A weekend bike tour around Princeton NJ: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

Time to put some my knowledge about this area in one place. And for those who don’t want to just bike, there’s kayaking/canoeing and walking too.

Princeton, halfway between New York and Philadelphia, is more than the home of an Ivy League university. George Washington’s victory at the Battle of Princeton on Jan. 3, 1777 kept the American Revolution alive. Alexander Hamilton was alongside him, and Aaron Burr is buried in town.

Start: Princeton train station. Take New Jersey Transit or Amtrak to Princeton Junction, then transfer to the “Dinky” train for Princeton. (Note: Amtrak doesn’t offer bike service at either Princeton Junction or Trenton, one stop south). For those driving, park at Turning Basin Park at Alexander Road and the D&R Canal.

Day 1: Head downhill on Alexander Road (take the trail next to the road) to the unpaved D&R Canal towpath, part of the East Coast Greenway. Turn right (south) toward Trenton. After about 10 miles, at Broad Street, look right for Battle Monument, which marks the first Battle of Trenton (Dec. 26, 1776), part of the 10 crucial days that saved the Revolution. Learn more about what happened there at the Old Barracks Museum a few blocks away (closed Sundays).

You can get a tour of the New Jersey State Capitol (weekdays and some Saturdays) and see the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” bridge before retracing your ride to Princeton. (If you don’t want to bike back, take a New Jersey Transit train two stops to Princeton Junction and transfer to the Dinky.)

As you approach Princeton, look for the marker just after Quaker Road that commemorates George Washington’s march from Trenton to Princeton in January 1777. To reach the Princeton Battlefield, take the lane on Quaker Road (no trail option).

Read about my ride with George Washington and about 80 of his “troops.”

Back in Princeton, walk past Nassau Hall, the oldest building on the university campus. Legend claims that Hamilton shot the cannonball into the building that destroyed a painting of King George II. True: That painting’s frame now frames a painting depicting George Washington at the Battle of Princeton. It hangs minutes away in the Princeton University Art Museum (free admission).

Just a 10-minute walk away is the Princeton Cemetery, where Aaron Burr is buried.

Day 2: Canoe or kayak on the D&R Canal (rentals at Princeton Canoe Rental on Alexander Road) for an hour or two, then bike ride north on the canal towpath, also part of the East Coast Greenway. While you can ride as far as New Brunswick (40 miles; trains run from New Brunswick to Princeton Junction), consider turning around after 9 miles at the Griggstown Causeway. (Canoe and kayak rentals here too.) Dismount at the lock just south of the causeway, walk across and look across the road to your left to spot another George Washington marker.

Griggstown is where John Honeyman lived. Was he Washington’s spy? You’ll have to make up your own mind.

Rockingham, between Griggstown and Kingston and accessible from the other side of the canal, served as Washington’s final wartime headquarters.

Where to eat: Two Princeton institutions are Conte’s Pizza, a short bike ride to the other end of Witherspoon Street, and, for breakfast, PJ’s Pancake House on Nassau Street. Yankee Doodle Tap Room, in the Nassau Inn, dates back to before the Revolution. For ice cream, try either the Bent Spoon or Thomas Sweet, both downtown.

Metro North on Alexander Road is a short walk from the canal and has a back deck. Triumph Brewing on Nassau Street is the local brewpub.

On the way back from Griggstown, try Osteria Procaccini in Kingston.

Bike rental: Jay’s Cycles in downtown Princeton or a heavier bike from Princeton’s bike-share system that offers unlimited free rides of up to 2 hours each.

Bike-accessible hotels: Nassau Inn in downtown Princeton, Hyatt Place Princeton (south of Princeton and accessible from the D&R Canal; shopping center, restaurants, cinema nearby and both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are a short bike ride away), or Courtyard by Marriott and Homewood Suites (north of Princeton and accessible from the D&R Canal, one restaurant within walking distance). There are many more options for those willing to drive.

More to see and do: There’s more to Princeton than Washington, Hamilton and Burr. A two-hour walking tour with the Historical Society of Princeton on Sundays takes you past the homes of Albert Einstein and Woodrow Wilson. Princeton Tour Company offers its own walking tours on both Saturdays and Sundays as well as other tours.

At least bike or drive through the mansions of Princeton (Cleveland Lane and Library Place is a good epicenter, and Grover Cleveland lived nearby at Westland Mansion, 15 Hodge Road, after his presidency.)

Two signers of the Declaration of Independence — Richard Stockton and John Witherspoon — lived here. Stockton’s home is now Morven Museum and Garden. Witherspoon was president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) and is buried not far from Burr. You’ll find Cleveland’s grave in the same cemetery.

Princeton has its share of quirky stores, even if they seem to be shrinking in number. Princeton Record Exchange is one of the largest new and used music CD stores, DVD stores and independent music stores on the East Coast. Kopp’s Cycle is America’s oldest bicycle shop. Both are downtown.

For evening entertainment, see what’s on at the Tony-award-winning McCarter Theater, plus Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts and the cinema on Nassau Street, Princeton Garden Theater. All are downtown.

Extra biking options: The Lawrence Hopewell Trail is an almost-completed 22-mile loop of off-road trails and quiet streets (take the road to close the gaps) that is reachable from the D&R Canal towpath. Head toward Trenton and watch for a semi-circle on the right about a mile after going under two roads – that is the turnoff to Brearley House and the LHT.

I’ve written about the LHT here.

Road riders who like hills should head to Hopewell and the Sourland Mountain. You’ll likely find plenty of cyclists refueling at the Boro Bean in Hopewell. John Hart, another signer of the Declaration of Independence, is buried there; look for the marker for the cave he hid in for a few weeks in late 1776 a few miles away. And if you want a really long hill loop, here’s one suggestion.

The one-way option: Start at the Trenton train station (reachable on New Jersey Transit from New York and Septa from Philadelphia as well as Amtrak from both cities) and bike to New Brunswick (New Jersey Transit train station), spending the night in Princeton.

This Adventure Cycling blog post offers more options for biking in the area.

And should you want to continue north, try my Portugal-to-India ride in reverse.

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Day 6 — the final 56 miles from Beaufort to Savannah

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We biked a final 56 miles on the East Coast Greenway on Friday and crossed one state line (an unmarked spot between South Carolina and Georgia) to reach Savannah.

IMG_1276The day started with a ride to the end of the delightful (and expanding?)  Spanish Moss Trail in Beaufort and ended with — what else — a rain shower while we were grabbing lunch in Savannah.

The route included a stretch on a no-name side path of a trail along the Okatie Highway (maybe SC 170). Nothing scenic but definitely utilitarian, and we encountered plenty of cyclists going the other way. Hey South Carolina, that’s a sign of hidden demand. How about a bit more?

Alligator Alley has a scary name, but in the end I found it not that fearsome. No alligators sighted, for one. Traffic didn’t seem horrible, or maybe that’s because we had a support vehicle behind us. The road surface, though, was pretty awful, and of course there was no shoulder. Let’s see … lowest gas taxes in the nation, so little cash + road where poor people live = low on the priority list?

IMG_1303We continued our habit of riding in packs, sometimes splitting into a faster group and everyone else, in part to make it easier for motorists to pass. In this group, I can qualify as fast. The slower group got a police “escort” for a few miles once we hit Georgia, though from what we heard, he was pretty far in front.

So where did that crazy smell like rotten bananas come from? Is it somehow related to the paper mill we passed in Port Wentworth? The sugar refinery? And wow, those shipping containers piled seven high or more as we passed the port. But sorry, pack riding means skipping the photo ops.

But it means we took the back entrance into Savannah and didn’t really see its beauty. Next year?

Final tally: 320 or so miles in six days, plus 60 on Day 0 and my 70 or so over two days on the Virginia Capital Trail. Given the amount on crud on the shoulders — chunks of blown truck tires, nails, bolts, wood and more (plus road kill), it shouldn’t be a surprise that 13 riders — more than one in three — got flat tires, some more than one. And eight took a spill at one point, also way more than normal. Fortunately I was not in either camp.

One pleasant surprise: I saw very few Confederate flags, maybe one a day. I know we were on main roads for a lot of the time, but we did go past plenty of homes and businesses. And I saw many, many U.S. flags. Maybe times are finally changing.

I’ve now ridden the www from Newark NJ to Savannah, plus 350 or so miles in Maine and good chunks of the route in Connecticut and New York. The truth is that this was the least scenic of them all, given the need to stick with your pack, and definitely more of an assessment of the existing (mostly interim) route. There are definitely prettier places to ride. We saw two touring companies in Savannnah — Backroads and VBT — and those riders do a lot of shuttling and not much riding in their week between Charleston and Savannah. Now that sounds like a gussied-up sightseeing tour.

As for me, do I do the next two rides and reach Key West?

Oh, and the excitement wasn’t over just because we boarded a bus to head back to Wilmington. A hawk hit the windshield and cracked it into hundreds of pieces. Pro tip if this ever happens to you: slow down and buy a big roll of clear tape to hold everything in place. That got us back safely.

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One last thing: there was another blogger on the trip. Read her take.

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A singing tribute to this year’s East Coast Greenway ride

 

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The WAY warriors prepare to battle the bridge over the Ashley River and then Highway 17

Sing along to “The 12 Days of Christmas” for this one.

Three of us had a bit of fun while on the few quiet roads between the highways this afternoon and then finished it before tonight’s final dinner. So much material ended on the cutting-room floor!

Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the references to the weather, the state of the roads and more … but here it goes:

On the first day of WAY tour, Dennis gave to me

Dexter with The Greenway flag

IMG_1296(And so on, with the second day, etc.)

2 live snakes

3 dead deer

4 feet of glass

5 fab’lous trails

6 cyclists tumbling

7 finished tours

8 squashed armadillos

9 melted Clif bars

10 knee-deep puddles

11 lost riders

12 stinky jerseys

 

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Day 5 — 76 miles (or a bit more) from Charleston to Beaufort

IMG_1272This is the day that I have finally had it with Highway 17.

I have a high tolerance for traffic, but this is simply not safe for the solo cyclIst. We rode for at least 10 miles with support vehicles in the front and rear of our pack for protection because there was no shoulder and we needed to take the right lane (and I could easily be undercounting). We had at least as many more miles where we could stick to a narrow shoulder, shrunk by almost constant rumble strips on the left side that jar your brain when forced to cross over and dodging chunks of rubber tire and other crud in the space that was left. It was ride in a pack, regroup when there was a break, get water if possible, hope you remembered to slather on more sunscreen, and repeat. You didn’t dare drop back or stop if it meant losing your posse. No lunch break either, just another Clif bar (at least for me) to keep you going. I think breakfast and lunch equaled 3 bars, and then it was just waiting for that group dinner.

Imagine if you were doing this on your own or with a few friends. Forget it.

I thought the East Coast Greenway‘s Trenton-to-Philadelphia stretch was bad, but this is far worse. I know it’s a new interim on-road route, shorter than going further inland, and the Spanish Moss Trail in Beaufort is still under construction, with plans to expand. And we had some quiet stretches away from the highway. And road options are limited by the need to cross so much water in the low country.

Thankfully, Charleston has the nice West Ashley Greenway used by a wide range of people (just pave the middle section) and hopefully will end the insane bike/ped situation over the river. Here we are doing last-minute preparations before taking the lane on the approach to the bridge:

IMG_1270But there is lots of work needed to make the entire stretch merely acceptable. Once again, it highlights the need for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which strives for a route connecting cities up and down the East Coast that serves everyone from 8 to 80.

Just putting up the tiniest “share the road” signs ever doesn’t cut it, SCDOT. We’re not all John Forester-style vehicular cyclists, let alone crazy vehicular cyclists. And given the pervasiveness of fire ants, a decent shoulder is needed not just for cyclists (as a minimum) but also for motorists dealing with a breakdown. Who wants to try fixing a flat car tire and end up itching from ant bites?

One star (out of five).

And I’m glad I live in a part of the country where the most basic infrastructure isn’t an afterthought.

Want another take? There was another blogger on the ride; read this one.

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Images of Charleston

IMG_1198We are staying in a new hotel a couple of miles from the Battery and a block from King Street and some hip restaurants. It’s an area that hadn’t yet gentrified when I was here about a decade ago.

The national clothing chains have invaded King Street, sometimes in buildings with beautiful old facades. But some local clothing stores are surviving, offering that southern genteel look.

Where else would you find a girl dressed like this, down to the white gloves? I wonder where she and her mother were headed.

IMG_1208And is this a city that takes Christmas sweaters seriously? This store on King Street is where they refuse to die; it’s all it sells.

IMG_1204And yes, bike share has arrived. With a names that has a bit of fun too.

IMG_1209Loved this sign.

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Day 4 — Georgetown to Charleston

IMG_1192OK, I cheated. I took the recommended shuttle to McClellanville from our hotel in Georgetown, lopping off 34 miles. So it was just a 50-mile day, and when I got to Charleston, I felt I could still bike another 34.

But Highway 17 has been the low point of every day on this section of the East Coast Greenway, and the powers-that-be apparently felt this was a particularly tough day. And I certainly didn’t want to risk getting dropped by faster riders and have to fight Highway 17 on my own.

Not that we fully escaped that dreaded road. Sometimes there’s a narrow shoulder; sometimes we are more assertive about controlling the right lane. And we travel in packs. We zipped past roadside stands run by weavers of sweetgrass baskets (in some cases, stands is a nice word), and there was no chance to snap a photo, much less take a look at their wares and chat with them.

And even the Battery2Beach cycle route, which gets bonus points for actually bring signposted, isn’t as family-friendly as you would like. But for us, we were just thrilled to have some paint on the road marked bike lane.

Two highlights of the day: the bike-friendly and aesthetically striking Ravenel Bridge (above, and the larger photo below) and a police escort (3 squad cars and 1 motorcycle) over the decidedly bike-unfriendly Memorial Bridge as part of an event with local advocates Charleston Moves and 20 or so local cyclists. The reward for crossing was riding part of the West Ashley Greenway.

 

We have to ride over Memorial Bridge on Thursday morning as we head out of town — but without a police escort. We will be traveling in one giant pack and be escorted by our support vehicles. These two shots from the advocacy ride show riders headed to the bridge and then on the greenway afterwards.

 

Actually, make that three highlights. Two of us were sent to a delicious barbecue place about 3 blocks from our hotel. That mega sandwich (OK, just a regular portion but I swear there was half a pound of brisket in it, the smothered with cheese) pretty much served as lunch and dinner. Haven’t I always said it’s about the food? Though maybe I scarfed this one down too fast.

Here’s my sandwich, and the one ordered by Cheryl, a fellow rider:

 

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Dear rest of South Carolina, try copying this trail

IMG_1163Finally! Some trail riding in this year’s weeklong East Coast Greenway ride.

And note to the rest of South Carolina: A bicycle trail doesn’t have to be super fancy.

We rode for many miles today along the Waccamaw Neck Bikeway. Sometimes it was parallel to Highway 17, hidden in the woods with some nice curves but certainly not out of hearing range (and sometimes eyesight) of all that traffic. At some points, it turned narrow and bumpy because of tree roots pushing up. While that just slows down cyclists, it does make that portion unsuitable for those in wheelchairs. And, given the area, golf carts too.

It made us think of where we’d ridden on Sunday and Monday where we had biked long stretches of busy roads with unused land just off to the side that could be turned into a simple trail/sidepath. And that would let workers without a car have a basic but safe way to get to work at all the strip malls we passed.

Given the good number of people biking on this trail on a Tuesday morning, I’d say this isn’t just some luxury. We called out “bikers up” more often than we have all week — shorthand for move over to the right so oncoming cyclists have half the trail to go by.

(Just wish there had been some signposting for the Brookgreen Gardens. One group found it and spent hours there.)

IMG_1153Other sections were along newer developments along golf courses — wide enough for getting to the neighboring golf course on your cart, if you desire. (We only saw someone using the trail in a golf cart at the beginning of this section.) While some might object to this use on a multi-use trail because of conflicts with cyclists, walkers and runners, I believe you have to be pragmatic. If those driving golf carts aren’t going to take to the road and their support is what gets politicians to build the trail, accept that reality. Better a trail than no trail.

One more nice thing about the Waccamaw Neck trail: it connected to the library, a shopping center, a middle school and an elementary school. Real destinations! So it was cool to hear a little boy at recess yell out “there’s a bike train” as we rode by. Maybe he rides his bike to school that way?

Just too bad it ends about 9 miles shy of Georgetown and forcing us to use a busy road. Supposedly the plan is to expand it all the way to the bridge leading into Georgetown and creating a 27-mile trail. Can’t happen soon enough! Only 14% of the East Coast Greenway in South Carolina is on trails, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

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