Celebrating the Northern Tier on its 40th Anniversary

May 6th, 2024

In June of 1976, Adventure Cycling — then known as Bikecentennial — mapped and publicized their first route: the TransAmerica Trail. This cross-country route stretched over 4,000 miles from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia and became an instant classic. But even as the TransAmerica Trail was being finalized, another idea was taking shape: a second route that would also cross the U.S. coast to coast, but this one would stay up north. The idea was to hug the Canada / U.S. border, aiming to maximize the grandeur and rugged beauty of the northern part of the country.

This is the route that would become the Northern Tier, initially conceived in 1975 and officially mapped by Adventure Cycling cartographers in 1983 and 1984. The final version, completed in 1984, was a 4,296-mile adventure from Anacortes, Washington to Bar Harbor, Maine. 

To gain funding for the Northern Tier’s development, Adventure Cycling Founder Greg Siple and former Adventure Cycling Executive Director Gary MacFadden pulled out all the stops on their proposal. They displayed the system of routes combined with photographs of scenery along the way, sending professionally bound copies of the proposal to the Huffy Foundation, which had potential for grant funding. Eventually the deal was made, and the financial backing helped make the Northern Tier possible.

Pamphlet page displaying routes along the Northern Tier states.

The Northern Tier was created by combining a network of pre-existing routes linked together with new segments to reach coast to coast; a dramatic, challenging cross-country ride that begins and ends with serious climbing, leading cyclists through incredible scenery on a near-constant basis. Today, it remains a bucket-list route, taking cyclists from Washington State to the Northern Rockies, into the sweeping plains of the Dakotas and iconic mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont. Cyclists riding its entirety will pedal everything from Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park to Kancamagus Pass in New Hampshire, and climb nearly 175,000 total feet.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Northern Tier, and as summer approaches, the season for cycling this route will soon be upon us. 

“The Northern Tier is kind of a hidden gem,” says Jenn Hamelman, Adventure Cycling Association Routes Director. “The TransAmerica is the most popular, and people see the Southern Tier as more appealing because it’s shorter. But the Northern Tier is really something that gets overlooked.”

Photo: Dan Miller

Hamelman cycled over 2,100 miles across the northern U.S. in 2017, from Maine to Minnesota before she hopped off to avoid the threat of wildfires. She based her route on the Northern Tier, albeit with a few modifications to see friends and acquaintances. 

“The people across the route were amazing,” Hamelman says, recounting tales of trail angels, friendly locals, and hospitable town stops. That’s not to say her experience on the route was easy. 

“Both the eastern and western parts of the Northern Tier are very mountainous and hilly,” she recalls. “Crossing Vermont and New Hampshire is just one pass after another. It’s pretty intense… Kancamangus Pass was one of my hardest days of cycling ever.” 

Photo: Chuck Haney

While Adventure Cycling doesn’t have exact records as to the number of cyclists on the Northern Tier route each year, Adventure Cycling guided tours have rave reviews, and self-supported cyclists have ethusiastically volunteered tales of their journeys. The reasons cyclists gave for choosing this route varied. Some were inspired by other cyclists, some sought the majestic scenery of the Northern U.S. and for several, it was their first extended bike tour. Several people also mentioned the desire to “circumnavigate” the U.S. on Adventure Cycling routes — top to bottom, east to west… on four sides. This epic goal includes cycling the West Coast on the Pacific Coast route, the East Coast on the Atlantic Coast, the northern states on the Northern Tier, and the southern part of the country on the Southern Tier.

We reached out to several cyclists for their memories* of the Northern Tier. In their own words, here is the Northern Tier from two self-supported cyclists and one Adventure Cycling tour guide.  Perhaps their stories might be the final push you need to add this route to your own list.


Deb Gardner

Year: 2018
Type: Self-supported
Direction: West to East
Duration: 64 days

Photo: Deb Gardner

My husband Tom and I completed the Northern Tier route in 2018. We thought of the route as an Oreo cookie — flat grasslands sandwiched between mountain ranges on either side.  But beyond cookies, and notable landmarks like the Cascades, Glacier National Park, Logan Pass, visiting Canada (twice), eventually the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains, the Whites and Niagara Falls. The seed [for riding this route] was planted back in 2014 when we were on our way back to the Spokane airport after running a couple marathons in Idaho and Washington. While driving through the Cascade mountains on Highway 2 we passed a mother/daughter duo cycling West to East across the country on the Northern Tier. We stopped to chat with them and decided it would be this trip, this route, this direction, someday. 

Northern Tier, to us, appeared to be the “granddaddy” of all rides in the continental United States due to its length and the variety of topography.

We rode West to East because we live in Indianapolis and we could get home more easily from Maine than Washington. After shipping our bikes to Bellingham, Washington, we started on June 1st and finished on August 7th in 64 days, taking only four rest days.

Photo: Deb Gardner

The highlight of the trip was seeing our country and meeting its people at an average speed of 10 miles an hour from a bicycle seat… slower than a car, but faster than walking. In our opinion, bike touring is the best way to experience our country if you’re able. The start and finish of any ride is always a highlight, however cycling Going-To-The-Sun Road and visiting the National Parks were right up there. Tom’s favorite state was bucolic Wisconsin whereas I was in my groove in upstate New York with its mountains, trees, and lakes. We both agreed that North Dakotans were the most friendly folks.

For some, the toughest days will be climbing. For others it will be the gas station food. Still others will struggle with the inability to roll with the changes. For us, it is always cold weather. The beginning of the ride included some cold temps and rain which made for some challenging cycling.

The Northern Tier route was our first and longest cross country ride. Since then, we have completed the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (border to border) in 2021 and Southern Tier in 2023, although we decided to turn right in St. Augustine and ride the Atlantic Coast Route south all the way to Key West. 

Photo: Deb Gardner

Each ride was unique and offered something different. I think we learned the most on Northern Tier, and not as much about bike touring as we learned about ourselves. We learned to be resourceful in limiting what we took on the ride, we learned we could eat like teenagers for weeks at a time and we learned that yes, the mountains are spectacular, especially when going down them, the wildlife in its natural habitat, magical, and the flowers and trees interesting enough to keep our bike pedals turning, but it’s the people we met along the journey that made the trip unforgettable.

On the Great Divide we learned compromise. When Canada closed its borders to travelers during COVID, we settled for a border-to-border southbound ride. We learned our bodies would do what our minds commanded, even though the route’s terrain was more than us Hoosier flatlanders were accustomed. Most of all we learned we could get way outside of our comfort zone so long as we took it one day at a time.

Photo: Deb Gardner

After having two cross-country tours under our belt, we thought Southern Tier would be a slam dunk and especially so after the Great Divide. Wrong! Southern Tier taught us humility and choosing the right season to ride is paramount. However, consistent in all three tours we lived more simply, presumed the best in people and learned not to sweat the small stuff. 

Further, we used Adventure Cycling’s indispensable paper and digital maps. On all three tours our post dinner nightly “route rap” was something we looked forward to each night as we looked at mileage, services, elevation and field notes for the next day and then checked the weather forecast for wind and temps.  If only the weather forecasts were as reliable as ACA maps. 

The Northern Tier was our introduction to long distance bike touring… and we are only just beginning.


Monte Marti

Year: 2023
Adventure Cycling Guide
East to West
90 days

Photo: Monte Marti

What can I even say about the Northern Tier?? It is constant, epic cycling. Once we took off from Bar Harbor, we saw incredible places like Niagara Falls, then rode into the Rockies and the Cascades… one epic thing after another. All 90 days were just chock full of things that people would love to check off their list.

The most challenging part was the distance and days — you’re a long time away from your family and friends, and 90 days is a long time on a bicycle. On top of that, you have the physical challenges. The Northern Tier involves climbing up and over White Mountains in the East and the Rockies and Cascades in the West. Plus, you’re right in the middle of summer, and in a typical summer on the Northern Tier you’re going to face a variety of things from rain to heat to winds.  

Photo: Monte Marti

The Northern Tier can feel more challenging than other epic Adventure Cycling routes. Unlike other trails that ease you into the climbs, you’re into it immediately, and it’s helpful to be in good shape no matter which direction you start from. Our tour went from Maine to Washington, but a lot of people we met doing it on their own went from West to East because they feel like those are the prevailing winds. We didn’t get stuck with many winds however, and it didn’t seem like they were consistently in one direction or another. 

I love other epic routes like the Southern Tier and Atlantic Coast for their own reasons. But what I experienced on the Northern Tier is that from start to finish, you’re constantly running into epic things along the route… every single day.

Photo: Monte Marti

Each one of these rides is unique. You just need to peel back the onion as to what makes it unique. The scenery, the people you meet along the way, the places you see, the weather. Each of those things makes up an epic trip like the Northern Tier, and each day of a ride like that. It’s something to love and enjoy… that’s the beauty. 

With the Northern Tier and bike travel in general, every day can be a beautiful adventure. That’s how I encourage people to get past the thought of: Oh shoot, I have another 50 days. Just look at the beauty of each day. It’s going to be challenging. You may have headwinds. You may have 100-degree temperatures. You may have 5,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s a challenge. It’s going to be difficult. But think about it. Once you get it done, you’ve done it and you’ve accomplished it and you get to celebrate at the end of the day. Then you get to go do something different tomorrow. 

Photo: Monte Marti

As a leader, you have to coach and help and guide people through the challenges of 90 days on the Northern Tier. You have your group and your gear and your bikes and all of the things that come along with that. But if you break it down day by day, it becomes a beautiful thing. 


Dan Miller

Year: 2021
West to East
67 days

Photo: Dan Miller

I rode the Northern Tier in 2021, after I retired at 63. I started in Anacortes, Washington on August 1 and finished in Bar Harbor, Maine on October 6, two months and one week. I did the ride by myself except for my brother joining me for a week in Wisconsin.

I decided on the Northern Tier because I couldn’t start till August 1 — I had a daughter getting married the last weekend of July. I did some research on scenery and weather and the Northern Tier won. I also read and followed the blog of a couple (Tom and Deb Gardner) that had ridden the Northern Tier several years earlier.

For highlights, it’s hard to beat the majesty of the Rockies on Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The vastness of the Northern Plains is hard to fathom and awe inspiring coming from suburbia. And riding in New England along streams and rivers in the mountains as the fall colors started to pop was amazing.

Photo: Dan Miller

The hardest part of the whole trip was the daily issue of logistics. How far am I going today where am I sleeping and where am I eating. Small town restaurants are not always open seven days a week especially along the Northern Tier after Labor Day. The hardest day was my shortest day at 40 miles, cycling into a steady 30 mile-per-hour headwind with strong gusts, occasional heavy rain, and some road construction.

Photo: Dan Miller

My “short” speech to people who asked was that everyone who can should do it! It is a big beautiful country full of wonderful people with great stories to share. Turning off the news for two months and getting away from all the gloom and doom and fear is rejuvenating in and of itself, but adding in all the wonderful people, scenery, and daily exercise is life affirming.


*Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity
Feature image: Chuck Haney

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