CHOICE RIDE: SOUTHEAST
The Railroad Trail
From the baritone “Oh Lords” to the oyster po’boys of the Florida coast
By Bucky McMahon
For much of the 16 miles of the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, you’ll think you’re touring some vast government-maintained diorama of the old rural South. But no, they aren’t clever replicas; those are real household appliances rusting under the huckleberries. And that’s not piped-in music, but honest-to-God Sunday
gospel resounding from at least half a dozen clapboard churches witnessing salvation in the sandhill woods along the route. While never showy, Florida’s first state-sponsored bike path is a revealingly honest and straight shot due south, from the light-industrial fringe of a thriving Sunbelt capital to a tiny fishing hamlet near the Gulf Coast.
Hospitably, the path drops at a comfortable grade into St. Marks, the inland sandhills gradually yielding to blackwater cypress swamps and then to coastal sawgrass marsh. Human artifacts shift, too, from cotton farms and mule barns to drying fishing nets and heaped-up middens of oyster shells.
Land’s end is at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers, where the seventeenth-century Spanish fort, San Marcos de Apalache, served as Florida’s westernmost outpost of empire. Remote and precariously defended, San Marcos was knocked off about as often as a Wakulla County convenience store, but it remained a functional fort, under various flags, until
after the Civil War. Today its masonry ramparts still stand, and it’s still a prime lookout on the rivers. But for a more meditative view of these rich waters ù where schools of mullet mouth the surface, seabirds joyfully wheel and dive, and foraging bottle-nosed dolphins and manatees often roam inland
(M) mountain bike ride
(R) road ride
W water available
C camping available
F food available
I inn nearby
O other liquid refreshments
X no services
to feed ù I prefer the rough-hewn deck of Posey’s, a thriving honky-tonk oyster bar that’s the true cultural heart of the town of St. Marks. Nothing quite beats “a dozen raw” and a whole smoked mullet for a midpoint lunch break and fuel for that (very gradual) uphill trek back to Tallytown.
Route: From I-10, take U.S. 27 south through Tallahassee to Florida 363, and from there head three miles south to the trailhead parking lot. Round-trip distance: 32 miles. Contact: Florida State Tallahassee-St. Marks GEOpark, 904-922-6007.
Womble Trail, Ouachita National Forest (M)
The Ouachitas are southern sawtooth mountains. What does this mean for bikers? Jagged, short climbs, followed by jagged, rousing descents through blackjack oak and butternut hickories. Plus, this being Arkansas, there’s grits cooking at the Mount Ida Cafe in Mount Ida. W F
Distance: 38 mi. Elevation Gain: 400 ft.
Route: Point-to-point starting at the North Fork Lake parking area on Forest Road 68 and ending at the parking area on Forest Road D75
Contact: Parkside Cycles, Hot Springs, 501-623-6188
Jenny Ridge Trail,
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (M)
Jenny Ridge fauna: wild turkeys, bald eagles, blue herons, a few recently released wolves, and possibly Ellie Mae Clampett in some stage of undress. This is lightly peopled “holler” territory, where the land undulates through shallow gorges and Kentucky Lake beckons to skinny-dippers. Choose your dipping site carefully: Some stretches of the trail are
popular with boaters. But most are hidden, shady, and ù well, we leave it to your discretion. W F C
Distance: 24 mi. Elevation Gain: 250 ft.
Route: Out-and-back from the trailhead at the Jenny Ridge parking area in Golden Pond
Contact: Hooper’s Outdoor Center, Paducah, 502-443-5396
Highland Scenic Highway (R)
The highest major roadway in West Virginia, and ù how could it be otherwise, with that name ù one of the loveliest: a long, curvy ribbon cutting through sloping valleys and evergreen forests. As an added incentive, the Highland is off-limits to commercial traffic, meaning 18-wheelers won’t impede your view of the Appalachians. W
Distance: 46 mi. Elevation Gain: 2,000 ft.
Route: Out-and-back starting at the visitor center at the intersection of West Virginia 150 and 39-55 to the road’s end
Contact: Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Slatyfork, 304-572-6538
North Mountain Trail, Longdale Furnace Recreation Area (M)
The Shenandoah Valley’s finest. For six miles, you climb on doubletrack through red oak and spiderwort toward the rocky summit. Then the fun really starts: a half-mile-long bump down a natural stone staircase between house-size boulders, with another six miles of downhill to come. W
Distance: 24 mi. Elevation Gain: 2,400 ft.
Route: Out-and-back from the trailhead on U.S. 60 west of Clifton Forge
Contact: Allegheny Highlands Chamber of Commerce, 540-962-2178
Cherohala Skyway (R)
Be the first in your neighborhood to ride this new, very remote patch of asphalt. Opened only last fall, it’s already been appropriated by local roadies who’ll jealously try to steer you away from its long, rounded hills and astonishing views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. C
Distance: 51 mi. Elevation Gain: 4,350 ft.
Route: Point-to-point from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina
Contact: Mountain View Bicycles, 423-977-4200
Ox Creek Plunge (R)
They don’t call it the Ox Creek Meander. So, naturally enough, the Plunge is one of the most thrilling downhills this side of the Continental Divide. It’s an earned scare, however: You climb for several rolling, rural miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway, until the Plunge officially begins, shooting down 1,500 feet to the misty farming valley below. Hang on.
Distance: 33 mi. Elevation Gain: 2,000 ft.
Route: Loop from the upper parking lot at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, on W. T. Weaver Blvd. to the Parkway and back
Contact: Pro Bikes of Asheville, 704-253-2800
Tammany Trace (R)
This ten-foot-wide, spanking-new asphalt trail traverses wetlands, woodlands, and ù Robert James Waller, eat your heart out ù ten wooden bridges. Cypress trees canopy the route, which is also a favorite of runners, skaters, armadillos, and ù menacing for cyclists ù darting squirrels.W
Distance: 48 mi. Elevation Gain: None.
Route: Out-and-back from the trailhead parking lot off Koop Road, near the intersection of Louisiana 59 and U.S.12
Contact: Playground Earth Cycling, Covington, 504-867-9023
Clear Springs, Homochitto National Forest (M)
Muddy, slurpy, swampy, but blessedly uncrowded ù Clear Springs is everything you’d expect in the South. The trail is beautiful, most of it singletrack that curves past cypresses and flowering hickories, and ù try this in Colorado ù it’s rideable all winter. W F C
Route: Loop from the trailhead at the entrance to the Forest Service’s Clear Springs Recreation Area, eight miles west of Meadville
Distance: 12 mi. Elevation Gain: 500 ft.
Contact: Natchez Bicycle Center, Natchez, 601-446-7794
Bump Trail, Oak Mountain State Park (M)
Where the 1996 Olympians trained for the Atlanta course ù rather too well, we might add, since unlike that ride this one has inclines, some of them substantial. It also has magnolia-covered ridges and, most photogenic of all, man-made flagstone-lined whoop-de-doos that fill with water in the spring, ideal for plowing through at high speed to create
your own Mountain Dew ad. W
Route: Loop ride starting at Oak Mountain State Park, 15 miles south of Birmingham off I-65
Distance: 18 mi. Elevation Gain: 2,400 ft.
Contact: Crestline Cycles, Birmingham, 205-879-6255
Bull Mountain Loop, Chattahoochee National Forest
A pedestrian’s paradise: Only three miles away, the Appalachian Trail starts. It’s closed to cyclists, of course. But then, hikers don’t get to feel the exhilaration of pedaling singletrack like this, climbing past mountain laurel, Sweet William, bird’s foot violet, and wild orange azaleas to the summit and then plunging down the almost-sheer Bare Hare
area. If the descent is too hairy, you can always walk. X
Distance: 18 mi. Elevation Gain: 1,100 ft.
Route: Loop ride from the parking lot on Forest Road 83, 12 miles west of Dahlonega
Contact: Mountain Adventures Cyclery, Dahlonega, 706-864-8525
Swamp Fox Recreation Trail (M)
Some low-country ridin’ in a garden of pretty good and evil. On the one hand, Spanish moss dangles from the willows, frogs chirrup and splash in the puddles, songbirds trade choruses from the branches of the red oaks, and bougainvillea scents the air. On the other, the palm-size mosquitoes gleefully bite right through bike shorts. W C
Distance: 50 mi. Elevation Gain: None.
Route: Point-to-point starting at the trailhead parking lot north of U.S. 17 in Awendaw, ending at the Canal Recreation Area on U.S. 52
Contact: The Bicycle Shoppe, Charleston, 803-722-8168
Copyright 1998, Outside magazine