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New Milford’s aptly named River Road lay before me like a welcome mat. It hugged the banks of the Housatonic River, and the soft sound of shifting water filled the air. A canopy of branches shielded the summer sun, birds sang in the trees and the only thing that would have been out of place in a painting was this reporter lumbering down the road on a bicycle.

This was my first jaunt on the quiet roadway. Pedaling across the trail, I was surprised I had never before heard it was a great place to bike. I live only 25 minutes away (in this part of Connecticut, that’s nearby) and had driven many times along Route 7, just across the river from the dirt road I was now on.

River Road in New Milford comprises a small, 4.3-mile portion of the Western New England Greenway, a sprawling bicycle route that is newly designated as a part of the U.S. Bicycle Route System by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which makes the route a part of the national Adventure Cycling Association mapping system.

The Western New England Greenway was initially launched by a group of Connecticut volunteers, and runs from Norwalk all the way to Montreal, Canada, offering a sprawling, multi-state, multi-country trek of more than 300 miles. The route is designated U.S. Bicycle Route 7 and follows the path of Route 7 up to Canada, but utilizes nearby country back roads, dirt roads and existing bike trails.

“We made a real effort to get people off Route 7 and to find other routes,” says Dan McGuinness, a member of the Western New England Greenway executive committee and one of the volunteers who helped plan the route.

In Connecticut, the route begins at the intersection of Strawberry Hill Avenue and Route 136 in Norwalk, then winds its way up the western border of the state, through towns such as Bethel, Brookfield, New Milford, Kent and Falls Village. All told, more than 80 miles of Connecticut roadway are covered in the route, then it goes into Massachusetts and Vermont, where it passes through Burlington and ultimately into Canada.

The trail does not always keep riders off Route 7, but “it’s the best of what we can do,” says McGuinness.

Dan Bolognani, executive director of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, which helped develop the greenway, adds, “The goal was low-speed, low-volume roadways, and that’s what this route is made up of. It does cross Route 7 occasionally, but almost never is it right on Route 7.”

Bolognani adds that it was also designed as a heritage bike trail that would be “an enriching experience that goes beyond just cycling.”

In Connecticut the greenway passes near many museums and state parks, and incorporates three covered bridges — the West Cornwall Bridge, Bulls Bridge and the Kent Falls Covered Bridge.

The next step for the greenway, says Bolognani, is for signs to be designed and added so cyclists won’t need to consult maps in order to follow the route.

The River Road portion of the trail in New Milford is a great introduction for those looking for just a taste of the 300-plus-mile route. This section is overseen by the New Milford River Trail Association. I began my ride at the New Milford River Trail, a 1½-mile gravel trail that is closed to motorized vehicles and begins on Boardman Road (see infobox for parking directions). From this trail I made my way onto River Road, completing most of what is a 10-mile round trip if you traverse the River Trail and River Road. The River Trail part of this route is slightly more hilly than River Road, but both are enjoyable and the trail is a better place for kids to ride, as there are no cars.

This section of the greenway is a beautiful stretch to experience in an afternoon. I enjoyed the natural beauty while riding and was eager to continue around the next bend, sad that I hadn’t allotted more time for exploration.

McGuinness says other sections of the greenway in Connecticut that are particularly scenic and have low-volume car traffic include the 4.3-mile Schaghticoke Road part in Kent and the portion of the route from Cornwall north into Falls Village.

For the past few years, McGuinness has ridden the entire greenway annually with other volunteers. Generally this group plans to cover about 45 miles a day and takes seven days to get to Burlington and eight days to Montreal. “We wanted to stop and look at things and goof off, and get in places [for the night] in time to have a beer,” he says.

For those looking for additional riding opportunities, the route connects with the 3,130-mile La Route Verte in Canada, and in Norwalk it connects with the East Coast Greenway, which runs through Connecticut on its partially connected, 3,000-mile route from Maine to Florida.

But McGuinness stresses that the greenway can be enjoyed in as big or small portions as each rider desires. “You don’t have to do big miles,” he says. “It’s a pretty ride; just go out and enjoy it.”

As I learned in New Milford, even just a few miles of the greenway are perfect for a day trip. My brief ride has inspired plans for longer treks on the trail. I daydream of one day making it all the way to Canada. In the meantime, I’m happy exploring these quiet country roads in Connecticut.

For information about the Western New England Greenway, including complete routes and Google Map links, go to wnegreenway.org.