Mobile, AL to Owen Sound, ON
5 Map Set (2006.0 mi.)
| GPS | Overview
Underground Railroad Overview Image
|1. Mobile, AL to Fulton, MS (401 mi.)||Detail
Underground Railroad Section 1 Detail Image
|2. Fulton, MS to Owensboro, KY (435 mi.)||Detail
Underground Railroad Section 2 Detail Image
|3. Owensboro, KY to Milford, OH (373.5 mi.)||Detail
Underground Railroad Section 3 Detail Image
|4. Milford, OH to Erie, PA (418.5 mi.)||Detail
Underground Railroad Section 4 Detail Image
|5. Erie, PA to Owen Sound, ON (378 mi.)||Detail
Underground Railroad Section 5 Detail Image
|UGRR Detroit ALT
Oberlin, OH to Owen Sound, ON
2 Map Set (518.0 mi.)
| GPS | Overview
UGRR Detroit ALT Overview Image
|DET ALT 1 - Oberlin, OH to Sombra, ON (281.4 mi.)||Detail
UGRR Detroit ALT Section DET ALT 1 Detail Image
|DET ALT 2 - Sombra, ON to Owen Sound, ON (236.6 mi.)||Detail
UGRR Detroit ALT Section DET ALT 2 Detail Image
|UGRR Pittsburgh Spur
Pittsburgh, PA to Erie, PA
1 Map Set (152.5 mi.)
| GPS | Overview
UGRR Pittsburgh Spur Overview Image
|PITT SPUR - Pittsburgh, PA to Erie, PA (152.5 mi.)||Detail
UGRR Pittsburgh Spur Section PITT SPUR Detail Image
The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route (UGRR) memorializes the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine routes by which African freedom seekers attempted to escape slavery before and during the Civil War. This page describes the 2,006.5-mile Underground Railroad Bicycle Route from Mobile, Alabama to Owen Sound, Ontario. You may also be interested in the UGRR Detroit Alternate, UGRR Pittsburgh Spur, or the day-trip rides in Ripley, Ohio (PDF).
The history of this remarkable period comes alive as you pedal along the 2,007-mile corridor that traces the Underground Railroad route from the Deep South to Canada, passing points of interest and historic sites. Beginning in Mobile, Alabama, — a busy port for slavery during the pre-civil war era — the route goes north following rivers through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Waterways, as well as the North Star, were often used by freedom seekers as a guide in their journeys to escape slavery. Upon crossing into Ohio, the route leaves the river to head toward Lake Erie and enters Canada at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York. In Ontario, the route follows the shores of Lake Ontario and ends at Owen Sound, a town founded by freedom seekers as early as 1843. Owen Sound is located on the southern side of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.
The southernmost map begins in historic Mobile, Alabama, and follows several river courses northward. In the 1800s Mobile was a key port for ships to unload enslaved Africans. The Tensaw, Alabama, and Tombigbee rivers all flow into Mobile Bay, and were used as guides for freedom seekers to escape northward. Besides the lush green scenery and the many small towns this route passes through, a host of museums, historic parks, and visitor centers bring the region's history alive.
Historical road plaques are abundant, and riders can read about Indian massacres and the German prisoner-of-war camp in Aliceville, Alabama. One can camp at Historic Blakeley State Park where the last major battle of the Civil War was fought, occurring on the very day that General Lee surrendered in far-off Virginia. There are churches to visit while pedaling past town squares of courthouses and Confederate memorials, tall loblolly pines and the brown waters of the slow-moving Tombigbee and Tennessee rivers ... it's like pedaling through a William Faulkner novel.
Just north of Fulton, Mississippi, the route joins the Natchez Trace Parkway for 10 miles. The area of western Tennessee and Kentucky is rich in American Indian and Civil War history. This area also has many short roller coaster hills. The Shiloh National Military Park and the Fort Donelson National Battlefield are both along the route. You'll also follow "The Trace Road" through the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, an expanse of woods where bison roam. No commercial vehicles are allowed on this road and a 45 m.p.h. speed limit is strictly enforced. Upon reaching the Ohio River, once known as the dividing line between the slave and free states, the route then heads northeast along the river.
As you ride close to the Ohio River in the tri-state Kentucky/Indiana/Ohio region, you’re in the Borderland, a narrow strip of land lining both sides of the river that saw some of the Underground Railroad’s most intense activity, and where a concentration of physical evidence remaining from those days still exists. The towns of New Albany, Lancaster, and Madison in Indiana, and Augusta, Old Washington, and Maysville in Kentucky all have buildings, churches, homes or sites to visit. Roads are generally narrow and winding with low traffic counts. The route alternates between following the river and heading inland.
At Maysville you’ll cross the river into Ohio, and then ride downstream a few miles to Ripley, which comprises a fifty-five acre National Historic District. Among the numerous Underground Railroad conductors who were active in Ripley, John P. Parker and the Rev. John Rankin stand out. Parker, an iron worker and inventor, was a former slave who had purchased his freedom. As a conductor, he would often slip back into slave territory to help freedom seekers find their way from Kentucky to Ohio. Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, along with his large family, provided shelter to hundreds of runaways in their home located high above town on Liberty Hill. Of an estimated 2,000 freedom seekers that passed through Ripley, most stayed with the Rankins. Their house could be identified at night from the river by the candle glowing in its window.
There is a 16-mile spur into downtown Cincinnati. The city holds numerous sites relating directly to Blacks’ struggle for freedom, including the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is the premier facility in the country highlighting the heroics and tragedies associated with the Underground Railroad. Exhibits include the hauntingly evocative Slave Pen, a small log structure that was used to store as many as seventy-five slaves awaiting to be shipped to and sold in the Deep South. It was moved to the center from a farm in Mason County, Kentucky.
From Milford north to Xenia, you’ll cycle along a grade that beginning in the mid-1800s served an “overground” railroad. After the trains stopped running in the 1970s, the route was turned into a rail-trail for bicyclists and other non-motorized travelers. The trail parallels the Little Miami State and National Scenic River, creating the additional option of stashing your bike for a day and checking out the same scenery by canoe. (Rentals and shuttles are available at several area liveries.) One of the longest paved rail-trails in America, the Little Miami Scenic Trail offers fifty miles of the most enjoyable cycling you’ll experience on the UGRR. The delightfully car-free trail winds amid an ever-changing rural landscape of rolling farmlands, picturesque towns, river cliffs, and hardwood forests. A host of warblers and other songbirds provide background music befitting the bucolic surroundings, and you may also spot wildlife like whitetail deer, coyote, and beaver.
The rapidly growing community of Springboro is reached by taking the Springboro Spur from Waynesville. It’s a side trip you should not miss. Founded by anti-slavery Quaker Jonathan Wright in 1815, Springboro evolved into one of the most frequented stopovers for freedom seekers. It’s estimated that some 4,000 escaped slaves traveled through Springboro on their flights to freedom between 1815 and 1864. Today, the historic downtown district holds more documented Underground Railroad safe houses than any other community in the state, at least one of which you can overnight in: the 1815 home of town founder Wright, the oldest home in Springboro. Now known as the Wright House Bed & Breakfast, there you can view a hiding place built for runaway slaves that’s squeezed between the second story and the attic, as well as inspect an impressive collection of antiques and artifacts from the period.
In Wilberforce, an unincorporated community just northeast of Xenia, you’ll find the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. The museum’s mission is to inform and teach visitors about Black history and culture, beginning with the African origins and stretching to present times. One highlight is the museum’s small theater that regularly screens the award-winning Music As a Metaphor, a half-hour video tracking the origins and evolution of Black music from its African roots to the popular music of the 1950s.
The route skirts Ohio's capital, Columbus, on the west and north sides, but you should expect higher levels of traffic along this portion of the route. Continuing into and through northeast Ohio, some towns you will visit with important ties to the Underground Railroad include Oberlin, Hudson, and Ashtabula.
Oberlin is home to Oberlin College, among the first colleges in the United States to admit African-American students. Sites in town include the Westwood Cemetery, the final resting place for many abolitionists and freedom seekers; and the First Church of Oberlin, which served as the headquarters of the Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society. It was also here that memorial services were held for John Copeland and Shields Green, two men who were hung for their participation in abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Not far east of Oberlin is Hudson, Brown’s boyhood home. The early abolitionist movement ran strong in Hudson, which in 2000 became the first town in northern Ohio to receive a state Underground Railroad historical marker, commemorating the community’s involvement in the anti-slavery movement.
Ashtabula County occupies the extreme northeast corner of Ohio. Best known for its numerous wineries and beautiful covered bridges, the area held some three-dozen Underground Railroad safe houses. Here you’ll ride on the Western Reserve Greenway, a “linear park” following the former right-of-way of the PennCentral Railroad. A dozen Underground Railroad interpretive markers line the twenty-seven miles of the greenway (thirteen of which are part of our route) claimed by Ashtabula County, identifying such sites as the Hubbard House, which is situated adjacent to Walnut Beach in the city of Ashtabula. The safe house was considered a northern terminus of the railroad, as escaped slaves would go from there by boat across Lake Erie to Canada. It’s now home to an Underground Railroad museum that includes a map showing the locations of all known Underground Railroad stations in the area.
There’s a great deal of history to be explored in the Buffalo/Niagara area, ranging from that of American Revolution times to the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. This region became a natural funnel for freedom seekers, due to its remoteness, its proximity to Canada, and the anti-slavery sentiment that ran strong throughout New York state. Consequently, numerous safe houses were active on the U.S. side of the international border. One you can visit, and Buffalo’s best-known Underground Railroad site, is the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church. In the 1850s, the church building served as an Underground Railroad safe house, where freedom seekers would hide in the basement waiting to be boated across the Niagara River to Canada by night.
After crossing into Canada, from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake the route mainly uses the Niagara River Recreation Trail and short portions of the Niagara Parkway along the scenic Niagara River. The route near Niagara Falls is extremely busy in summer, with many international tourists visiting the area.
Numerous plaques memorializing people, structures, and events important to the Underground Railroad and other periods of black history are found on or close to the route as you proceed north through the Niagara area. Examples include a plaque at the Queenston Heights Park in Queenston, commemorating Ontario’s first Coloured Corps; and one in St. Catharines honoring Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Considered the “Moses of Her People,” Tubman lived in this community for nearly a decade.
Murphy Orchards — found at the end of the 31.5-mile Murphy Orchards Spur, which begins at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge — is a partner in the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. Enduring legend has it that Charles and Libby McClew, who established the farmstead here in 1850, served as Underground Railroad station masters. Among other things, you can view a ten-by-twelve-foot space beneath the barn thought to have served as a hiding place. The farm is open to the public, and Underground Railroad tours are offered.
Owen Sound, where your ride of discovery ends, was known as the final terminal of the Underground Railroad. It’s where many former slaves found their hard-earned freedom, and many of them settled in the village originally called Sydenham. Every year since 1862 the community has held its Emancipation Picnic, which today celebrates two historic milestones of freedom: the British Emancipation Act of 1834 and the United States Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Photo by Dennis Coello
The roads and highways in Alabama and Missisippi will be flat to gently rolling. After leaving the Natchez Trace Parkway you will experience multiple climbs and descents on roller coaster hills through Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky.
In Ohio you'll be riding on at least three different paved rail trails; the Little Miami Scenic Trail, the Prairie Grass/Ohio to Erie Trail and the western Reserve Greenway Trail. The majority of roads are rural in nature and tend to be excellent for bike touring, with smooth, high quality blacktop. You'll travel through many small towns where traffic will increase during commuting hours. The route gets hillier the farther north you head.
From Ashtabula, Ohio into Pennsylvania and New York you’ll enjoy a long stretch of flat to rolling waterside riding along Lake Erie, the southern-most of the five Great Lakes.
After crossing into Canada you'll ride the Niagara River Recreation Trail past Niagara Falls. Throughout Ontario the route traverses the Niagara Escarpment, so expect more climbs and descents. This will provide a challenge for the fully loaded cyclist, especially when going off route for services or exploration.
This route can be ridden from early spring in the south through September in the north, depending on the weather. Summers will be hot and humid. Both Alabama and Mississippi are occasionally in the path of tropical storms or hurricanes from June through November. Afternoon summer thunderstorms are typical and sometimes are accompanied by high winds and hail. While prevailing winds are generally light, Lake Erie's shore frequently develops a localized wind pattern that may extend inland for only a few miles. In southern Ontario, the climate is highly modified by the influence of the Great Lakes. Spring brings the beginning of the tornado season, and southern Ontario has the highest frequency of tornadoes in Canada. In summer, thunderstorms can produce heavy downpours, hail, damaging winds and occasional tornadoes.
On map sections #1 and #2 of this route services between towns are often limited, so stock up on water when you can and carry extra snacks. The convenience stores in the southern states often have "southern cookin' foods" that you would not normally find up north. After entering Ohio you'll encounter towns at frequent intervals, and many more campgrounds to choose from. If you are riding this route early in the spring be aware that as you head north campgrounds might not be open yet so call ahead or check the internet to confirm opening dates. Conversely, some cyclists may want to do the northern portions of this route during the colors of autumn. If you do, call ahead to verify campground availability because they may close after Labor Day.
Some campgrounds will charge a cyclist traveling by himself less if they have hiker/biker sites, but often they will charge the price of a regular tent or RV site, and that can easily be $10-$40/night (higher in tourist areas). The maps list churches that have opened their doors to cyclists, but they aren't all that closely spaced. If you're friendly and ask around, you can often get yourself invited to camp in a yard. Our routes sometimes go through national forests (moreso in the west) and you are allowed to camp anywhere on national forest land as long as you "pack it in, pack it out." Many city parks are free to camp in.
You may also wish to sign up with Warmshowers, a reciprocal hospitality site for bicycle travelers, for other overnight options.
Mobile Bay, AL
Baldwin County, AL
Grove Hill, AL
Lowndes County, MS
* Denotes a site not listed on the map.
New Albany, IN
Clermont County, OH
* Denotes a site not listed on the map.
Green County, OH
Lorain County, OH
* Denotes a site not listed on the map.
Orchard Park, NY
Fort Erie, ON
Niagara Falls, ON
Niagara Falls, NY
St. Catharines, ON
Owen Sound, ON
* Denotes a site not listed on the map.
Here are a few books that we recommend:
For additional reading lists:
There are a number of books and articles that reveal the true history and stories of the Underground Railroad. View our recommended reading list.
The project was born in 2004 when Adventure Cycling began a partnership with the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh to further encourage people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds to explore America's landscapes and history by bicycle. Combined with the nation's burgeoning health crisis, Adventure Cycling and the Center for Minority Health saw a natural alliance with common goals.
Adventure Cycling contacted historians, preservationists, and researchers and asked: “How do you pick a single route that represents thousands of escape routes?”
During this period of slavery, the tribal custom of creating songs to transmit information was used to communicate between slaves from plantation to plantation. Adventure Cycling chose to map the first part of the route guided by the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song refers to following the North Star and waterways to the Ohio River — in essence, it describes an escape route from Alabama and Mississippi. Upon reaching the Ohio River, Adventure Cycling relied on the knowledge and efforts of members and outside experts to steer the route to rich historic destinations while maintaining Adventure Cycling’s standards of great cycling roads and paths.
Successfully meeting the goals of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route continues to depend upon the contribution of volunteers, members, Underground Railroad enthusiasts, historians, health advocates and more.
Mario Browne, MPH, CHES; Chuck Harmon; Anthony Ratajczak; Todd Scott; Stephen Thomas PhD
Jonas Chaney, broadcast veteran; Dr. Randall R. Cottrell, Texas A&M University; Wes Dean, division administrator for the Traffic Engineering Division, Jackson, Mississippi; Laurence Glasco, associate professor of history, University of Pittsburgh; Katherine Kraft, independent consultant in environmental and policy approaches to promoting healthy lifestyles; Keith Laughlin, president, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; Sarah (Jameela) Martin; Barbara Murock, health policy specialist, Executive Office of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services; George Needham, vice president for member services, OCLC Online Computer Library Center in Dublin, Ohio; Jim Rotch, corporate attorney and partner at Bradley, Arant, Rose & White, LLP & author of The Birmingham Pledge & Chair, Birmingham Pledge Foundation; Becky J. Smith Ph.D., CHES, CAE, executive director, American Association for Health Education and vice president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance; Floyd Thomas, Jr., chief of the Curatorial/Exhibitions Division, National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio; Catherine Walker, vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary, REI.
Barb Bickel, executive director, Visit Lorain County; Nancy Darga, managing director, MotorCities National Heritage Area; Deborah Johnson, clinical therapist; Joe Levin, board member, Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance; Carol E. Mull, author of The Underground Railroad in Michigan; Joseph D.R. Tanner, administrative generalist and educational outreach specialist, The Hub of Detroit; Kimberly L. Simmons, founding president and executive director, Quarlls Watkins Heritage Project; Leslie C. Strong Williams, president, Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society; Kathryn Underwood, city planner, Detroit Planning Commission.