A path to adventure: From Maine to Key West, via New Jersey

The East Coast Greenway is country-long connection of trails, roads and paths with 100 miles in New Jersey.

There are three border crossings into New Brunswick, Canada, in Calais, Maine. There’s 3,000 people, 25 beds in the hospital. River otters splash in waterways that lead to the Bay of Fundy and the chilly Atlantic Ocean. The average temperature seldom cracks 75 degrees, and about 77 inches of snow fall on it every year.

Three thousand miles to the south, in Key West, Florida, the temperature seldom dips below that mark. Green and loggerhead sea turtles nest along the warm waters of the coastline. Sport fishermen take off from docks to catch redfish, grouper and snapper. Dense mangrove forests are submerged in the undulating tides.

Two American locales, so different and yet so connected.

Calais and Key West are the northern and southern end points of the East Coast Greenway, a multi-modal, multi-surface network of trails, roads, paths and more, which runs almost 100 miles through New Jersey. In the works since 1991, the nonprofit East Coast Greenway Alliance continues to build out the Greenway so that, one day, every mile is off-road and suitable for cyclists, walkers and people of differing abilities. About 15 million people access one part of the Greenway every year. One big part of the goal, says Executive Director Dennis Markatos-Soriano, is to cultivate an appetite for adventure.

“We want to set something up that can help people have an adventure of a lifetime; for a little kid that’s just learning how to ride a bicycle, for them to think, ‘I can bike all the way from my house in Princeton or Trenton and get all the way to Maine or go all the way down to Key West,” he says. 

Another part, Markatos-Soriano says, is to encourage folks to recreate, commute and commune with nature.

“We also want to transform the way people move. So they’re biking and walking and having an active lifestyle that is doing their part to address the climate crisis, and setting up equitable public spaces.”

D&R Canal in New Jersey. Courtesy ECG

To support its efforts, particularly in New Jersey, the Greenway Alliance is hosting an NYC-to-PHL Greenway Ride Aug. 28-29. Hundreds of cyclists will ride from New York City, through Jersey City to New Brunswick, where they’ll connect with the Delaware & Raritan Canal Path through Princeton to Trenton, before crossing over into Pennsylvania. The ride follows the current New Jersey route of the East Coast Greenway (although it forgoes an offshoot through the Garden State from Trenton to Camden).

Registration and individual fundraising from riders (almost $200,000 as of press time) supports the Alliances’ efforts to build out the Greenway, and Markatos-Soriano says building momentum (and recognition) for the Greenway in New Jersey could have a multitude of local benefits.

“The state that could benefit the most is New Jersey, because it’s a top population center on the East Coast,” he says. “There are a ton of awesome people between Trenton and Jersey City. When we get it done in New Jersey, it’s going to fill hotels with heads in beds, restaurants with hungry riders, and fill up the bike shops and so much more. It’s economic development, tackling the climate crisis, moving people out of cars onto bikes and getting around on their own two feet. The vision is really coming to life.”

New Jersey actually represents a good case in point for the challenge of building an off-road path along the East Coast. For instance, the route out of Jersey City currently requires people to cross Routes 1 and 9, which even experienced cyclists and pedestrians might approach with trepidation—and some end up just taking the PATH train. The route was modified to send travelers south to Bayonne, then to Staten Island and across the Goethals Bridge. 

However, there’s a proposed project to turn an abandoned rail line from Jersey City to Montclair into a nine-mile linear park and multi-use path, called the Essex-Hudson Greenway. The East Coast Greenway Alliance has joined a host of other nonprofits, communities and local leaders (including the Open Space Institute, which is spearheading efforts) in pushing for the state to take public ownership of the land so that it can be more feasibly built out. If it is, the Essex-Hudson Greenway would serve as a valuable connection in North Jersey for the East Coast Greenway.

“The Essex-Hudson corridor is so critical. It’s gold,” Markatos-Soriano says. “It’s rare we have a public corridor available for the public to purchase that could connect people through a linear park. We really don’t want to miss out on the opportunity for that.”

The Open Space Institute secured a time-sensitive deal with Norfolk Southern Railway Company to purchase the land in whole for $65 million. But the efforts require state funding and support, to which Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to agree, and with offers coming for parts of the land, particularly in Newark, this unique opportunity to expand access to the outdoors, build an off-road connection (which plugs into the East Coast Greenway) and creates a High Line of sorts for New Jersey could slip away.

The support and input from communities along the Essex-Hudson Greenway, and their leaders, is emblematic of the way the East Coast Greenway Alliance works to build out its network of trails, says New York and New Jersey Coordinator Luis Diaz. The alliance works with community members and local stakeholders to find opportunities and create “a design guide,” Diaz says, for projects that could both improve community access to nature and plug into the East Coast Greenway.

“We don’t go in with bulldozers and say, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’ It’s more, ‘How do you want your community to look?’” Diaz says. “The question is, is there already a plan in the public lands to build out these trails? In Essex-Hudson, it’s not on a public road. It’s privately owned by a railroad. Once it’s in public hands, the process can be smoother. Still takes some time, but the big first step is if a community doesn’t have ownership of a trail, then how can they get that?”

About 35% of the Greenway is complete; the remaining 2,000 or so miles will cost about $2.5 billion to build out, the bulk of which could come in the form of federal, state or local funding. However, the Alliance points out the return on that investment could reach upwards of $25 billion in the form of economic development for communities along the route; not to mention the long-term social and economic benefits of reducing cars from the road and getting more people living active lifestyles. 

Look, this ain’t about me, but as someone who biked the Trans-America Trail from Virginia to Oregon, I can provide anecdotal evidence to those claims. A connected recreational network provides a new pool of patrons for restaurants, coffee shops, bike and outdoor stores, hotels and hostels, retail stores and much more. When you’re out on a long tour, you go wherever is open, and often you’ll find someone inside who understands the community you’re in, because they’re part of it too. Word passes from traveler to traveler about the best places to stay or to eat or to take a day off in. And it grows.

And, what happens on a long tour like the TransAm or the East Coast Greenway is the sense of adventure gets localized. Sure, what gets you on the trail in the first place is the specter of walking out your house and not stopping until Key West. But what keeps you on the path is wondering what’s going to be in the next town, and who is in it. Even for day or weekend trips—hell, even commutes—curiosity and adventure follows you to the present.

(And, for what it’s worth about 75 people have completed the East Coast Greenway in its entirety, including three walkers.)

Sharing that experience with more people up and down the Coast, and the many people who live along the route in New Jersey, is the goal for the East Coast Greenway Alliance. And now, with a federal infrastructure bill on the table and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of shovel-ready projects along the Greenway, the momentum is building.

“We are really aiming to get this done,” Markatos-Soriano says. “We’re trying to push for federal infrastructure investment to really move things forward at a faster pace than we’ve ever done. We’ve expanded our organization to have much greater capacity now. We’re trying to tell our story … to get the Greenway word out, and we’re trying to get people involved. We need more to get this project done and raise the level of priority.”

For maps, ways to support and more information, go to greenway.org.