Monday, November 21, 2011

200km to Portland & Return by Train

The plan: a beautiful fall ride along the New England coast from Boston to Portland, then catch the evening Amtrak Downeaster back to Boston.

The reality: we made it to Saco, fifteen miles short of Portland, where we encountered a huge Amtrak fail.

Jon and I wanted to get one last long ride under our belt before the winter restricted us to commuting and the short west Boston jaunt during the rare warm winter weekend. To further encourage us, the leaves were turning a little late this year, so there was still a little color left in early November, especially along the coast.

I knew that I would need all day to ride the 200km (120 miles) to Portland, so we met at my place before dawn for coffee and bagels. With lights running we headed north through Medford and Malden. By the time we hit Saugus the sun was up and time to switch our lights off.

Though rather direct, the route from Somerville to Peabody involves many turns making navigation a challenge. Once we arrived in Hamilton we rode on Route 1A much of the way to Saco. The ease of navigation here allowed us to spend more time enjoying the ride and the views. I believe our favorite section was the farming land and salt grass lands between Ipswich and Newburyport.

North of the Merrimac River our route was the coastal road all the way to Portsmouth. This stretch was largely uninterrupted coastal vistas. The southern portion is mostly large expanses of sandy beaches.

Further north the coast becomes rockier and thus hillier. But we were still fairly fresh, and the views were very worth it. If we lost any time on this section it was because the temptation to admire the views was too great.

We pulled into Portsmouth about 1pm, just over six hours on the road. We found a good sandwich shop and ate them in the square. The day had become quite warm, and there were people everywhere outsode enjoying the day. Following lunch we headed north once again, this time to cross the Piscataqua River into Maine. The old downtown Rt 1 bridge is closed to automobiles, but you may still walk your bike across.

The portion in Maine was more wooded and the leaves had turned less. The roads were a little hillier, but still quite comfortable. While passing through York we found this great pedestrian bridge that we stopped to cross, and it provided a nice place for a snack.

Before we knew it we had arrived in Ogunquit. The traffic was heavier; more so as we reached Rt. 1. We decided turn inland towards back roads instead of riding on the busy road. The hills became more difficult, primarily because I was tiring. At least it afforded us the luxury of riding on a portion of the Eastern Trail, which was a true luxury. Aside from a few blow downs, the stone dust path was a pleasure to ride upon. The sun had just set, so we enjoyed the quite darkness without worrying about motorists.

This section of the Eastern Trail ends in Biddeford - there is another good section near Old Orchard Beach that I had ridden before. By the time we arrived in Biddeford it was getting too late to push on to Portland and still catch the 7:55pm train back to Boston. Knowing that there was a stop in Biddeford/Saco, we decided it was most prudent to have dinner and catch the train here.

This proved to be a great idea, until the train arrived and the conductor wouldn't allow us to bring our bikes on! I'd never caught the train in Saco, but I'd done so at Portland and Wells by bike without any trouble, indeed the past times worked very well. When we decided to cut the ride short at Saco I couldn't have imagined that Amtrak would not allow us on the train. Why would Saco be any different?

The only real difference is that Amtrak says so. Yet they don't say on their online schedule. Afterwards I found the fine print under the reservations & tickets page. They also display this bike caveat on their printed schedule, but they are only available at the stations, which wouldn't have helped us here.

So that every one knows, the Amtrak Downeaster only accepts bikes at Boston, Wells and Portland. I won't let this end my bike/train trips on the Downeaster, but it sure limits my ability to do so. it is a shame with the Eastern Trail passing through Saco/Biddeford and the Rockingham Trail near the Durham, NH station.

The route north was fairly straightforward, go north on the through road closest to the Ocean. To make it even easier I used Google Maps and selected the bike routing option, which provided a very good route. We also saw that this route is also arrowed from Ipswich, MA to Ogunquit, ME, and probably beyond. I can't recall the arrow, it was two letters. Does anyone know who arrowed the route and what the full route is?

View Larger Map

The only thing I would do differently next time would be to continue north along the coast through Kennbunk or Kennebunkport, instead of going inland. This may also save a little time and allow me to get to Portland without missing the train.

If you made it this far, I would like to share a short dream. This is a great route at a good length to ride north leaving just before sunset. The goal would be to reach Old Orchard Beach for the sunrise, have breakfast and continue on to Portland to catch the train home. A Boston version of the Dunwich Dynamo. We could call it the Dirigio Dynamo. Anyone in?


  1. I would love to do this ride. Portsmouth NH - York ME is the only portion of it I've ridden.

    But... what did you do when the train did not allow you on? Did I miss this part?

  2. I was prepared to get a hotel room and then catch the first train Sunday morning in Wells. But that effort wasn't needed, Jon's girlfriend rescued us! She drove up and brought us home.

  3. ha, i was waiting for the end of the story too! glad to hear you still made it home, but grabbing a motel room wouldn't have been the worst thing.

    i'm in! i'd totally love to do this. please keep me in mind! i've also never been to portland and have bookmarked your other family trip page for when we go next summer.

    i have in my bucket list to do the ride from boston to p-town, but i have to say that the entire south-shore to the canal doesn't really appeal to me. nevertheless, i'll try and do that some weekend next year as well.

    great write-up!

  4. Glad to hear it worked out. I am up for joining future rides of this sort so keep me posted.

  5. As of this note, the bridge between Portsmouth and Kittery has been dismantled and will be replaced some time in late 2013(!)

    Crossing from NH into ME requires a huge detour inland, completely eliminating Portsmouth and a big chunk of southernmost ME from this route. The two other closest bridges over the Piscataqua prohibit bicycles.

  6. Ed, we recently heard the bridge was demoed earlier this year while planning another ride. We continue to plan going through Portsmouth, because we can't miss the NH coast route. It appears the route from Portsmouth up to Dover will be good and then on from their take an inland route to Saco. So no ME coast until Old Orchard Beach, but the detour seems reasonable. Do you or others have any experience with inland routes from Dover to Saco?

  7. And you said that you didn't ride much beyond town! I dreamed up this ride last year but intended it as a relaxed overnight ride. My friend had to bale and I didn't do it alone but should have.

    I would love to do a ride like this so let me know. My ability to actually go will depend on what the family is doing.