A Winery Campout in Central New Jersey
One of the best things about living in New York City is our extensive regional rail system. Ever since I was in high school in the early nineties, I've been using commuter rail to get me to all kinds of great places to bike. When people think of New York, they imagine skyscrapers ... an endless cityscape. But the Big Apple offers a lot more, particularly for cyclists. Hourly service on one of the region's three commuter rail systems can often place you in a very quiet, bucolic setting -- perfect for riding -- in just an hour or two.
I started using commuter rail to go on day rides when I was 16 or so, and when I got into my twenties I began experimenting with various overnight camping trips on my bike, using our rail system to take me out farther into the countryside. Then, this past year, after reading about Bike Overnights, and talking to others in the bicycle tourism industry, I decided to launch Gotham Bicycle Tours with my wife Laura. We are New York City's first bicycle tour business to offer short one- and two-night tours just outside of the city using commuter rail.
Thanks to the Adventure Cycling Association's short piece about Gotham Bicycle Tours in the Bike Bits e-newsletter, I was contacted by Tim Schlitzer, an avid bicyclist, Ironman triathlete, and manager of Cream Ridge Winery in central New Jersey. Tim invited us to do one of our tours to his winery, offering to allow us to camp there. “Anything to promote bike touring,” is what he told me. Tim did a cross-country tour a number of years ago with his entire family, riding from west to east during his daughter's summer vacation from school. So, he was eager to help offer the opportunity for New Yorkers to perhaps try bike touring for the first time.
One of the best parts of running a bike touring business is that I get to test ride each tour before we offer it to the public. While I had ridden short bicycle overnights to New Jersey before, I was excited to test out this particular ride; despite living in the NYC metro region my whole life, I have not been to every part of New Jersey. This would be my first opportunity to ride Monmouth County literally from end-to-end.
One of the nicest ways to get to a tour! The SeaStreak ferry takes you from midtown Manhattan to Sandy Hook, where the ride begins.
I decided to set up the tour by taking the SeaStreak ferry from midtown Manhattan to Sandy Hook Beach. Sandy Hook used to be a military installation, guarding the entrance to New York Harbor. But now it's overseen by the National Park Service, with miles of beautiful shoreline ... all with Manhattan visible in the distance. Despite being a lifelong New Yorker, I had never been to these shores before. And WOW! It's a cyclist's paradise, with miles of off-road bike paths running through the dunes.
Sandy Hook has an excellent bike path running the entire length of the peninsula next to the water.
Soon, I was greeted by the Twin Lights, the famous lighthouse that overlooks the bay, as I crossed the causeway to the mainland. After grabbing a quick breakfast sandwich at a deli in Highlands, I was off on the Henry Hudson Trail, a car-free bike path stretching through Monmouth County along an old railroad grade that was used to carry produce from the Garden State to New York Harbor.
These days, the Henry Hudson Trail travels mostly through suburbia. But the car-free experience was wonderful, particularly as the trail crossed various wetlands and other scenic areas. The fact that the trail goes through populated areas meant there were plenty of places to stop for food, water, and bathroom breaks. Even in areas where the trail was not complete, signage marked the way to take me to the next trail segment. The trail runs for 22 miles, all the way to Freehold Borough, Monmouth's county seat -- and the hometown of Bruce Springsteen (it's the town he refers to in his song “My Hometown”). Freehold Borough is an excellent place to stop for lunch, with tons of restaurants and sidewalk cafes.
Here the Henry Hudson Path passes through a wildflower meadow.
After Freehold, my route to Cream Ridge Winery took a turn on the quiet backroads of Monmouth's farm country. I was soon riding past the historic Monmouth Battlefield historic park, as well as numerous farms ... and farm stands selling local produce. Soon, the orchards gave way to horse farms as I rode west into the afternoon sun. A beautiful setting, and an almost surreal change of surroundings, given that I had started the day on a ferry leaving Manhattan that took me to a beach.
I arrived at Cream Ridge Winery just before dinnertime. Tim greeted me in the tasting room and hooked me up with a shower in his apartment, which I greatly appreciated. Afterwards, just when I was about to ride out to a nearby restaurant for dinner, he offered me some pasta and meatballs remaining from a catered event earlier in the day. “This is left over from the triathlon club that rode here,” Tim said, “Eat as much as you want!”
Don't mind if I do. Then one of the tasting room employees pointed me to a wine slurpee machine. “Try some of this,” he said. Wow! Super refreshing.
After eating, I set up my tent in between the rows of grapes in the vineyard. It was a peaceful spot. I also bought a bottle of American Zinfandel and enjoyed it on the front porch as I watched the moon rise over the farm fields adjacent to the winery. It was pure heaven, and soon I was off to sleep in the vineyard.
After reaching Cream Ridge Winery, I camped under the stars ... and in between the rows of grapevines!
The next morning I arose at dawn and packed up my tent. Tim graciously offered me coffee along with a leftover bagel (also from the triathalon club), which I devoured in anticipation of my ride. Soon I was off, pedaling again through beautiful horse country. Cyclists outnumbered cars on these roadways on Sunday morning, which was a beautiful thing. Soon the farms gave way to the forests of the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area, another lovely spot to ride. But the woods abruptly ended as I rode into the Borough of Roosevelt, a fascinating community that practically materialized out of nowhere.
Roosevelt was set up during the New Deal as an experimental utopian farming community. Prototype concrete houses line the various streets of the small community. I couldn't help but ride around and check it out.
Soon after, I was in the wide open fields that made the Garden State famous for its produce. Field after field ... mixed in with small, historic towns. Such a lovely ride. But soon, in order to reach the bike path along the historic Delaware and Raritan Canal (which helped build New Jersey in its early days), I'd have to get across the three major arterials of modern New Jersey: the New Jersey Turnpike, the Northeast Corridor rail line, and US Highway 1. I thought this would be no easy feat. But fortunately, in recent years the local municipalities of central New Jersey have required developers to build bike paths as part of many of the new research-and-development parks built along these corridors. With a little trial and error (okay, lots of trial and error), I was able to piece together an almost car-free route across these famously bicycle-unfriendly corridors. The last part of it actually had me riding on an on-ramp to Route 1 ... and then, at the last minute, a sign reading “Bike Route” allowed me to bail out into a hotel parking lot. Then it was across a street to the beautiful Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath.
The Delware and Raritan Canal towpath is a car-free highlight on day two of the ride.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal is a beautiful setting. I rode along it for 15 miles, sometimes on the dirt path, sometimes on streets paralleling it. It's always a beautiful ride, filled with history as you pass the old canal locks and the buildings that served them.
At Manville, I jumped off the canal path and rode into town. Located at the confluence of the Millstone and Raritan rivers, Manville is a rough-and-tumble place, the former home of an asbestos factory. But there are many places to stop and eat, including one of the friendliest pizza shops I have ever encountered. After downing a couple of slices, I jumped back on my bike and rode to nearby Duke Farms.
Duke Farms is a beautiful old estate once owned by Doris Duke, the heiress of the Duke Energy fortune. Having no children of her own, when she died, she willed that her estate be opened to the public as an ecological preserve. And all of the old internal roadways within the estate became bike paths that anyone can ride on for free. What a wonderful place to explore.
The tour ends at Duke Farms, a former estate that's now an ecological preserve.
Duke Farms is located just outside of Somerville, a bustling little community with all kinds of restaurants and shops … and a train station. So, once my time at Duke Farms was done, it was a quick one-mile ride to Somerville for dinner and the train ride home.
This ride packed a lot of car-free bike paths, beautiful scenery, local food and wine, and historic sites all into 36 hours. When I was done, I was amazed how such a ride was possible so close to New York City -- and all accessible to bicycle-friendly mass transit!
Now that the test ride was a big success, I can’t wait to share this overnight tour with the public, as a guided and fully supported bicycle overnight. Gotham Bicycle Tours will be offering this ride, which we're calling “Beaches to Farms: A Winery Experience,” on September 27 and 28, 2014. We know our New York City riders are going to be surprised once they find out what kind of spectacular bike touring can be found so close to home!
Tip for this adventure: If the season is right, bring a small cooler along in your bag so that you can pick up produce at the farm stands you'll pass. And don't forget your corkscrew!
Favorite local bike shop: Metro Cycles in New York City.