Here’s our top 10 list of the best bike trails in the world, for everyone from mountain bikers to road cyclists. If you’re looking for an amazingly scenic adventure, we’ve got quiet, easy rides for beginners, all the way to some of the hardest trails in the world
Road cycling and mountain biking are great ways to see the world, and with the idea of sustainable travel becoming more and more important, a bike is one of the best ways to have an adventure. Some of the trips described below might only last one day and be fine on a rental bike, while others will only be suitable for the toughest of cyclists. Whatever your level, though, here’s the place to start getting inspired.
Iron Curtain Trail, Europe
Length: approx. 10,000 kilometers
Completion time: approx. three months
We’ll start with a biggie. The Iron Curtain Trail — or EuroVelo Route 13 to give it its slightly more prosaic name — is one of the epic cycles of the world. Starting in the far north of Europe, cyclists generally follow the weather south, traveling with spring to avoid the really exhaustingly hot weather of later months.
The route, as you can probably gather, follows roughly the line of the Iron Curtain, plunging south and following the Baltic coast, before cutting across Germany, skirting the Czech Republic, nudging Slovakia, then continuing along the borders of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria before finishing on the Black Sea. You’ll see so much of Europe’s wonderful landscapes, from the stark emptiness of Finland’s forests, to the peaceful vineyards of the Czech Republic, and on through hillside villages to the sunny reward of the seaside. It’s one of the continent’s great adventures, and a living lesson in modern European history.
For more information, consider reading The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold, a book by Tim Moore who cycled the whole route on a Communist-era East German shopping bike, or get his condensed highlights here.
Capitals Route, Netherlands and Germany
Length: 690 kilometers
Start/end points: Rotterdam, Netherlands/Berlin, Germany
Completion time: four to five days
Another European route now, but a friendlier, flatter challenge across the Netherlands and Germany to Berlin. It’s a EuroVelo route as well, EV2 this time (and technically runs from Dublin to Moscow), but this section heads along easy, paved, well-signposted paths through fields of tulips, forests full of twittering birds, and across sunny meadows.
(By the way, a quick note on the EuroVelo project: 17 long-distance trails over 90,000 kilometers of cycle path, linking major cities across the continent, all designed for people to explore Europe in a healthy, sustainable, borderless way. What a wonderful scheme.)
You’ll stop now and again for food — freshly-baked bread, local cheese, a small-town brewery or vineyard as a reward at the end of the day — but most of the time it’s just enjoying the scenery. The route is long enough to be a challenge, but not so grueling that it feels like a punishment, perfect if you want a go at long-distance cycling but aren’t sure where or how to start.
Shimanami Kaido, Japan
Length: 70 kilometers
Start/end points: Onomichi City, Honshu/Imabari City, Shikoku, Japan
Completion time: four to ten hours, depending on stops
A kaido (simply meaning ‘road’) is a trade route dating from the Edo period of Japanese history, and many are still in use today. This one isn’t so venerable, having been opened in 1999, but along its length, you’ll get to see some of Japan’s ancient scenery, a number of small towns, and cross six islands on an inland sea.
The route connects the large islands of Shikoku and Honshu but, through a network of bridges, also touches on Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima. Along the way, you’ll pass a museum dedicated to Hirayama Ikuo, one of Japan’s most famous painters, and a temple built by a rich businessman for his mother. Each end of the route has cycle rental offices (and there are other pickup/drop-off points dotted along the way) and the section between Honshu and Mukaishima Island can be replaced by a short ferry ride if you feel like it.
The Garden Route, South Africa
Length: 750 kilometers
Start/end points: Cape Town/Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Completion time: five to seven days
The Garden Route is a wonderful stretch of coastline that officially, is only 300 kilometers from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east, but most travelers extend it to include a short city break at either end. The idea is that you don’t rush: there are loads of things to see, beaches to relax on, lookout points to get to, and vineyards to visit.
Even at a leisurely five to six hours a day in the saddle, you’ll make good progress. The terrain is generally not too taxing, the roads are quiet, and the landscape changes with every passing day. You might meet the local wildlife in the bush, or see dolphins swimming off the shore. You can even cycle through the forests and into Addo Elephant National Park where you can spot elephants (obviously), but also rhinos, buffalo, and more!
The Parenzana, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia
Length: 123 kilometers
Start/end points: Trieste, Italy/Poreč, Croatia
Completion time: one to two days
This is one of the shorter routes on our list and, like the Capitals Route, is ideal for anyone thinking of getting into longer rides. You pass through three countries as well — Italy, Slovenia and Croatia — so that’s a nice box to tick. The going is easy as well, as the route follows that of a former narrow-gauge railway, and trains don’t particularly like hills.
Short-ish though the route is, you’ll get a lot of scenery for your money. You’re never far from a sea view on one side, and there are distant views of mountains on the other, particularly in Slovenia. Fans of history, good food and good weather will also enjoy this route, as you’ll come across relics of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in the small towns, and the local seafood is superb. You could even break the trip up with overnight stays in beautiful places like the medieval port city of Koper, or the wide, lazy bayside town of Umag.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, US
Length: 80 kilometers
Start/end points: West Glacier/Logans Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana, US
Completion time: one day
A tempting idea, this one, although there are more considerations than you’d initially think. Going-to-the-Sun Road is located entirely within Glacier National Park, and is the only road in the US that’s both a National Civil Engineering Landmark and a National Historic Landmark, so it’s a renowned piece of construction. Around mountainsides and past sheer drops, the route is generally cycled west to east, and involves a good deal of climbing. Your reward is Logans Pass, a beautiful meadow of wildflowers, surrounded by mountains, crisp air and (hopefully) blue skies.
Its beauty, however, brings problems, mainly with just how popular it is. It’s clearly better to do the route in summer, as the winters are heavy with snowfall and the route can simply be impassable, but in the summer months the road can be busy with cars (the park website itself ominously warns people that “Only those experienced at riding with heavy vehicle traffic in two directions should consider bicycling on Going-to-the-Sun Road during peak summer season”), and you’ll also have to pay $20 to enter the park in the first place. However, despite all that, this is a ride that can be both rewarding and beautiful, with the chance to extend your trip using the hiker/biker campsites dotted around the park.
Tasmania’s west coast, Australia
Length: approx. 800 kilometers
Start/end points: Hobart/Launceston, Tasmania, Australia
Completion time: 14 — 20 days
A serious challenge, this one, with Tasmania’s western side worlds away from the beach-lined, relaxed east coast. Beginning in Hobart and heading west, you turn your back on civilization and head into the mountains of the Southwest and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Parks. Passing vast lakes and through forests that have barely felt the touch of a human hand, let alone the wheel of a mountain bike, you’ll turn north on a former railway line through the rainforest to the Montezuma waterfalls, the highest in Tasmania.
East now, and you’ll pass beneath the ragged peak of Cradle Mountain, skirt the wetlands of the Central Plateau, and slowly head north to your finishing point in Launceston. And it’s not just the terrain that’s a challenge here, it’s the weather. The climate in this part of Tasmania can be tough, with winds whipping off the ocean and temperatures varying more wildly than in the temperate east. The whole thing is a real test, but you will get to see some of the most amazing scenery in the southern hemisphere.
Via Francigena, the UK, France and Italy
Length: 1,800 kilometers
Start/end points: Canterbury, England, UK/Rome, Italy
Completion time: 15 — 20 days
A pilgrimage route this time, and one that only around 1,000 people take each year (as opposed to more well-known routes such as the Camino de Santiago). The trail begins in Canterbury, the famous cathedral city in the south of England, and was taken initially in the year 990 by Archbishop Sigeric, who had been called to Rome to collect his official token of office. Helpfully, he wrote down every single place he stopped at, and these now inform the route.
Once you’re across the water, the route begins in earnest. The flat, easy-going territory of northern France slowly gives way to bigger challenges; be aware that you’re going to have to cross the Alps by way of the 2,469-meter-high Saint Bernard Pass, and the also-not-insubstantial Apennines at the 1,041-meter Passo della Cisa. You’ll also have to attempt to cycle through Rome, which might be the biggest challenge of them all!
The Great Divide, Canada and US
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Length: 4,340 kilometers
Start/end points: Banff, Alberta, Canada/Antelope Wells, New Mexico, US
Completion time: approx. 40 days
It’s off-road all the way on this most North American of trails, a month and a bit of traveling across mountain peaks, through river valleys, and along dirt roads, tracks and gravel pathways. You’ll cross grasslands, deserts, meadows and forests, running the full gamut of US scenery from the classic mountain town of Banff to your slightly anticlimactic finishing point, a scrubby border post between the US and Mexico.
But the end is beside the point. The point is that this is truly one of the great adventures on the planet, a route that is challenging, no doubt about it, but rewards you with constantly-changing views, days without encountering civilization, and the fact that you’re doing something truly extraordinary.
As an aside, there is one way to be even more extraordinary: compete in the Tour Divide, an annual race for amateurs. The current record for completing the entire trail is 13 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes. Good luck!
The Pamir Highway, Tajikistan
Length: 1,250 kilometers
Start/end points: Dushanbe/Osh, Tajikistan
Completion time: approx. 20 days
We finish with one of the least-considered countries in the world: Tajikistan. Seriously, when was the last time you thought about Tajikistan? Well, think about it now. It’s the location of the long, lonely Pamir Highway, part paved road, part dirt road, and one of the most remote roads on the planet.
The highway crosses vast plains, cuts through passes, and hangs on precipitously to stomach-churning drops. There are lakes bluer than the sky, snow-capped peaks, and traditional villages housing friendly locals. Indeed, this is probably your best option for overnight stops, as locals offer homestays and are hospitable and proud that you’re visiting their spectacular country. You’ll almost certainly need camping equipment as well, however, as there’s the real possibility of going days without seeing another soul. It’s also not a trip for beginners, as you’ll be riding at high altitude, in oxygen-thin air. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, for sure, but just be aware of exactly what you’re getting yourself into!
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