Over the last three years I have become a frequent rider of rails to trails in the Southeast. The rails to trails movement got started in the United States in the late ’70s and early ’80s. As our nation shifted from an industrial economy to a service economy, railroad lines were being scuttled in many places across the nation. Thanks to some forward-thinking people and help from the government, many of these dormant rail lines got a chance at a second life and what a life they have provided for millions of Americans. These railroads were converted to paved surfaces to be used by bikers, hikers, in-line skaters and horseback riders.
At first many people where these lines were converted for recreational use opposed the idea. Those critics have, for the most part, turned into supporters of the rail to trail movement. The economic benefit of these paths has been amazing for the communities and towns that are along the route of these paths. Studies have shown that in many cases, the trails bring back $3 in revenue for every $1 spent creating the paths. This is a profitable and wise way to spend tax dollars.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to ride these paths in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and I am planning a weeklong trip up the mid-Atlantic to ride more of these amazing paths that are rich with history. Most of these paths cut through beautiful landscapes and seeing all types of wildlife is commonplace.
The paths offer two desirable advantages for bikers and walkers. One is that the paths are relatively flat. Trains can’t pull large hills so the grade is never more than 2 percent, and this provides for a nice easy ride with virtually no hills. When my wife and I rode the Silver Comet Trail last year, she had not been on a bike in years and she rode 30 miles in one day with no problem. The other advantage is that the paths have no cars on them and, in today’s world of distracted driving, this is a huge plus for walkers and bikers.
As I mentioned before, I have ridden paths in several states, but my favorite one is right here in our backyard. The trail I am referring to is the Chief Ladiga and Silver Comet Trail. The trail starts in Weaver and is a continuous paved path all the way to Smyrna, Georgia, offering more than 90 miles of paved pathway covering a diverse landscape. This path is one of the longest fully paved rail-trails in the United States. A couple of times a year we tried to ride almost the entire path. Our journey starts at the old train depot in Jacksonville, which has restrooms and good parking. A sign-in sheet reveals that people from all over the Southeast come to ride this path. A small pack mounted on the back of our bikes contains everything we need for an overnight ride on the path. The first stop is in Piedmont and a stop in at the Solid Rock Café, which caters to bikers. A sandwich, sweet tea and cookie will give you the energy to make it the next 14 miles to the state line where the path turns into the Silver Comet Trail. After taking a break at the state line, it’s an easy 10 miles to Cedartown, Georgia, where the old train depot has been turned into a rest area and museum with bike repair equipment, snacks and cold drinks. Cedartown was the hometown for Sterling Holloway, who was the voice of Winnie the Pooh, and the train station is a shrine to his work in the entertainment industry.
After a break, the ride continues to Rockmart, Georgia, and this 14-mile stretch offers a few challenges. For six miles the railroad is still active so the path actually goes up and down hills for this stretch. The climbs are tough but the downhills are fast and fun. In Rockmart, we always stop at Knuckleheads Café for a light meal and conversation with the locals. Knuckleheads is literally full of Harley Davidson memorabilia and is a cool place to visit, complete with a burnout pit in the parking lot. My Trek bike is not the best piece of equipment for burning rubber but taking a picture in the burnout pit is fun. From Rockmart the next 8 miles is slightly uphill as you approach the 700-foot Brushy Mountain Tunnel.
At the tunnel you marvel at the work that had to be done to cut through a mountain around 80 years ago. The journey for us is complete after another 16 miles when we arrive in Hiram, Georgia. The Red Caboose is always a welcome site as we pull into Hiram knowing our hotel is less than a half-mile down the road.
After we check into the hotel and get cleaned up there are a number of restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. After a restful night, we get up and make the 70-mile ride back to Jacksonville where my 19-year-old Toyota truck patiently waits for our return. What a great trip it is and I look forward to going again soon.
The trip is a lot like life: It’s not the destination but the journey that makes it so much fun. Get out and enjoy this local path and you will be hooked on rails to trails, and, if you want to be a part of helping convert rail lines to recreational lines, join the Rail to Trail Conservancy and your donation will go directly to projects creating these paths.
I hope to see you on the trail.
Alvin Barnett is a history teacher at Childersburg High School.