Trail of the Month: June 2009
Aside from a few furious sports rivalries, Georgia and Alabama have plenty in common—especially during the summertime, when the two states share a special southern hum. Crickets come out early on sultry evenings, their chirping growing louder as temperatures boil in July and August. Frogs chime in with a chorus of croaks at dusk around low-lying swamps and after heavy rains, and dino-size mosquitoes buzz away the afternoons.
Since this past fall, a new rhythm now links the neighboring states as well: the soft thud thud of footfalls and the steady whir of bicycle tires. In September 2008, a celebration opened the State Line Gateway Park, finally joining the 61.5-mile Silver Comet Trail in Georgia and the 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail in Alabama.
The seamless hook-up creates a continuous 95-mile corridor of rail-trail—making the combined trails one of the longest paved stretches in the country. They connect two cities, two states and more than a dozen communities along the way. And as of this June, both pathways earned a well-deserved home in Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
The Silver Comet
Georgia's contribution to the pair of trails began as a project of the Atlanta-based PATH Foundation. Organized in 1991, the nonprofit has partnered with local government agencies to design and develop a network of greenways throughout metro Atlanta. In 1998, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) approached PATH with the prospect of building a trail on the unused, state-owned Seaboard Coast Line Railroad right-of-way. The corridor ran from the outskirts of Atlanta, in Smyrna, to the Alabama state line. PATH immediately recognized the enormous potential of a trail in such a large metro area.
"[Atlanta is] a city of four million people who don't have enough places to bike and walk," says Ed McBrayer, executive director and a PATH founder. "So we were very aggressive about the specifications and built a 12-foot-wide trail that accommodates multiple uses and lots of amenities."
At the time of construction, says McBrayer, the corridor preceded urban sprawl. Neighborhoods and businesses have since developed in droves around the pathway within the Atlanta area, and the trail sees heavy use. That pattern of growth helped give the rail-trail its varied character, as visitors can experience everything from urban cityscapes to pastoral hillsides. "The cool thing about the Comet," McBrayer says, "[is] it really does give you any experience you want. You can stay inside the suburban area, where there are apartment complexes and shopping malls. But you can also take a cross-country journey. Really, when I go out and ride it, I pick something different every time."
Heading out from Atlanta, after the first 10 or 11 miles, the Silver Comet starts cruising through woodlands, farmland and quieter country. Keep an eye out near towns for roadside stands selling fresh-picked peaches and boiled peanuts (pronounced locally without the "ed," like "boil" peanuts). Trail highlights include the famous Pumpkinvine Trestle and Brushy Mountain Tunnel, both of which make their way into countless photographs from visitors.
But the fun doesn't stop at the border. Once you pass through the Gateway Park linking the two trails, a new 33-mile adventure awaits you on the Chief Ladiga Trail in Alabama—and don't expect the scenery to stagnate.
The Chief Ladiga
"One thing that is really spectacular is that this trail surprises people with its diverse landscapes," says Pete Conroy, chair of the Chief Ladiga Rails to Trails Committee. "[You'll see] everything from cotton fields to mountains, cliffs and ponds, to blooming rhododendron and mountain laurel. The varying landscapes keep the ride fresh."
Conroy has been with the Ladiga since its inception in the 1980s. Over burgers with former state Senator Doug Ghee, they decided there ought to be trail on the unused Seaboard Coast Line rail corridor from Anniston, Ala., to the Georgia state line. In the following years, local planners gathered support from various agencies and communities along the route—including Anniston, Jacksonville, Piedmont and Weaver—and the trail began to take shape in pieces during the mid-1990s.
Named for a 1930s Creek Indian leader, the pathway now rolls effortlessly from one downtown to the next, allowing visitors to pop off at any stop to enjoy the hospitality of each community. For locals and out-of-towners alike, the Chief Ladiga Trail has revived the spirit of the railroad that once tied the towns together. It's become a social and economic glue.
"The trail connects these municipalities, but also parks, campuses, Jacksonville State University [and] Jacksonville High School," says Conroy. "And as we always say in this business, it also connects people. My favorite part about this trail is when people stop riding it and meet strangers—old bikes that make squeaking noises meeting high speed bicycles, Speedo outfits meeting blue jeans. And more and more, we're seeing the Chief Ladiga as a transportation corridor, with a number of people carrying grocery bags out on the trail."
Eventually, as each trail became so successful, it made perfect sense to join them and multiply the spoils. The trails now feed off each other's popularity and potential, and the union couldn't feel more natural or complementary. "I'm thrilled to have the connection, because the [Chief Ladiga Trail] is a whole different experience," says McBrayer.
So don't let a little heat frighten you from all the buzz in Georgia and Alabama this summer. You'll find their Hall of Fame trails plenty refreshing, and the journey well worth the effort.
For more information, photos and user reviews of the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails, or to post your own comments, please visit TrailLink.com.