Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tammany Trace: Not just a bicycle ride; its a vacation!

There are forested sections of the 27 mile long Tammany Trace in St. Tammany Parish Louisiana
(NOTE:  It was 20 years ago that the first section of the Tammany Trace, from Abita Springs to U.S. 190 in Mandeville opened.  This event will be celebrated November 1 & 2, 2014 with a variety of events held at trailheads along the Trace from Covington to Slidell.  Visit the parish website for the Trace for details.)  

       The Tammany Trace, a 27-mile asphalt recreation trail (no motorized vehicles) stretches across St. Tammany Parish (LA) straight as an arrow and flat as a pancake. On its way east from Covington to Slidell, LA, the popular path passes through several natural landscapes common to south Louisiana:  torpid bayous flanked by tall bald cypress and upland pine forests among them.
      Wildlife?  The Trace passes through Fontainebleau State Park where early morning riders may see wary deer foraging near the trail.  Lucky riders might see a bald eagle or soaring osprey from the nearby 19,000 acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge or hear the steady drumming of the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers that make their home amid the tall pines there.
     And as can be expected in one of the fastest growing parishes in the state, the view from the Trace can also be one of subdivisions and strip malls.  Yet in the four towns touched by the Trace there are museums, historic districts, art galleries and antique/curio shops along with a variety of eateries for every taste and pocketbook, most of them within a few blocks of the path.
     (The Trace, as it stands now, is not 31 miles long, the distance given in the promotional material distributed by St. Tammany Parish officials.  The right of way does go 31-miles but the paved Trace stops at the Slidell city limits.  This distance is 27.35 miles.  The trail stops a few yards past the Carollo Trail head.)
     St. Tammany Parish has long been a natural playground for New Orleans residents seeking a convenient escape from the summer heat in the city.  Beginning in the 19th century, ferries would ply Lake Pontchartrain taking passengers to and from New Orleans and resorts in Mandeville, Abita Springs and Covington.  The air in this "Ozone Zone" was said to be healthful and spring water at Abita Springs restorative.
     The railroad to Covington was finished around 1900 and operated until the mid 1980's when it was abandoned.  Key in the demise of the railroad was the building of the 24-mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain linking the north and south shores in 1956.  The deal for the purchase of the railroad right of way by St. Tammany Parish was signed in December of 1992.  The first stretch of the paved trail, eight miles connecting Abita Springs with US 190  in Mandeville was open in the fall of 1994.
     (Even after the Trace was built through Mandeville, the highway provided a de facto barrier for users queasy about dashing across the busy highway to continue despite a user actuated stoplight.   Later a tunnel was constructed under the road to allow Trace traffic to continue on through Mandeville without having to face down the heavy, highway traffic.  A tunnel is planned for the grade-level Trace crossing of  LA 59, a busy three-lane highway between Abita Springs and Mandeville)

These two railroad cars, the Pullman car General Jackson
 built in1942 and a baggage car, built in 1921,
parked at Hoffman Rd. for years, were recently hauled away
to be refurbished and put into service by a company
 offering luxury vintage railroad journeys,

     The western trail head is in downtown Covington, a quaint southern town on the cusp of celebrating its 200th anniversary.  Founded on the banks of the shallow Bogue Falaya River, the parish seat is a market town with many tony boutiques, coffee shops and antique dealers either right on the trail or only a block or two away.  The Covington Farmer's Market sets up shop at the trail head each Wednesday.
     Heading east the first town is Abita Springs, 3.5 miles from the Covington trail head.  Here a small museum (open weekends) adjacent to the trail, explains the town's history as a health resort in the early 20th century.  The notion that the combination of piney woods, mineral springs and pleasant scenery might be healthy got a boost from federal health officials when this "Ozone Belt" was named the healthiest region in the country in the early 1900's. 

For a "health" of a different sort, walk across the trail to the Abita Brew Pub.  Once the brewery for the popular beer, now brewed a mile away, the building is a popular casual restaurant with outdoor seating.  The fabulous root beer, sweetened with Louisiana cane sugar, is a treat for kids of all ages.
      A couple of blocks down the Trace housed in a depression-era service station, is the Mystery House, an eclectic collection of off-the-wall exhibits and dioramas, most of them created by artist John Preble.  The Mystery House, aka UCM Museum, is ground-zero for the Louisiana Bicycle Festival held each year the Saturday before Father's Day.  (In 2013 the date is June 15.)  The festival offers food, music, bicycle rides, a bicycle flea market and some of the weirdest working bicycle creations you have ever seen.
     The Trace turns south to pass through a lush wetland cut by muddy bayous, the landscape occasionally marred by the fresh concrete, brick and aluminum siding of new subdivisions backing into the green vista.  Just shy of eight miles from Covington, riders will arrive at the Trace Headquarters at the end of Koop Rd.  Here a green caboose serves as an information center and ranger station.    Home to a major playground complex open to all children with or without special needs, this trail head has lots of parking and is often the starting point for group rides on the Trace.
     The Mandeville trail head, 12.15 miles from Covington, is designed to look like a turn of the century train platform.  Here a unique splash fountain for the kids keeps them cool in the summer.  The open-air amphitheater here is busy with events and a farmer's market is held here too.  The snow cone concession next to the trailhead, Shivvers, rents bicycles.  (Visit for a calendar of events at the trailhead.)
      In Mandeville, riders can leave the Trace and ride south about .7 mi. to Lake Pontchartrain and the bike path along the seawall there.  (Do not ride Gerard St.  It is narrow and busy with traffic.  Almost any other street to the lake will have lighter traffic.) The path runs along Lakeshore Dr. where a number of seafood restaurants blend in with the "old money" raised plantation style homes facing the lake.  To the west the path ends when the seawall does.  To the east riders can connect with the Tammany Trace.  Just follow the seawall path east.  It ends at the playground and boat launch at Mandeville harbor. Cross Lakeshore Dr., which also ends, and ride north along the path flanking Jackson Ave.  This path intersects with the Trace.
     After crossing Bayou Castine, the Trace passes for almost 2.5 miles through Fontainebleau State Park.  The large park offers camping for RVs and tents and a sandy swimming beach on the lake.  There are no bathrooms near the beach.  Vacation cabins in the park, damaged by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, have not been repaired as of 10-23-2014.  A fee is charged to enter the park and for camping.  All state parks in Louisiana honor the federal senior (age 62) pass for half-price camping.
     Here's a weekend get-a-way idea.  Drive from the city to the park, set up, then bicycle to Mandeville, Covington, Abita Springs or Lacombe for morning coffee and meals.  Have a "near bike" experience.
     Just west of the park entrance a spur trail crosses busy highway U.S. 190 to Pelican Park, a popular recreation complex with ball fields.  Next to Pelican Park is Northlake Nature Center where  riders can access several dirt mountain bike trails from Pelican Park.  Roadies can park and lock road bikes in Pelican Park and walk the trails.
     East of Bayou Castine the trail can seem remote as it passes through undeveloped sections of the state park.  At the park's eastern border, the path crosses Bayou Cane.  Here paddlers launch into the popular bayou from an unimproved sand and shell bank.  The bayou forms a border between the state park and Big Branch Marsh NWR.
    Riders can visit the working-class community of Bayou Lacombe by taking Lake Rd. (LA 434) a short distance north.  Here are a bicycle/kayak rental and a few stores and eateries.  Main St. has some beautiful old live oak trees and there is a small museum featuring rural life of the area.
       (John Davis Park in Lacombe, described in the parish Tammany Trace website as a parking area is actually not on the Trace as shown on the parish map but north of the Trace a couple of blocks.  Use N. 12th St. to connect the Trace and the park. 
     Completed in 2008, the drawbridge crossing Bayou Lacombe is the trailhead for Lacombe.  There is no road to it so there is no motorized access to it but at the bridge there are restrooms, a drink machine and a bench on which to sit and gaze at the shaded bayou. The bridge is usually down--meaning trail users can cross it--from sunrise to sunset, though there is a bridge tender there during the day just in case one of the half dozen or so sailboats upstream of the bridge wishes to pass downstream.  The bridge stays open for boat traffic all night from sunset to sunrise.  There is a digital clock on the bridge displaying the time it will open for boat traffic for the night.  Pay attention.  There is no easy or safe detour if the bridge is up.
     East of the bridge the trail passes through a lovely grove of young pine trees next to the trail.  The section of the trail has a remote feel.
     The current eastern terminus of the trail is at the Slidell/Carollo trail head, 27.35 miles from Covington, where there are restrooms and a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's substation.  Two convenience stores are nearby at highway LA 433 and US 190.   The paved trail extends east past Carollo TH about a quarter of a mile to dead-end in an undeveloped wooded area about 50 yards from US 190, at the western city limits of Slidell.  The exact trail's end is a splash of gravel in the weeds known as Neslo Rd.  To the north is a large shopping center but to reach it riders have to cross the busy highway.  Leaving the Trace here is not at all recommended unless you have an untamed hunger for fast food and a big box store shopping experience.     
     Beautiful as it is the Trace can be dangerous for the careless.   Numerous streets and a couple of highways cross the Trace.  Assume they are all busy with traffic even if you don't see any.  Bicyclists riding the Trace should NEVER assume cyclists have the right of way at any cross streets. Come to a complete stop at stop signs.  Put your foot down.  Often vegetation growing near the intersection prevents a driver from seeing the Trace until they are right on it.  Earlier this year a teenager time-trialing on the Trace, raced through a stop sign without stopping between Covington and Abita Springs and was killed.  A "ghost bicycle" painted white, was placed at that intersection as a memorial.
A ghost bike memorial for rider who died in a
 crash at the intersection of the
 Tammany Trace and Josephine St.
     Several years ago an adult rider training on the Trace was paralyzed from the neck down after hitting one of the steel bollards at the edge of the Trace at a cross street.
     Ride carefully as the pathway is only 10 feet wide and can be crowded with people walking, jogging, skating, pushing strollers or skateboarding.  Toddlers on bikes with training wheels can stop and turn into your path in an instant.  When approaching from behind try to let other Trace users know you are there even if they are using ear buds.  A simple "passing on the left," or just "Hi" will let them know you are there.  If you have never been riding a shared path when a jogger or child suddenly stopped in front of you, apparently for no reason, you have not ridden much.
     There is a 20 mph speed limit.  No pets are permitted on the Trace.  Wear  a helmet.  As we head into deep summer, reconsider any plans to ride the Trace in the middle of the day.  There is not a lot of shade.  Drinks lots of fluids and don't leave a trail head without topping off water bottles.  And stay off highway U.S. 190.  Two lanes, too busy and no shoulder.

Brooks Bike Shop, 416 Gibson, Covington, LA. Phone 985-237-3658. (On the Trace near the Covington trail head.)
Shiver Shack, 2020 Woodrow St., Mandeville, LA Phone 985-246-9595. (Across from the Mandeville trail head.)
Spokesman Professional Bicycle Work, 1848 N. Causeway, Mandeville, LA. Phone 985-727-7211.
Bayou Adventure, 27725 Main St., Lacombe, LA. 985-882-9208. In addition to renting a one-speed cruiser or a sit-on-top kayak at the bait shop, co-owner Judge Shannon Villemarette, a Justice of the Peace in Lacombe, can marry you too.)

Bayou Lacombe Rural Museum, 61115 Saint Mary St., Lacombe, LA 70445.  Phone 985-882-3043.
Abita Mystery House and UCM Museum, Phone 985-892-2624.  Admission $3.  Open seven days a week.
Abita Springs Trailhead Museum, 22049 Main St., Abita Springs. Phone 985-871-5327.  Open Friday and Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays noon to 5 pm.

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