdays, when the trail largely clears out. Aside from nodding hello to a handful of joggers, bicyclists and baby strollers, you'll have free reign on the bikeway to enjoy its many diversions, or pass the trip as quickly as you'd like.
The easiest direction for first-timers is to head outbound from Alewife, where anyone coming from downtown Boston can easily pick up the trailhead. From there, the bikeway leisurely passes softball and soccer fields and neighborhood backyards until it reaches the 100-acre Spy Pond, which spills out sparkling blue to the east and bobs with canoes, daysailers and twig-fetching dogs. A half-mile later you'll reach the town of Arlington, the first community along the pathway, and pop out of the trail at Carberry's Bakery and Coffee House (pastry lovers: don't miss the maple oatmeal scone).
Here in Arlington town center, 1.5 miles from Alewife, the bikeway reaches its only off-trail interruption. You'll have to cross Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street to pick up the well-marked trail on the other side of the intersection, roughly 100 yards away. Yet with wide sidewalks and stoplights, this disruption barely stalls your return to bikeway blacktop.
About a third of the way into the trip, and literally feet from the trail, The Bike Shop offers repair service and snacks. On hotter days, don't be surprised to find a few folks lined up on the benches out front, cooling off with a fudge pop. But don't worry too much about overexposure to the sun, as much of the trail offers a cooling leaf canopy.
The next boost comes a few miles down the bikeway when the trailside tree-wall breaks to reveal lush wetlands. Rustling leaves on windier days entirely drown out the shufflings of distant traffic—very much worth a pause and a head scratch, 'Where did the city go?'
The trailside opens up again a little past the halfway point in Lexington, near where the first shots of the rebellion were fired in April 1775. Broad lawns and parks, rich with the smell of pines and cut grass (but not gunpowder anymore), lead up to one of New England's fabled white steeples peeping above the tree line. Travelers here have access to stores, including a CVS, just off the trail, as well as a water fountain with a bowl chained to its base for pets.
On the last few miles of the journey, the Minuteman grows even quieter as it passes through deep forests, around small ponds, a number of off-branching trails, and plush backyards. So by the time it rolls into Bedford at Loomis Street and the Bedford Depot Park, where you'll find another outdoor water fountain and the Bikeway Source, the trail has thoroughly outgrown its urban roots.
Pedaling across a bridge over I-95 on this last leg to Bedford is a wonderful reminder of the bikeway's seclusion from traffic congestion. It's very much a swift ride—little more than an hour one way at a comfortable pace—with minor grades and few significant interruptions, thanks to clearly marked signposts and, for busier streets, push-button walk signs.
These recreational conveniences, as well as the trail's utility as a commuter route, naturally attract the full spectrum or visitors. You may run into families pushing or pedaling strollers, ear-phoned kids walking home from school, older couples hand-in-hand, business folks in an on-the-go meeting, jerseyed cyclists whizzing along, inline skaters and recumbents and joggers. This trail itself is a lively, eclectic community, its own kind of "Main Street," so don't fear the crowds. The Minuteman Bikeway has a full cheering section for good reasons.