As a nondriving city resident, escaping to nature on a bike trail has helped me stay sane and happy. Before I moved to Baltimore, I lived in Philadelphia and Boston, and these jaunts were a refreshing lifeline when I wanted a break from urban life.

Yet despite living in Baltimore for more than six years, I hadn’t tried any of the Maryland bike trails. I finally decided to change that with an overnight trip with my boyfriend to Pennsylvania on the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail. It was the longest bike ride either of us had ever done, clocking in at 40 miles per day for two days. We left on a Friday morning and returned Saturday evening, happy but exhausted.

About the trail

The Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail, also called the North Central Railroad (NCR) Trail, starts in Cockeysville and spans 20 miles to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. In Pennsylvania, it’s called the Heritage Rail Trail and continues for another 21 miles to York.

Two illustrated maps side by side show the Torrey C. Brown rail trail starting in Cockeysville, Maryland and heading north to York, Pennsylvania, crossing over I-83 and the Mason-Dixon Line. Second map shows in red a path up the trail from Cockeysville to Hanover Junction and Jefferson, Pennsylvania.

What we rode

I borrowed my boyfriend’s road bike so I could gear shift when climbing the long, slow hill from Baltimore to the state border. I carried a change of clothes, snacks and toiletries in a handlebar bag and a backpack. My boyfriend rode his Brompton, a folding bicycle, and used a front-loading bike bag to carry his things. We filled up on water, snacks and sunscreen before we left, which proved prescient: There aren’t many places to stop for supplies on the Maryland portion of the trail.

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Tip: Use a bike rack to avoid carrying anything on your back. And don’t bother bringing a bike lock, which I made the mistake of doing. Any unneeded weight might make you grumpy after two days on the trail.

Illustration shows woman with helmet waving and standing next to blue road bike that has handlebar bag and two water bottles on its frame. A man with a helmet stands next to a gray Brompton bike with a front-loading bag.

There’s no need to ride a hybrid or gravel bike. Neither of our bikes slipped on the trail surfaces, which were paved in Maryland and crushed gravel in Pennsylvania. Be warned, though: The pavement in Maryland is so torn up that the ride is super bumpy. Several hours of that surface will make your tuchus unhappy.

Tip: Switch out your firm bike seat for a cushy one to ensure as painless an experience as possible. I learned this the hard way — not even padded bike shorts saved my ass.

What we did

Early Friday morning, we biked from Waverly to the Woodberry light rail stop, where a northbound train was pulling in as we arrived. We took the light rail to Pepper Road, 1.2 miles from the beginning of the NCR Trail. Getting from the Pepper Road light rail stop to the trail was the gnarliest part of the whole trip. There’s no bicycle infrastructure, and the pedestrian infrastructure sucks as well. I hope that Baltimore County connects the Jones Falls and NCR trails so that bicyclists can safely move from downtown Baltimore all the way to the state line.

Illustration of man and woman with bikes standing on sidewalk next to car-filled intersection of two five-lane streets next to a gas station and a strip mall. The woman says "So... there's a crosswalk but no signal for us, and no crosswalk to the other side?"

Reaching the trail brought immediate relief from our hellish experience in Cockeysville — and from the city and traffic in general.

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Illustration of man and woman, seen from behind, on bikes in parking lot in front of the beginning of a trail that leads into the forest. A brown sign says "Northern Central Railroad Trail." Man looks back at woman and says: "That was rough." Woman says: "Well, I'm glad we're here now."
Illustration of man and woman, seen from behind, on bikes in parking lot in front of the beginning of a trail that leads into the forest. A brown sign says "Northern Central Railroad Trail." Man looks back at woman and says: "That was rough." Woman says: "Well, I'm glad we're here now."

Autumn is a great time for biking because it’s not too hot or humid. Plus, you can enjoy a front-row seat to the color show as the leaves turn. If you’re interested in local history, there are informative signs at different sites along the trail. But I was there for the experience: enjoying the quiet forest, the lazy creek that wove back and forth along the trail, glimpses of barns and paddocks, historic train stations. We noticed port-a-potties and bike repair stands at regular intervals in Maryland, but not in Pennsylvania. Some of the historic train stations have public restrooms, like the one in Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania.

Illustration of woman and man biking on bridge across a stream, with trees, hills and a barn with a red roof in the background. The southern part of the NCR trail follows the Big Gunpowder Falls. The woman says: "Cute barn!"
Illustration of two historic buildings in Monkton, Maryland, with trail receding into woods in between them. On left is a short gray building with a red sign on its roof that says Monkton, and is labeled "Monkton Station." On right is a three-story brick building with many white-trimmed windows, labeled "Monkton Hotel."
Illustration of grassy hill separated from gravel trail by a wooden fence, with trees, a colorful umbrella and a man's silhouette on a bike in the background. The hill is dotted with small gnome statues, with a tall gnome and an American flag on the top.

Halfway through Maryland we started to count the miles left before the state border. Finally, at Mile 20 we stopped at the Mason-Dixon line. It felt like such an accomplishment! I had never biked across state lines before.

Illustration of man and woman with helmets on the trail, with a roofed information stand on the left and a wooden sign on the right that says "Welcome to New Freedom." The woman lifts her hands in the air and shouts "We made it to Pennsylvania!" The man squats and gives her two thumbs-up.

We arrived in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, around 1 p.m. There were a handful of restaurants and breweries along the trail; the town embraces rail trail traffic and has benefited from the business. Other towns along the way did not feel so lively.

We ate lunch at Seven Sports Bar and Grille, which serves gastropub food that wasn’t impressive but did fill us up. There were only a few vegetarian options, but if you eat fish there’s a bit more choice.

Illustration of the exterior of a restaurant with outdoor seating in a fenced-off patio. In the foreground in front of the patio is a bike rack with several bikes in it. The illustration includes two insets showing an Angry Autumn salad with a piece of grilled tuna ($24) and a bacon cheeseburger burger with cole slaw ($14.50).

I had planned to check out some breweries around New Freedom but decided against it. It turns out I didn’t want to drink when I knew I had 10-plus miles left to go. If you’re in the mood, however, look for Vortex Brewing Company right next to the trail, Gunpowder Falls Brewing a few blocks away, and Alecraft Brewery a mile and a half north of town. Maybe next time for me?

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In Maryland, woods bordered the trail, so we couldn’t tell how rural things were. But the view opened up in Pennsylvania — we saw farmhouses, barns and lots of cornfields, but not many people.

Illustration of the trail receding into the distance with a distant figure of a bicyclist. The sky is bright blue. To the left of the trail is an old railroad track, to the right up the hill is a cornfield and two big gray barns. A speech bubble says: "Wow, you can tell we're in the middle of nowhere now."

The rural vibes weren’t limited to the landscape: Entering New Freedom, my boyfriend eyed bald eagle imagery and Trump 2024 signs festooning front porches. Some 10 miles earlier in Maryland, I spotted a Hummer emblazoned with a massive Q sticker. I did not expect to encounter an open supporter of QAnon on the bike trail, but I guess conspiracy theorists need a place to enjoy the fresh air, too.

From New Freedom we biked to Hanover Junction, where we took local roads to our bed and breakfast, the Inn at Terra Farms. We had to scale several steep hills to get there.

Terra Farms has been growing flowers for florists, weddings and you-pick customers since 2018, but they just opened their inn this year. It’s a renovated farmhouse that features original 1830s log beams and Instagram-ready decor.

Of the three bedrooms, I opted for the Statesman ($159 a night). It’s the only room with an ensuite bathroom, including a tub where I soaked my aching muscles at the end of the night. After we settled in, co-owner Loni Snyder gave me a tour of the flower farm. It was lovely to wrap up the day by walking through rows of dahlias and learning about the farm’s educational programming and land reclamation projects. It’s a picturesque spot and Loni shared that many couples have gotten engaged there.

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Illustrated map shows a farm along a country road, seen from the air. In the bottom of the map is a white building labeled the Inn at Terra Farms. A small figure walks up from the inn along some trees past rows of dahlia flowers and a grow tunnel. An arrow shows the path up and around the trees past another grow tunnel and flowers to a you-pick farm stand.

Tip: Don’t forget to stretch! We stretched at lunchtime and after arriving at the inn. That, plus the hot bath, was key for waking up with minimal discomfort the next day.

We didn’t want to scale those hills again to find dinner on the trail, so we rode west to Jefferson instead. The only restaurant was the Jefferson Inn, a locals-only joint where smoking was permitted inside and everyone stared when we entered. We tanked up on fried food at an outside table and watched evening truck traffic circle the central square. There weren’t many vegetarian options, so I got a grilled cheese and a side of fries for $7.45; my boyfriend opted for the $13.95 crab cake platter, which came with a baked potato.

Illustration of grilled cheese sandwich and fries in a take out container next to a beer on a table in the foreground. In the background are parked cars and a motorcycle next to the sidewalk, with a grassy circle and red brick buildings in the background.

We saw more Trump stickers and two memorials: one for Jefferson being pillaged during the Civil War (by both Union and Confederate soldiers) and the other for fallen World War I soldiers. On our way back to the inn, we biked past a literal wall of corn. One of the delights of doing this trip in the fall was marveling at the 6 to 7-foot plants filling my line of sight.

Tip: Find lodging on or close to the trail, because once you stop biking for the day, you won’t want to hop back on to find dinner miles away. There’s a bed and breakfast in Railroad, Pennsylvania, and an inn in Glen Rock. You may find some AirBnBs in New Freedom. There are also hotels and vacation rentals in downtown York.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at the inn and then hit the road, taking a less hilly route back to the trail. It was cooler in rural Pennsylvania than it had been the previous morning in Baltimore.

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Tip: Bring a long-sleeved sweater or jacket for chillier moments along the ride.

Illustration of two bicyclists on the road next to a historic red train station, with the trail in the background. A red sign next to the road in the middle ground says "Hanover Junction."

After crossing the state border back into Maryland we felt like we were flying downhill. We stopped to eat lunch at the Monkton Hotel Café right on the trail. I ate a veggie hummus wrap while my boyfriend ordered a chicken salad sandwich, each $13.75. The sandwiches were plain but filling and I appreciated a break from the bumpy trail.

The last 10 miles of the trail were brutal because my butt was so sore from the bike saddle. I could not have been more pleased to see the end of the trail, even if it meant dealing with Cockeysville car traffic again.

Tip: Plan a rest day following your trip — I was glad to have all of Sunday to recuperate before returning to work on Monday.

Laila Milevski is a news designer and illustrator working to develop and strengthen the Banner's visual storytelling. She has joined the Banner after making illustrations and comics at ProPublica to support their investigative reporting.

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