Discovering Duke Farms on a bike

Here’s a family-friendly place to ride a bike that you might not expect: Duke Farms in Hillsborough, NJ.

This is the estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, and it was opened to the public in 2012 (before that, it was only open for tours). Not only does it have 7 miles of paved trails (plus more miles that are gravel) that go past ruins of the foundation for the grand mansion that was never built, man-made lakes, the one-time horse barn that comes with a clocktower and much more, but it also has a bike-share system!

They have 80 bikes — a mix cruisers (with a few gears), adult tricycles, even bikes for kids. So even if you don’t know how to bike, there’s a solution for you. Cost is $5 for two hours, though they hardly seem to be timing the rental.

Note that although it’s called Duke Farms, it’s not a working farm. Nor is it a traditional garden. It’s certainly a lovely place to ride! You can read my take on it here.

Now to find a route that will let me bike there from home. Perhaps the D&R Canal towpath (and East Coast Greenway segment) for much of the way?

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Opening Day for Trails: Getting ready for another ride with George Washington

A chilly Opening Day for Trails from Rails to Trails (and for New Jersey’s fishing season) — but at least it wasn’t snowing. A good time to head down the D&R Canal towpath and do some prep work for the second year of the Historical Society of Princeton’s “Chasing George” bike ride.

Yes, this is a ride with George Washington, heading from the Battle of Trenton to the Battle of Princeton. Irresitable!

The bike ride is May 6. Sign up now, before it fills up.

And the trail today? Muddy in some spots. Deep ruts where heavy machinery has been on the towpath while doing work on the canal or bridge. The damage from the winter storms is evident. Several trees on the banks of the canal have been uprooted and have fallen into the water, and the same as happened to even more big limbs. Not great news for canoers and kayakers! There was only one big tree blocking the path where we had to lift our bikes, and I’m guessing that will be gone fairly soon.

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A cross-county bike ride on the Union Transportation Trail

D1394DFE-1F68-45B9-908D-00CD71A06B73.jpegThis is my latest New Jersey trail discovery.  Well, kind of. I knew the Union Transportation Trail existed, but it was disjointed for several years while being built. The last segment was finished early last year, however, and now it’s a 9-mile stone dust trail in Monmouth County stretching from the Mercer County line to the Ocean County line. And today’s weather — warm and sunny — is finally a sign that spring is coming. A great reason to get out and finally ride it from end to end. And back of course.

The UTT goes through rural New Jersey using the old Union Transportation Railroad (and previously the Pemberton and Hightstown Railroad) rail bed. At the northern end, it cuts through a corner of the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area. But after that, there’s private property on both sides — farms, light manufacturing (that saw mill was a surprise!), housing and the odd junked car.And the trail isn’t just for cyclists, walkers (with or without a dog) and joggers. This is New Jersey horse country, after all.

There isn’t much in the way of green to look at this time of year. The fields still hold the remains of last year’s crops, there are no daffodils or even, best I could tell, forsythia ready to burst into yellow bloom. But as we headed back to the car near the northern end, we passed through a swampy area and were welcomed by a chorus of frogs (mating calls?) and perhaps birds (or were those cheeps from frogs too?)

Don’t expect lots of amenities. I saw one picnic table. There’s no place to get water — unless you want to ask at the golf course you’ll pass. Parking (with port-a-potties) is near the ends of the trail, not in the middle. But you’ll always know where you are; the cross road is identified at each intersection, and there’s a mileage marker every half mile. Wish others would do that!

But for those willing to get off the trail and on the road, you’re only a few miles from Screamin’ Hill brewery, which I’ve written about a few times. Just leave the trail at either Davis Station Road or Burlington Path. And just to the west of the golf course is Historic Walnford, a former mill village that has been preserved.

Will the trail keep growing? You can see the power line right of way just keeps going at both ends. And while we found these warning signs acros Old York Road at the northern end, work has already begun on figuring out how to add another 3.5 miles there into East Windsor.

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Will the same happen at the other end?

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Exploring another section of the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail

Slowly but surely, the 22-mile Lawrence-Hopewell Trail is being built. My understanding is that the section from Bristol-Myers Squibb on Carter Road to a 90-degree bend on Cleveland Road will be built this year, taking the trail off a main thoroughfare that has no shoulder and can be unpleasant, especially if you don’t like riding with traffic. (SEE UPDATE BELOW) Right now, though, there’s only a small section on BMS property before you hit a “trail ends” sign (and then it becomes a private trail to the BMS entrance).

But what’s on the other side of Carter Road?

We recently had a chance to explore it, building on our exploration last fall of a “secret” section in the Mount Rose Preserve.

Look for signs and the pedestrian-activated flashing yellow lights; at the crosswalk you’ll find a paved trail and a small parking lot on the side opposite Bristol-Myers Squibb. Take the trail into the woods. It’s a beautiful wooded section that eventually brings you to Pennington-Rocky Hill Road.

Who knew there was this old building?

Then the trail is within sight of the road until you get to a residential area. We encountered several people walking (or walking their dog) on this winter day.

We then crossed the road to reach a D&R Greenway tract.

And there the trail ended.

The latest map shows the trail could eventually go on this side of the road, closing one of the last gaps and connecting to Moores Mill Mount Rose Road. Then you can follow the trail all the back to Lawrenceville. But for now, you take the road for perhaps a quarter of a mile. (If you take the residential neighborhood, you will overshoot Moores Mill Mount Rose Road.)

You can read about another of our rides along the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail here.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Carter Road section probably won’t be built this year. One more approval is needed, and who knows how long that will take. And I thought having the money was the final step! Instead it’s just mre evidence of how hard it is to build a trail like this.

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Giggles and squeals on an e-bike

Wow was that fun! Kind of like you imagine one of those speeder bikes in “Return of the Jedi.”

OK, not quite that fast. And this bike was on the ground, not going through the air. But as long as you pedaled, it felt like you could fly thanks to the electric battery that provided a boost. That first time on an e-bike, I felt the assist kicking in — and it was set at the lowest level — and I couldn’t help but laugh with glee, like a kid building up speed going downhill. Me, who thinks motorcycles are scary.

But there I was, accelerating quickly thanks to the the rechargeable battery tucked behind the stem leading to the seat. After a few loops around the bike shop parking lot, it was off to the street. Just with that minimal assist, I went up a hill at 10 mph with no effort. And if you’re starting cold at the bottom of a hill? Flip the throttle for a second or too and the assist kick-starts the ascent. Just hold on for the jolt. Who needs to huff and puff? Or even change gears? Wow.

Then we headed to a quiet road behind the bike shop, experimenting with the different levels of assist. The model I was riding, the Blix Stockholm, has four levels that you can essentially toggle through (plus zero, for no assist) on the left handlebar, plus nine gears you can change like a normal bike just off the right handlebar.

I’m sure there’s a great balancing act between what gear you’re in and how much of an assist you take to stretch out the battery charge. To be honest, I felt level 1 was enough — and that was a 53-pound bike. Kick it up, and not even to level 4, and I could top 20 mph, no sweat.

This one tucks the battery behind the seat post.

So who buys an e-bike? The shop owner says they’ve sold a lot of them, almost always to people over 55. Sometimes it’s a bike widow/er who now can keep up with the other half. Often it’s someone who wants to exercise but finds it all so daunting. Especially if you live in a hilly area, which is where this shop is. You might not be powering yourself at 15 mph on a carbon-fiber bike that’s half the weight (and sometimes close to half the price), but you only get the assist if you’re pedaling — so you have to move. The owner told us of one customer who weighs about 300 pounds who has seen the numbers in his blood work come down substantially, even if his weight hasn’t. That’s the power of moving, of getting some exercise.

OK, the price is pretty hefty — this one was $2,300 in 2017, and the Brit was riding a $3,000 model. But I can see how this could turn you into a one-car family, using the bike to get to work just about every day if you have a reasonable commute. And when it rains? If you can’t hitch a ride with a co-worker, a cab (or Uber/Lyft) might not be a bad deal, especially given how much you save by not owning that second car.  (You really don’t want to know the true annual cost of car ownership.)  States still have to work out just how they view e-bikes — a bike or something more? There’s no assist if you don’t pedal, so it’s certainly not a moped). There’s also the question of limits on speed and power.

But my money is on prices coming down and batteries becoming lighter and more powerful, just like with phones and electric cars.

And who knows? One day I might own one too.

(Apologies for the delay in posting this one. We tested the bikes last winter.)

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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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