Almost exactly a year ago, Chet and I took our bikes over to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge for an adventure. We had a great time, up until the point where Chet’s front tire had a complete blowout, leaving him walking with almost 2 miles left to go to get back to the truck. Honestly, my bike wasn’t in much better shape but at least I didn’t have a flat so I biked to the truck (praying the whole time my frayed tire wouldn’t give out) and hustled back to pick up Chet and his wounded machine. We returned to the house and hung the bikes up in the garage – all the while telling ourselves we’d take them both to the bike shop for a full tuneup and new tires soon. Months went by and those bikes were still hanging in the garage. Winter passed, then spring, then most of the summer, but finally we managed to bestir ourselves and took them in for some much needed TLC. This past Saturday, they were ready. And even more miraculously, we remembered to pick them up. Ok, so we didn’t really remember until 15 minutes before the shop closed, but we roared up just before the doors locked and the good folks at Madison Cycles graciously stayed open long enough for us to retrieve our now shiny and newly refurbished bikes.
Knowing the bikes should be ready, I’d already planned our weekend adventure around having them. Sunday morning, we packed up a lunch, some water, and Chet’s camera, threw the bikes in the back of the truck and headed to Piney Chapel Road in Athens, Alabama. This is the location of the southern end of the Richard Martin Trail, a rails-to-trails project that has taken an abandoned rail line and turned it into a multi-use trail for hikers, bikers, joggers, and horseback riders. We’d explored the northern end of it before, riding from Veto, Alabama down to Elkmont, but now was the perfect time to check out the rest of the trail.
The parking area at this southern end is a roomy gravel lot with room for 10 or more pickup trucks and trailers. The area also featured a very nice picnic pavilion in a lovely grassy setting, and a new cinder block building housing restrooms. We didn’t hang around to check out the amenities, though, but instead crossed tiny Delaney Road to get a start on the trail itself.
Technically, the trail starts at the corner of Delaney and Piney Chapel roads. Crossing over from the parking lot puts you a few yards north of the intersection so, being a bit of a nerdy engineer type, I insisted on walking a few yards back towards Piney Chapel Road so we could start at the official “Mile 0” sign. From there, I was interested to find that you could still actually see the rail line, complete with rails and railroad ties, just across the street, heading south. Of course it makes sense – this was a working rail line until 1986 and before the Civil War the track was a part of the Decatur-Nashville railroad, one of the first rail lines in the area. The Richard Martin Trail has just reclaimed the 10 mile stretch between Veto and this intersection in Athens. We took a few pictures, enjoyed the morning glory and Carolina buckthorn blooming by the trail, then headed down the inviting gravel path.
One nice thing about a rails-to-trails project is that the railroads have very nicely already graded the entire thing for the benefit of the trains that used to rumble down the tracks. These trails are generally well-engineered, wide and gently graded pathways making them ideal for bikes, in my humble opinion. While there is some rise and fall in the terrain, none of it is very steep, making for easy rides. The first stretch of the Richard Martin trail is practically level. The wide path plunges almost immediately into a lovely deeply shaded wooded area surrounded at first by grassy glades interspersed with large oaks. We had the path to ourselves, at least at first, and enjoyed the cooling effect of the air rushing past us. At the .6 mile mark, we came to our first bridge across Swan Creek. It’s in a little bit of a rough condition, with plywood patches here and there across the deck. It was solid enough otherwise, though, so we just continued on across it. Soon after, at 1.25 miles, we came to a prettier covered bridge also crossing Swan Creek or maybe one of its tributaries. Here we stopped again for pictures and noticed a stand of Florida blue lettuce, and some beautiful cardinal flowers along the water, with an added bonus of an absolute carpet of jewelweed in bloom in the foreground. Chet also spotted a mysterious plant with a large cluster of berries. We puzzled over it and took pictures, but couldn’t come up with an ID on the trail. Once home, we figured it out … and felt a little silly. It was a devil’s walking stick. I’ve never seen one when it had berries before and totally missed the dead-giveaway spines running up the trunk! My tree ID ninja skills are rusty!
We continued on through the trees, glimpsing fields and farmland occasionally to either side. Every half mile, there is a small wooden sign posted with the mileage from the Mile 0 marker where we’d started. This sure made it easy for me to figure out how far we’d gone so that I could remember where on the trail we saw things! At about 1.5 miles, we came to our first road crossing at Huber Road. This is a small road and lightly traveled, at least on Sunday mornings, so we had no trouble crossing it. The trail heads back into the woods on the other side for another half mile or so before coming out to an open area alongside Railroad Lane. Less than a tenth of a mile away was our second road crossing, this time at the slightly larger Hays Mill Road. On the other side of the road, there is a large information sign about the Rails to Trails project with rules and hours – as if this was an official trailhead of some sort. There’s no parking here, though, really so I found it kind of odd. Maybe the trail stopped here at one point?
Past the sign we entered maybe my favorite stretch of the trail, a section that runs right alongside Swan Creek at a spot where the creek broadens and slows down to form a bayou. The water is still and algae covered and floods a glade of trees so that the trunks reflect and shimmer in the water. It’s dark in the shade of the trees, and quiet. At least until I stepped close to the bank, which startled frogs hiding there so that they squeaked and jumped in the water. I’ve never heard a frog squeak before, but that sure is what it sounded like! I kept a sharp eye out for turtles, but sadly, saw none. We rested on a nicely built bench placed there courtesy of BSA Troop 235, had some water, and enjoyed the quiet until the bugs convinced us to move along.
The next mile and a half was uneventful as we flew past trees and fields along the gravel path. Soon, though the landscape changed a bit to include some small hills around us as we approached the historic site of the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle. This Civil War battle, a part of the longer Battle of Athens, happened September 25, 1864, when Confederate troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest set out to destroy the strategic trestle at Sulphur Creek. By noon that day, the Union force surrendered. It’s not clear to me if the actual trestle survived that battle, but I can tell you that there is no sign of it now. You can see Sulphur Creek far below on either side of the pathway, but instead of a wooden trestle, the path goes along a pretty solid-looking earthworks. On the other side of the creek, the land rises up a bit again, then slopes back down towards Elkmont, about a mile away. Close to Elkmont we started noticing some extra wooden sign posts. Not the mile markers – we still had those – but these were posts with smaller numbers carved into wood. We saw “13,” “15,” and “16” if I remember right.
We pulled up to downtown Elkmont right at 11:00 – lunch time! The church on the corner had a full parking lot, but otherwise Elkmont was practically deserted except for the two of us and another family setting out on bikes down the trail towards Veto. We snagged a prime spot at a concrete picnic table, ate our sandwiches, then wandered the quaint one block downtown and took a few pictures before heading back. It was too early for any of the businesses near the Depot to be open. Before we left, we looked around the parking lot at the Depot to see if we could find any kind of flyers for the mystery marker posts. We found what looked to have once been a pamphlet box, but the box itself was long gone – maybe knocked off by vandals. I guess we’ll never know what those posts are marking!
The return trip took us back through the same sights, but we did spot some things on the trip back that we’d missed on the way out. Just after the bayou and before the crossing at Hays Mill Road, Chet spotted some old railroad ties and a broken cement marker with the letter “W” incised into the concrete. Later research revealed that this may have been an old “Whistle Post”- a sign placed by the tracks so that engineers would know when to sound the whistle on the train. I’ve included a picture of the broken post below. What do you folks think?
We crossed back over Hays Mill Road, noting that coming from this direction it might not be obvious where the actual trail is. Stick to the faint gravel path to the right of the paved Railroad Lane. Farther along, I stopped to admire the cardinal flowers I’d missed on the way out, while Chet admired a muscadine vine with actual muscadine grapes. He’s often talked about how muscadine vine is something we see everywhere, but he’s never seen an actual grape in the wild. Well, he can’t say that any more!
All in all this was a very pleasant 11 mile bike ride. It was August in Alabama, but the shady path was cool, and the air rushing past as we whizzed along on our newly refurbished bikes was even cooler. Now I’ll be on the lookout for some more bicycling adventure spots. Any suggestions?