THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On the popular Minuteman Bikeway, crowds and towns are part of its charm

The middle sections of the 11-mile trail cut through Arlington and Lexington. The middle sections of the 11-mile trail cut through Arlington and Lexington. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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The rhythmic scraping of in-line skates was slightly unnerving, prompting me to pedal faster. But no matter how hard I tried to escape the sound, it grew closer, louder. Turning to look, I heard a voice holler, “Thought I’d draft off you for a bit. Do you mind?’’ Surprised by the question, I wasn’t sure how to answer. Then I shouted back, “Happy to help.’’ We ended up drafting and chatting for several miles.

On the Minuteman Bikeway, it helps to have a go-along, get-along attitude. Crowds of casual bikers, dog walkers, joggers, moms with strollers, and in-line skaters populate the paved path. On clear-weather weekends, bike trips along the trail can be part social experience, part recreational outing. With an annual estimated 2 million users, people-watching adds to the fun and scenery.

“To begin with, I like any trail,’’ said Patrick Thompson of Malden, the drafting in-line skater. “I like the fact that it goes where people live. I like that it’s tree-lined. I like seeing people and seeing people use it.’’

For cyclists interested in a quick-and-easy getaway, the bikeway and its tributaries offer convenient, car-free routes. The well-traveled trail stretches 11 miles from the Alewife MBTA Station in Cambridge to Depot Park in Bedford. The middle sections cut through Arlington and Lexington, passing natural and historic landmarks, commercial and industrial areas. Multiple entrance points and abundant signage along the bikeway make access and travel easy. Relatively wide pathways — 12 feet at most points — and flat terrain add to its appeal.

Upon entering the Minuteman Bikeway in Cambridge, athletic fields give way to residential neighborhoods. Backyard after backyard, the bikeway presents a new perspective on the familiar suburban landscape, not a complete escape from it. As I cross intersections and see signs directing cyclists to the nearest Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, the trail’s route through civilization is part of its charm — and part of the reason it feels safer than more secluded trails I’ve explored.

Originally, the path was designed for bicycling commuters, partially explaining why it winds past commercial centers and ends at an MBTA station. But I saw beginners with training wheels share the trail with teenagers headed to athletic practice and serious cyclists in racing gear.

“It’s a wonderful resource,’’ said Joey Glushko, an Arlington town planner and liaison to the town’s bicycle advisory committee. “It’s a unique open space. It really links every part of our community.’’

The 100-acre Spy Pond in Arlington is a popular, scenic rest stop and the first I reach. On a bright summer day, it is a hub of recreational activity. Cyclists drop their bikes on the grassy shore and take out snacks. Canoes float by. An ice cream truck pulls beside a group of young children. A couple read a large sign detailing the area’s history and development.

Similar signs dot the bikeway, revealing the railroad and Colonial history that happened along the trail. A few miles from Spy Pond, I stop at a display providing information about the Battle at the Foot of the Rocks, the largest battle on the first day of the Revolutionary War. Historical markers give the bikeway added character and cyclists an introduction to the area’s famous past.

With short side trips off the bikeway, cyclists can visit Revolutionary War landmarks. The Reformatory Branch Rail-Trail picks up where the bikeway ends in Bedford and continues to Concord, terminating near the Old North Bridge where the war started.

Inducted into the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame in 2008, the Minuteman Bikeway boasts a proud history of its own, following the path once blazed by the Boston & Maine Railroad Lexington branch. Started in 1846, the railroad served passengers for more than 130 years. The conversion from railroad corridor to recreational crowd pleaser was completed in 1993. Now, buildings along the route — the Lexington Depot and Bedford Depot Freight House — remind cyclists of the bikeway’s rail history.

Jennifer Kaleba, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy spokeswoman, said the path-side postings let the Minuteman serve as a heritage trail. But the bikeway’s accessibility to all kinds of users make it Hall of Fame worthy.

“It’s a trail you can use in your daily life and that’s something we think is incredibly important for the future of rail trails,’’ Kaleba said.

But when daily life interferes with the trail, it can be chaotic.

The trickiest part of the Minuteman Bikeway comes in Arlington Center, when crossing Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street. It’s the only large interruption of the bikeway. On weekends with heavy bicycle traffic, I find the crossings sometimes prompt games of chicken between cyclists traveling in opposite directions. Everyone is eager to get to the other side. The good news is everyone knows where they’re going.

It’s impossible to miss the big, blue banners marking bikeway entrance points in Arlington Center. To the credit of the bikeway’s caretakers, its entire length is well marked. From the Charles River bike path in Cambridge, signs direct cyclists through Harvard Square toward Fresh Pond then on to Alewife Station. Along the trail, signs with a bicycling Minuteman tell me I’m on the right track. Attractions like Spy Pond and the Great Meadows are also clearly labeled, in addition to offshoots that take cyclists to historic landmarks just beyond the trail.

But more than ample signage makes the bikeway easy to enjoy. Parking is available all along the path, from the garage at Alewife Station to lots adjacent to the trail in Arlington, Lexington, and Bedford. Conveniently located amenities include food stores and eateries perfect for packing impromptu picnics. Less than half a mile from Alewife Station, I pass Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and a pair of Dunkin’ Donuts. On the bikeway, it seems I’m never more than a few miles from a commercial hub with plenty of food options and restrooms. There are also well-placed bike racks and benches.

With its back door opening onto the bikeway, the Bike Stop repair shop in Arlington offers the ultimate in convenience. Cold drinks. Snacks. Bike rentals. “Flats fixed while you wait.’’

As I pass by one afternoon, Jeremy Lang of Arlington has stopped to find a better-fitting helmet for his daughter, Sabrina, 2. With her crying, it proves a much tougher job than fixing a flat. Still, Lang calls the ride with Sabrina “quality time’’ and adds, “It’s fabulous that the trail is right here.’’

Leaving the Bike Stop, I continue west toward the Great Meadows, a wetlands area that creates a haunting backdrop in the late-afternoon light. From the Great Meadows to Bedford Depot Park, the bikeway looks and feels more removed from the city. The forest flanking the path is thicker, the tree canopy denser. Still, when waiting to cross streets and riding over Route 128, I know I haven’t left the city too far behind.

A shiny, silver 1955 Budd Rail Diesel Car and the Bedford Depot Freight House signal the official end of the Minuteman Bikeway at Bedford Depot Park. Seeing the railcar, it feels as if I’ve reached some sort of finish line. The charmingly small Freight House offers refreshments, train souvenirs, bicycle trail maps, and restrooms. I take a two-minute tour of the restored railcar, which once traveled the Boston & Maine line, grab a drink, and head back to Cambridge, opting not to extend my trip farther on either the nearby Narrow-Gauge Rail-Trail or the Reformatory Branch Rail-Trail.

The Narrow-Gauge goes north 3 miles to the Bedford-Billerica border, while the Reformatory Branch heads west 4 miles to Concord. Given the rougher surfaces of both trails, hybrid or mountain bikes are recommended. More trails, more pathways connecting and extending trails, and more paving of trails are in the works. For recreational cyclists and others who make the most of the Minuteman Bikeway, it will be more of a good thing.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to park
For easy access to the Minuteman Bikeway, park at the Alewife MBTA Station garage in Cambridge ($7/day); the municipal lot near the intersection of Route 60 and Massachusetts Avenue across from the trail entrance in Arlington Center (50 cents/hour during business hours Mon-Sat); the lot adjacent to Depot Square off Mass. Ave. in Lexington (25 cents/hour); or the visitors lot on Railroad Avenue near Depot Park in Bedford (free).