I finally discovered New Jersey’s Tour de Pines — five days of bike rides in and around the Pine Barrens.
Now I always thought the Pine Barrens and its sandy soil was centered around Brendan Bryne State Park and otherwise was home to some cranberry bogs and that mythical creature called the Jersey Devil. But I’ve now learned that it’s vast — 22% of the state. More surprisingly, perhaps, the Pinelands National Reserve is actually the largest forested area on the Eastern Seaboard between Maine and the Florida Everglades. Lot of pines, of course, but also oaks and more. Because the land is subject to a special master plan, it means development is pretty sparse in a good chunk of the most densely populated state in the nation. I can only imagine how much sprawl there otherwise would be!
Of course people do live in the Pine Barrens. There are also farms, a big military base and some even bigger state parks. But there are plenty of quiet roads, which makes its a great place to bike (just make sure you have plenty of water on a hot day, as we learned on an earlier foray).
Tour de Pines has a different starting point each day, so be prepared to do a lot of driving. (Some riders camp or opt for hotels to reduce the time in the car. These are not rides easily reached by bus or train.) It’s October, so expect variable weather. I had rain, wind, cold, shorts-sleeves weather, clouds and sun. Missed the crazy hot day. You can ride anything from one to five days for the bargain price of $45. Total. T-shirt included. And there’s all-you-can-eat chili and brownies at the end, topped off with beer, wine or lemonade.
The terrain is mostly flat. Oh there was Arneys Mount, the highest point in Burlington County, but it’s all of 240 feet in elevation. And many days you have a choice of longer (45-50 miles) or shorter rides (25-30 miles). You can ride in a group, with a ride leader, or peel off on your own, which is what we mostly did.
I rode three days, including two back-to-back, so probably 145 miles or so. Great training for next month’s week-long East Coast Greenway ride.
So what did we see? A pair of bald eagles (thanks to a fellow rider’s birding binoculars) not far from Bass River State Forest. Dozens of alpaca that came running toward us at a farm we rode by not far from the headquarters of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (which puts on Tour de Pines). Longhorn cattle lounging about at another farm.
A bit of beach at the end of the Great Bay Boulevard Wildlife Management Area, with the glitz of Atlantic City’s casino hotels in the distance.
Cyclists in tweed on penny farthings on Saturday’s ride. (I only saw them at thestart so I have no idea how far they actually rode.)
A chair on top of the pointy, pagoda-like roof of a Victorian house. Yes, this is deliberate. It’s even been replaced a few times.
Burlington County’s lovely Kinkora Trail in Columbus. This paved trail curves through open space and is only a bit over two miles long, but there are plans to double its length and to connect it to another trail in development.
We passed what had been an early bicycle factory in Smithville more than 100 years ago. We stopped here on a ride five years ago. No time for a visit this time, but it and historic Smithville are definitely worth a visit.
And then there are plenty of farms and red barns, fields of yellowing soybean plants and dried corn stalks still waiting to be harvested. Wineries too (even start points for a couple of the rides). And, yes, some people already have their Halloween decor out.
Tour de Pines is an amazing volunteer effort, but it doesn’t extend to fancy SAG stops. Pie and chocolate fountains? That’s Bike New York’s fabulous rides — at $95 a pop. Here you’re on your own, though the cue sheets do flag some stops, including South Jersey’s ubiquitous Wawas (think 7-11). Without our Wawa devotee on Saturday, however, we opted for another Jersey classic, a small pizza place that sells by the slice. Hit the spot!
Finally, there are the random conversations with the couple hundred cyclists riding one or more days. One conversation too many ruled out an after-ride stop at the appropriately named Pinelands Brewing Co. to discover what their butternuts beer, described as a pumpkin/yam beer, tastes like. Weird, huh? So I had to settle for a strawberries-and-lime Session Sour generously donated by Flying Fish to go with my chili. Not quite as weird.
I’m definitely putting this ride in my calendar for next year — it’s a winner. And maybe I’ll ride all five days instead of just three. It’s also inpsired me to explore more of the Pine Barrens, probably with Pinelands Preservation Alliance’s Pinelands Adventures. A tour of a cranberry farm is at the top of the list.