On the morning of the first day of spring, I dragged a friend — and his bikes — up I-69 to Marion, to begin the long ride to Richmond on the Cardinal Greenway.
It was an ambitious, possibly insane plan, since neither of us had done much to physically prepare for a one-day, 70-mile bike ride. But hiding out in quarantine for a year does things to a person, like induce longing for a grand physical challenge to take your mind off the smaller, daily ones. (Plus, when you ride a bike all day you can eat as much as you want without a shred of guilt.)
Starting in 1993, the non-profit Cardinal Greenways began buying up a network of abandoned railroad tracks and transforming it into a 62-mile system of asphalt trails that connects Hoosier cities, waterways, and wildlife from Richmond to the tiny town of Converse, outside Kokomo. The Cardinal Greenway is the longest “rail-trail,” as they’re called, in the state, and it joined the Monon in the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame in 2018. Now it hosts thousands of Hoosiers (and riders from elsewhere) each year, with that number likely to rise as 2020’s cabin fever finds catharsis.
Before I set out for my own experience with the trail, I reached out to a few cyclist friends who had taken it on. They told me it was mostly flat, and that it could get pretty windy. The trail inspired one friend to a James Whitcomb Riley-like reverie: He said it was transformative, its “endless tunnel of flowers, and trees, and corn” inspiring him out of his sedentary rut and into an everyday cycling habit.
I also paid a visit to Gray Goat Bicycle Company, for some padded bib shorts and a helmet that would fit my big head. The gear wasn’t cheap, but I considered it an investment in case the Cardinal Greenway converted me like it did my friend. In hindsight, I wish I’d picked up some riding gloves as well.
Many who live along the trail now say it’s their favorite feature of their town, but Indiana’s embrace of rail-trails came later than some of our neighboring states. In the 1990s, miles of CSX railroad sat unused and abandoned across East Central Indiana. The rail line was constructed around the turn of the 20th century to connect Chicago and Cincinnati. For a brief time it carried passengers, then freight, then nothing at all until its transformation into the Cardinal Greenway.
It’s still a work in progress. Between Jonesboro and Gaston, there is no actual trail. If you want to go the full distance through that stretch, you’ll have to ride about 15 miles on country roads.
But the route isn’t all rustic: Scattered throughout the Greenway are shelters, drinking fountains, restrooms, bike maintenance stations, and historical markers. You can even get a loaner bike for free from the Cardinal Greenways headquarters in Muncie.
Todd Crosby, office manager at Cardinal Greenways, is on the trail in Muncie every day, and he says he’s seen cardinals (of course), morel mushrooms, and even bald eagles out there. Crosby says the Greenway is awfully remote in parts, but that’s just what many riders are looking for: a place to pedal for miles on uninterrupted trail.
As for myself, partway between Muncie and Richmond — and more than halfway through the journey — my thoughts were oscillating between deep appreciation for the pastoral scenery and prayers for a swift death. I could feel every mile in my calves, and I was beginning to resent the stone half-mile markers that seemed to mock our progress from the side of the trail.
Exhaustion, however, was not our downfall. Like many waylaid travelers before us, it was a third flat tire on the road bike. We neglected to bring supplies to patch such a gash, so we were stuck just 10 miles outside Richmond. There was no hope for an Uber or Lyft in Williamsburg, Indiana, but Richmond’s Depot Taxi agreed to pick us up and take us to our car.
I was disappointed to complete the home stretch of the journey in the passenger seat of a cab, but the 60-mile ride still felt like an accomplishment. If I wasn’t hearing the same clarion call that converted my cycling evangelist friend, I was driven to get back in the saddle very soon and attend to some unfinished business on the Cardinal Greenway.
Before You Go:
- Pack the right tools and familiarize yourself with using them. Kirk’s Bike Shop in Muncie recommends taking along a multi-tool, compressed air, extra tubes, and patch kit.
- Dress for no regrets. Wear wicking material like a cycling jersey and padded shorts that will save your butt as the miles stack up. Consider some gel-padded cycling gloves, too.
- Pack plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen.
Choose Your Own Adventure:
The Jonesboro Jaunt (One day, 15 Miles)
Park at the Miller Avenue trailhead on the west side of Marion and set out east on the Greenway. Ride through the city and down along the Mississinewa River, until the end of the trail at Douglas Street in Jonesboro. Cross over the river for a stroll at Gas City Park, visit the free petting zoo, and get your fill of local barbecue at nearby Pappies Smokehouse & Lunch Box.
An Afternoon in Muncie (One day, 21 miles)
Park at the Gaston trailhead and head south on the trail for a flat, smooth ride through Indiana farmland. Observe caution at the McGalliard Road intersection, the busiest on the entire Cardinal Greenway. Spend the day walking the manicured gardens of Minnetrista, and grab a ticket for the current Bob Ross Experience exhibit to tour the iconic television artist’s studio. You can’t miss the Wysor Street Depot, the recently-restored Queen Anne-style train station from 1901 that now serves as Cardinal Greenways’ headquarters. Chat with other cyclists there and stock up on Cardinal Greenway merch, before popping downtown for a Rez IPA and dill pickle pizza at The Guardian Brewing Company.
Last Stop Gaston (One or two days, 50 miles)
Before you set out from the Cardinal Greenway D Street Trailhead in Richmond, grab any last-minute gear you might need from Cycling and Fitness Warehouse just down the street (you can park your car there overnight, too). Follow the trail out of town and through the hilliest terrain you’ll traverse on the whole trip. Stop for lunch in Losantville, about 23 miles in. If you need some carbs, there’s the Pizza Barn right across from the trailhead. You can also grab deli sandwiches at the Amish grocery up the street, a local favorite. Just before you get into Muncie, take out your binoculars for a short detour at the Red-tail Nature Preserve, where you can see red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and nesting osprey.
Book an AirBnb downtown and a dinner reservation at Vera Mae’s Bistro. From there head to Heorot Pub to choose from more than 60 draught beers, or The Fickle Peach for a few games of pool. Even if you’re sore (or hungover) in the morning, it’s a breezy 10-mile ride north to Gaston.
A Night in Richmond (One or two days, 80 miles)
Starting at the Wysor Street Depot, set off southward on the Cardinal Greenway. Again, stop in Losantville for lunch at Pizza Barn or to stock up on roasted nuts and sandwiches from the Amish grocery down the street. Once you get to Richmond, pull off to take in the Thistlethwaite Falls before heading into town. Book a night at the Philip W. Smith B&B, a charming Victorian inn with secure bike storage. Don’t miss the Richmond Rose Garden — full of 100 blooming rose varieties — right across the street, as well as the historic Glen Miller Park beyond. For dinner, head to Galo’s Italian Grill and eat your fill of lobster ravioli and bolognese. Remember, your ride back to Muncie the next day will be (slightly) downhill.
If you want to make this a single-day century ride, finish with an out-and-back trip to Gaston, which will put you at right about 100 miles.
Start to Finish (One or two days, 83 miles)
For the intrepid cyclist, start at the Sweetser Switch trailhead in Converse. Take the trail east to the short jog over to the Cardinal Greenway, after Sweetser. Ride the Greenway through Marion and down to the end of the trail at Douglas Street in Jonesboro. Stuff your face with a Clif bar, then take Wheeling Pike all the way to Matthews, where you’ll hang a right on S 900 E. This will take you to Gaston, where you can hop back on the Cardinal Greenway. It’s smooth trail-riding the rest of the way.
Mind the busy McGalliard intersection, then make a stop in Muncie to refuel at the Downtown Farmstand with a Cubano Pork Belly Panini and a load of nuts and dried fruits in bulk. Once you’re back on the Greenway, the next stop for food will be about an hour away in Losantville. Make it to the Richmond D Street trailhead before dark, and celebrate with nachos and beer at Little Sheba’s.