Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hiatus Ends - Wet Trails at Tsali

Sorry it's been so long since my last post! A heavy work load has kept me away from any type of contemplation on the state of the Triangle's natural spaces - it has also physically kept me out of such spaces, for the most part.

I will pick up posting again in earnest next week - there's a few things floating around the news that deserve comment. Legislation concerning pollution in Falls and Jordan Lake has been catching my attention.

I was lucky enough to take a long-planned trip to the Tsali Recreation Area in Nantahala National Forest in the far west of our state this past weekend. Tsali is well known throughout the state for the lengthy mountain bike trails that follow the shore of Fontana Lake.

Riding wet trails can cause serious damage to the trails themselves, and contributes to excessive runoff in the creeks and streams that drain the area. Accordingly, when riding locally, I don't ride on wet trails if I can help it. (sometimes you're already out there when a surprise T-storm hits, and you can do nothing but make your way back as best you can)

Unfortunately, it was very rainy in the Tsali region the week before our trip. It also rained most of the day Friday and all morning on Sunday. Saturday was nice, but the trails were still slippery and wet. Large puddles dotted the trails.

I feel a little guilty about this. If our local trails were this wet, I would have stayed off of them. However, we had been planning this trip for several months. A large group like we had cannot easily change plans on short notice, and still include everyone. We drove 5.5 hours to the site, and spent considerable time planning and packing. Thus, we rode the trails Saturday anyway. I don't think we did too much damage - most of the wet spots were very contained and not likely to drain into nearby streams. But there was evidence of erosion damage from many years of this type of riding. Indeed, there were many people riding on Friday and Saturday, and the trails were much busier than what I would expect to see on local trails with wet conditions.

So - were we justified in our actions? Or should we have called the whole thing off and tried to reschedule? I generally try to be a good conservationist - I'd like these kinds of features to continue to be available to the public. Are we endangering our access with this behavior?

I'll assuage my conscience thusly: maybe the trash we spotted and hauled out of the trail system mitigates our dirt-displacing tire tracks.

Monday, June 15, 2009

RTP Mountain Bike Trails

Work has piled up quickly this summer. It is a bit of a bummer to be stuck inside on the some of the longest days of the year, but I still manage to get outside a bit.

It seems that while I will try to cover a large range of land use issues, this space will highlight the ways that I interact with the outdoors at any given time. Apparently, I am out on my bicycle a lot this summer. Sometimes I go through boating phases, camping phases. When I worked doing field research for the USFWS, I would have written about taking soil samples and recording tree heights. But right now bikes seem to be my thing. Maybe it has something to do with that new mountain bike I got in the spring! I'm pretty sure the new bike has something to do with my sore back.

A few week ago, I read on the TriangleMTB, a good website for Triangle area mountain biking resources, that a couple miles of trail have been opened for public use in Research Triangle Park. These trails were created by the Research Triangle Foundation, as an amenity for employees of the park. RTP already boasts of "14 miles of jogging/pedestrian trails, 12 volleyball counts, and 4 softball diamonds." Mountain bike trails make a lot of sense for RTP. In the process of gathering information for his mountain bike trail study, Dr. Michael Naber found that that triangle area mountain bikers are about 80% male, and average 35 years old with a annual household income of about 90,000 dollars a year (no wonder I get so jealous of all the fancy gear out there!) This lines up well with the demographic breakdown of the techies in RTP - educated, well-paid young males. It's not close to a scientific study, but notice how many autos have bicycle racks attached to roofs and hitches in the RTP area.

This is a pretty sweet deal for area mountain bikers. If I'm not mistaken, it's the first explicitly open-to-the-public mountain bike trail on private property in the Triangle. Update - i have been informed that the Briar Chapel trails were the first. Thanks, Carter. It was created without money or land from the city, county, or state.

I wrote to Alison Fiori, Director, @RTP Programs, to ask her about the development of the trials. Here's what she had to say:

Several RTP company employees approached the Research Triangle Foundation (RTF, developer of RTP) in the summer of 2007 and asked for the construction of mountain biking trails in the southern portion of RTP on land that was owned by the Foundation but could never be developed. The Park has an extensive multi-use trail system but no established off-pavement trails. The Foundation met with the companies in the area (Cisco, NetApp and Credit Suisse) to talk about employee usage and possible locations for the trail.

After a general area was identified, the Foundation set up a meeting with Greenways Inc., the design firm the Foundation uses for the current trail system, and Triangle Off-Road Cyclists (TORC). TORC is a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to safeguarding the future of mountain biking in the Triangle area of North Carolina through the promotion of responsible riding, establishment and maintenance of mountain biking trails, and preservation of North Carolina's natural resources. TORC was on board from the project’s inception and assisted with design.

The Durham-Wake Counties Research and Production Service District approved funding for Phase 1 of the project in the early spring of 2009. The building of approximately 2 miles of looped trails was completed by TORC in late May 2009. TORC volunteers and regular riders will help manage the trails. The trails were sustainably designed without the need for a lot of regular maintenance. Phase 2 of the project will extend the current trails to the east between Little Drive and NC 540 and will probably take place in 2011 after the completion of the western extension of Little Drive.

Update - I have since heard from the VP of TORC that TORC was not involved in the construction of the trails. Trail design began to take so many resources, that construction was handed over to a private company.

So, more to come!

Researching the site got me interested in RTP, so I did a quick Internet search on the history of RTP before heading out to check out the site. The history of RTP goes way back to the fifties, and most of what I found is summarized in this article by two economics professors. After WWII, North Carolina's three major industries were in trouble. Textiles and furniture making were on the decline and tobacco production was falling. The per capita income here was one of the lowest in the nation. To compress a long, complicated land-dealing, option holding, arm-twisting, influence-peddling story, a group of business and government leaders envisioned using the intellectual power of the three local universities - UNC, NCSU, and Duke - to draw research and development industry to the area. Slowly, business, academic, and government leaders were won over on the idea, and the idea really picked up steam in the sixties, when government and academic institutions began to locate on the allocated land. Growth picked up through the seventies and eighties until RTP became the economic powerhouse it is today - the largest research park in the nation, in terms of both acreage and employees.

The trails are in the very southwest corner - in the green area that is labeled as "Natural Area Preserve." My initial thought when reviewing the land use map was, "wow, they sure didn't save much area for a natural preserve." That makes sense, there are special tax laws that apply to this land, granted by the NC Legislature, and the area is exempt from annexation by local cities, towns ect. When they voted to create this block of land, they wanted to leave their hands as untied as possible for the future.

My second thought upon seeing this map - and reading that, in the Durham portion of RTP at least, "no more than fifteen percent of the total area of a tract shall be covered with buildings", was -

"That sounds like the definition of urban sprawl to me."

They have created a beautiful work setting, a huge economic driver for the area. Along with that comes horrible traffic due to the huge spread of workplaces with no housing built in and around it. The large geographic footprint of the park also makes public transportation to, from, and around the park problematic.

I did not do the research necessary to find out what exactly how the tract of land that the trails sit on was used before it was acquired for RTP. Most of the land that is now RTP is former farm land, and a cursory inspection of the area would bear out the theory that this tract was indeed, farm land. The forest is mature, but not ancient, with a large contingent of loblolly pine, pine typically being the first pioneer tree on abandoned farm fields. Pines will eventually give way to hardwood on sites like this, so it appears that the land has been cleared within the last hundred years or so. I would need to get out with coring equipment and make a more complete survey to say anything more specific. I also came across a few abandoned roads that have been reclaimed by the forest, with the grading and ditches still viable. I tried to take a picture of one of these roads, but the light and the crummy iPhone camera made discerning the features impossible.

I think it's safe to assume that this is formerly farmed land, and that a large portion of the topsoil has been washed away, leaving a somewhat nutritionally-degraded site.

So enough with words and thinking and stuff - time to go ride new trail! Here's a map of the trails showing the surrounding roads. Click on the map for a larger image:

The trailhead is located on Louis Stephen Road, south of Kitt Creek of NC Hwy 55. There is no parking yet at the trailhead, though the rumor on the interweb is that one is in the works. To make it a little more difficult, you can't actually see the trailhead from the road. There are a couple of curb cuts on the southern side of the road that look like they were placed to facilitate future driveways or parking lots. Pull off in the northernmost of these. I have seen cars parked right up on the grass, but I was not that bold, and was able to pull out of the travel lane and stay on the pavement. I choose my spot blindly, but I got lucky - I was right next to the trailhead.

I used my GPS mounted on my handlebars and recorded a gps track of my ride. I got home, exported the track, cleaned it up and imported it into OpenStreetMap - like a Wikipedia for maps. I was then able to export the map for use here. This map shows all the trail I was able to find out there - for a total of about 1.7 miles:

The trail splits almost immediately - to the right is a giant log crossing (1). It is too big to simply ride across; it must be jumped or hopped, or chainringed across. I got off and walked it - there is no ride-around. To the left is an easier obstacle - a two or three foot tall earth berm(2) that I was able to ride across. There is a bail out for this obstacle. Obviously, the left hand trail is the easier route into the interior.

Both of the entrance trails join up again before crossing the large creek to access the main loops. The bridge (3) is a lot of fun to ride - sort of like a man-made whoop-dee-doo.

Much more fun to ride than a normal bridge - requires just a bit of concentration. The week after I took this picture, the Triangle area had a couple of days of heavy rain, up to two inches in many areas. The creek became so swollen that it washed the bridge out. Some good pictures of the carnage can be found here:

I wrote back to Alison Fiori and let her know about the washout. As of Monday, June 22nd, the bridge is back in working order. Evidently, the builders knew what they were doing when they constructed the trail, and the bridge is meant to wash out when the water rises, and is easily re-assembled. It performed exactly as designed.

On with the trip. I kept to the right, to make a counter-clockwise loop. Before I knew it, I had a flat tire! Joy.

I stopped and made quick work of the flat. I'm usually fairly frugal, but in the hot and humid area that we live in, its well worth the investment for me to buy compressed air cartridges to inflate the spare tube. Sitting on the side of the trail, trying to get adequate air pressure from one of those little hand held pumps can ruin a good day.

As short as my stop was, I still managed to pick up a few of these guys before I continued with my ride:

Can you see it? Sorry for the fuzzy pictures. This was one of the larger ticks I picked up that day. I pulled seven crawlers off my leg and four bloodsuckers out of my leg. I normally wouldn't have attracted so many, but I kept stopping to take pictures and get gps readings.

Besides ticks, there was lots of wildlife out. I disturbed frogs at every creek crossing, and gray squirrels were too numerous to count. A large bird of some kind kept honking at me. I had not heard the call before, certainly not a duck or another type of fowl. I'll have to keep an eye out in the future. For my first time on a new trail, I kept my eyes on the trail so I didn't end up in the dirt.

Continuing around, I noticed the meticulous construction of the trails. There were several cambered turns, and the route was laid out thoughtfully, with much attention given to erosion mitigation. Most of the soil looks like this:

The following is to make my college soil science teacher happy. The soil is sandy enough to be gritty, with a large component of loam. The sand should help the trail dry quickly - and it does. It had rained the day before my trip, but the trail was dry and firm, with no standing water that I saw. There is enough clay in the mixture to hold the soil together when compacted, but not enough that you can form ribbons with it when you get it wet:

It's great for mountain bike trails. It compacts well to make a nice, firm riding surface, and it drys quickly. It might be a bit prone to erosion, but the sustainable trail construction should mitigate that to a large degree. Greenways Inc, and TORC, two of the organizations involved in the design of the trails, are known for their environmentally sensitive trail construction techniques.

About halfway through the big loop, the trail crosses what has to be the largest rock on the surface in the area (4). As I approached it, it appeared to be a large area of exposed clay, I'm not used to seeing such large rocks in the area. Only at the last moment did I realize it was stone, with a small drop from the trail to the rock. Nothing too big to handle, but if you hit it wrong, are not expecting it, or if it is wet, it would be easy to slide out and hit the ground hard.

Shortly following the big rock is a small intermittent creek crossing (5), consisting of a nice little drop onto some wet rocks, with a quick ascent on the other side.

That picture doesn't quite do it justice - the iPhone camera's fish-eye lens really destroys depth perception. It was a big enough drop, wet enough rock, and large enough climb on the other side that I punked out and walked across - the first of two times that I felt compelled to do so on this trail. If I had been with riding companions, pride might have prodded me to make an attempt, but I'm not ashamed to walk when I feel like it.

A short while later, there is a flat, wide bridge crossing a marshy area, right next to a smallish pool of water (6).

The bridge is easy enough to navigate, but the approach to it is somewhat narrow, and missing it means landing in some mucky water. I went through here twice and didn't have a problem. This is also where I heard the most frog splashes, but I was never quick enough to actually see any of the jumpers.

I found one more intermittent creek crossing (7), this one was easier than the previous - it had a handful of loose rocks at the bottom, much easier to navigate than the last wet rock.

Shortly after that crossing, I came back to the entrance trail, I had made a full loop. Having read forum posts on, I knew there was a tricky skinny (2*6 board elevated in some manner, meant to be ridden.) somewhere in the interior that I missed. I checked my GPS, doubled back, and looked for the part of the trail I had missed.

It wasn't hard to find - two turns and short ride later, I found the skinny (8), positioned over a rather large log:
I'll admit it doesn't look to intimidating in the picture. However, my skinny-riding skills are not the greatest, and failing to properly execute this crossing would most likely result in and endo over the handlebars and a mouthful of dirt. In fact, most of the posts on the forum from people who attempted the crossing indicated just such an outcome. So, for the second time that day, I wimped out and rode around the log via the bail-out that ran to the north of the log.

In all, it was a fun afternoon. I logged only1.74 miles of trail on my gps unit - but that was only one pass with a recreational-grade gps under a heavy canopy, so that may not be the most accurate reading. My bike computer didn't really help with measurements, I spent a lot of time going back and forth, riding sections again and going back for pictures.

I rode the entire set of trails through a few times since it takes very little time to burn through 2 miles of trail. Making it even easier is the fact that there are no large climbs in there. A few sections allow you to build up some speed, but many sections squeeze you through some narrowly spaced trees, and lots of sharp turns require some concentration and a slower pace.

The trail is still a bit soft. After they have been around for a while they will pack down, and they will be faster and smoother. One thing I really appreciated was the dearth of roots, but I suppose they might start to show up, depending on how resistant to erosion the trails turn out to be. I also encountered a few "pungee sticks", stumps from little trees that were cut down to make room for the trail - leaving behind a short, sharp, spike sticking up a few inches in the middle of the trail to puncture your tire, or your rib cage if you're unlucky enough to crash on one.

Overall, I think this is the great start of a good trail network. There's not enough distance out there right now to keep me coming back very frequently, but I'll probably make it out there once a month or so. If I worked in RTP, it would be a great spot for frequent lunchtime rides - no need to even get in the car if you have brought your bike to work.

I've included here a map image from - a great open source mapping tool that allows anyone to make updates to a publicly available map. If you click the above link and zoom in to the area north of I-540 where it hits Hwy 55, you should be able to see where I added the trails. (I've also added much of the Lake Crabtree County Park trails, and the Little River Park trails.)

I've noted the positions of several of the trail features on the maps - these positions are estimates, not to be used for targeting.

1. Big Log Crossing - (Advanced Entrance)
2. Small Berm - (Easy Entrance)
3. Easy-Wash Bridge (back in action!)
4. Big Rock
5. Small, Wet Rock / Intermittent Stream Crossing
6. Big Bridge, Narrow Approach
7. Intermittent Stream Crossing
8. Skinny

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cycling the American Tobacco Trail

Riding the American Tobacco Trail

I got an email back from Joe Godfrey, the Senior Park Planner for Cary, in response to my inquiry on the completion date of the American Tobacco Trail telling me that he expects the trail to be complete from New Hill to I-40 in mid to late August. Completion of the trail requires the completion of bridges over Panther and Northeast creeks in Chatham county, some grading and paving, the installation of info kiosks, and various other aesthetic concerns. Translating the government time line into real world time (municipalities and Microsoft both use the same alternate time measurement - much slower than real time) means that we will be lucky to get an official opening this year (the ATT pedestrian bridge over I-40 was scheduled to be finished in late 2008 as recently as 2007). However, having grown up in the area and having been witness to the construction of dozens of miles of greenway trails, I knew that the bridges and elements essential to use are often completed long before the official opening date. They use the rest of the time to finish grading and landscaping, install parking, put up warning signs that I never read, and arrange an official opening attended by local big-wigs.

Therefore, my wife, sister and I made an attempt to ride the entire tobacco trail this last weekend. I read on a couple of websites that the construction is in progress on the two remaining bridges in Chatham county needed to complete the trail up to I-40. Coming from the south, I have successfully forded Panther Creek (interesting name - does it hearken back to the time when native panthers roamed the area?) giving nothing but wet and muddy shoes in payment. The northern creek, Northeast Creek is much more formidable. I think this portion of Northeast Creek is backed up from Lake Jordan - the creek is very wide, looks deep, and I could not detect any flow. The bank on the other side is pretty steep, almost vertical. I didn't fancy swimming my bike across, and climbing the muddy bank, so I was forced to turn back.

This time out, I was prepared to route around the under-construction bridges (which requires a 6 mile juant along 2-lane, speed limit 55, highly traveled hwy 751) but was hopeful that we could ford, cross, jump, swing or fly across any section of bridge that might be unfinished.

Wake County
After ferrying a car to downtown Durham, we parked in the parking lot for the ATT on hwy 751 south of US 64. It was raining on and off all afternoon, but it was Memorial Day, and the lot was pretty full of families out for a relaxing stroll or ride. It seemed that most users that day were out on their bikes.

When I get moving on my bike, I'm often pretty bad about keeping an eye out for wildlife. While many of my most exciting moments in wildlife viewing (Bear! Wolf! Sea Turtle!) have been on bicycle, I attribute this more to the amount of time I spend on the saddle in the middle of nowhere than to my keen eye while mounted. I almost ran over a cotton mouth in Dare County because my attention was further down the road.

Luckily for me, then, an observant family pointed out this prehistoric monster not a mile into our trip:

This is turned out to be our best wildlife sighting of the day. It appears to be a Chelydra serpentina, or a Common Snapping Turtle, though I am by no means a reptile expert. I was sure enough of my identification to keep my fingers and toes away from her mouth. She sat still for photographs, and allowed us to use a stick clear the grass from around her without snapping, or even hissing. All of which was extremely disappointing. What's the use of encountering dangerous animals if you can't brag about your courage later?

We decided to leave the turtle alone, with no stick-poking or active molesting of any kind. I'm pretty sure she was annoyed with us just for being there. Snapping turtles are crabby like that.

Continuing on, we enjoyed the shaded path and flat topography. The trail cuts through several rural neighborhoods and some old farms. The trail goes through a tunnel underneath Highway 64. The tunnel was constructed when 64 was widened several years ago, in anticipation of the ATT's creation. Signs on the exterior of the tunnel warn cyclists to dismount to walk through the tunnel, and to wait for all horses to exit the tunnel before proceeding. While the horse advice might be good, we rode straight through without dismounting, and were able to avoid disaster.

There are bathroom facilities open at the White Oak Church Road access, but no running water. While poking around the parking area and checking out the bathrooms, we noticed several cyclists pull up hoping to fill up their water bottles, only to be thirstily disappointed. Make sure to bring enough water for your entire trip, and then add a little more! I found no public water fountain on the southern portion of the entire ATT.

A little over eight miles from our starting point in New Hill, we hit our first unfinished bridge, over Panther Creek. For several sections of trail preceding the bridge, we were confronted with warning signs, telling us of construction, danger, and horrible things if we were to proceed. The trail is officially closed from north of New Hope Church Road. It was a busy day on the trail, and with proper mob mentality, we followed several other cyclists around the signs and rode on through to check out the state of the bridge.

This map from Google shows the old train truss' that the new bridge is being built upon.

View Larger Map

Most of the bridge has been completed - the concrete ramp on the northern side that connects the trail to the bank to the bridge has not yet been framed. The only way across was a 10*2 board stretched across the gap. It was maybe a 15 foot gap, with a 15 foot drop to the rocks below. We decided at this point the wisest course of action would be to loop around to the other side trail, rather than risk the crossing.

North of Panther Creek the trail was not as well groomed, it was narrower and rougher, with significantly less traffic. This section of trail in particular is a bit isolated. It is bounded by two unfinished bridges and crosses only one street. It seems like most of the users of this section of trail live in the immediate area. We saw only dog walkers and individuals out for a stroll - no families or bicycles.

After crossing Okelly Chapel Road, we came to our next obstacle; the bridge over Northeast Creek.

View Larger Map

This bridge is less complete - planking is only laid over 2/3 of the truss' and the ramps on both ends are not yet started. We captured this adventurous trail user climbing up to check out the progress:

After another lengthy detour, we found ourselves on the north side of the Northeast Creek bridge. From here to I-40, the trail is even more rough, with less grading. We came across a local volunteer - at least he did not appear to be a government employee - mowing the grass that grew in the middle of the trail with a riding mower. I couldn't get my camera out before he rounded the corner, but in this picture you can see the grassy nature of the trail between the Northeast Creek bridge and Massey Chapel Road.

This portion of trail is a bit more traveled than the section between Panther and Northeast creeks. It is easy to access this trail from the neighborhoods south of Southpoint mall, and many people were taking advantage of the day off work for a nice stroll along the former railroad corridor.

The trail crosses Fayetteville Road (site of a future public access and parking lot for the ATT) and continues on to Massey Chapel Rd. Here it seems that trail maintenance ends, but it is possible to continue following the former rail right-of-way on the north side of the road. Here the trail became narrow, bumpy, and muddy in the flats.

The trail continued around the back side of Eagle's Pointe neighborhood, eventually dumping us out at a retention pond behind Morrell Lane.

Thus began the least enjoyable leg of our journey. We quickly found ourselves out on highway 715, a six lane road as it crossed I-40. We tried to keep up our pace and stay well to the right until we came to Audubon Lake Drive, which allowed us back over to highway 54 and the southern end of Durham's portion of the ATT. This leg introduced us to a challenge my wife was hoping to avoid - hill climbing! One of the nice things about a former rail corridor is that trains don't climb hills very well. The rolling hills of the Piedmont are conveniently graded to be nearly flat, providing a lovely venue for causal peddling.

Durham Portion

Starting at the corner of highway 54 and Fayetteville Road, the Durham portion of the ATT is an asphalt-paved path with a 1 foot gravel shoulder on each side. I remember reading that this layout was a compromise with trail advocates, who were pushing to have the pavement laid down 12 feet wide. However, I can't find the link for that just now.

This is the oldest section of rail corridor that the current ATT sit upon. It was constructed in the early part of the first decade of the 1900's and remained in use for eight decades. This is truly an urban trail, with houses and shopping centers visible from the trail for the majority of the trip.

Crossing Fayetteville Road, you cross onto a newer section of right of way. The community of Keene, located at this junction, used to be the terminus of this trail until the Durham and Southern Railroad was taken over by Norfolk Southern and the rail was continued into downtown Durham.

A couple of crossings take you over major roads that require crossing signals, and at the time of our trip, there was construction going on at the Martin Luther King Parkway intersection. Barrels, barricades, tape, arrows and signs force you off the trail, on to the bike lane on the side of the road, to the intersection of the two large roads. Stranded away from any crossing signal buttons, you are then forced to dash across traffic if you can find an opening. Having negotiated this particular obstacle before, we opted to go around the barricades and jump the median. This is quicker and easier than trying to look for traffic coming from four different directions at a busy intersection. Here's to hoping they have that mess cleared up soon.

Many of the bridges along the trail have been retro-fitted to function as pedestrian bridges, crossing on the original trusses. Riding through this section (I've never walked the ATT, I always seem to be on my bike) is truly a pleasure, as you slice through neighborhoods and hillsides on a flat, straight, graded trail.

After Norfolk Southern opened the American Tobacco Spur in the early 20's, complaints started piling up that trains parked at the warehouses blocked traffic on Enterprise street, a connector between the Forest Hills and St Theresa neighborhoods. If ever there was an example of the proverbial "wrong side of the tracks", this is is. The Forest Hills neighborhood is one of the nicest in the urban area of Durham. As you travel up the ATT, it is almost impossible not to notice the dichotomy - large, elegant houses with large, manicured lawns on the west side of the tracks, small, run-down houses with mor
e dirt than grass in their small yards to the east. Enterprise street was used at the time by many of the St Theresa's residents to travel to their service jobs in the wealthy neighborhood of Forest Hills.

As a mitigation for blocking Enterprise Street s
o regularly, Norfolk Southern agreed to build the Apex Street overpass, a bridge over the railroad just a bit south of Enterprise Street to allow travel between the two neighborhoods.

In recent years, the Apex Street bridge has begun to deteriorate. The city began contemplating closing the bridge to auto traffic and eventual demolition. This closure became a politically hot issue, as it began to be perceived that the mo
ve to close the bridge was driven largely by white residents in Forest Hills with racist motives, wishing to cut off access to less well-off black residents in St. Theresa's. There is a good short film about this issue and its resolution on the website "Bridging Rails to Trails".

Community activists from both neighborhoods led an organization effort that resulted in the closing of the bridge - first to auto and then to foot traffic. The pedestrian access was maintained by the creation of a foot path across the ATT connecting the two neighborhoods. The original bridge constructed by Norfolk Southern is now slated to be removed.

Coming out of the woods near the northern end of the ATT, you are greeted with a great view of the Durham skyline:
It is nice to consider that many a train conductor had the same view of warehouses (minus high rise office buildings) over the decades as they brought their trains into Durham.

This is the ATT's northern terminus.

View Larger Map

It's the perfect place to end a bike ride, with the Mellow Mushroom, Tyler's and several other nice restaurants directly across the street. The DBAP is also right there, as is the new Performing Arts Center.

We had a great time and logged nearly 28 miles on our bicycles checking out this local treasure. When the bridges are all complete, it will be an easy, long, straight ride from rural Wake County to downtown Durham. The trail already has heavy usage, and it will undoubtedly pick up, especially when the pedestrian bridge over I-40 links Durham with Southpoint Mall south of the interstate. Durham has already had to amend the hours of operation for it's portion of the trail to accomodate all of the commuters who use it to travel back and forth to work. Bicycle commuting from even farther south, from Chatham and Wake Counties into Durham will become much more viable when the trail is complete.

The ATT is slated to become part of the East Coast Greenway, linking Maine to Florida. In the more immediate future, the trail will link to the area's expansive trail network, making it possible to ride from downtown Durham, through Cary to Umstead Park in Raleigh, on to the Raleigh Art Museum, and on to the Nuese River Trail east of Raleigh, without traveling on a road!


Sunday, May 17, 2009

American Tobacco Trail - Background

The American Tobacco Trail is an interesting example of the unintended result of land use policy. What was created as a means to facilitate timber harvesting in the early 20th century has become a haven for cyclists, walkers, equestrians and alternative commuters.

The American Tobacco Trail (ATT) is currently an approximately 22 mile-long urban trail constructed on abandoned railroad lines. It runs from downtown Durham just acr
oss from the DBAP in the north, crosses I-40 at Southpoint Mall, runs through the north-eastern corner of Chatham County, and continues in Wake county to the southern trail head located just to the west of Apex on highway 751.

History and Geography
The ATT is constructed on the remnants of the old Durham and Southern Railroad, organized by W. Roscoe Bonsal, Samuel O. Bauersfeld, and Henry A. London. Railroad companies had immense political power at the turn of the century, and the study of how they affected the growth and development of the region is worth a whole post by itself.

Bonsal was a railroad executive with exclusive rights to expansion in the area, and London owned the timber rights to the land in New Hope Valley, the current location of Jordan Lake. The original line, completed in 1906 ran from the new community of Bonsal, just west of New Hill, NC, to Keene, a community in the south of Durham and the location of an existing line. This junction is located near the present-day intersection of Fayettville Street and Cornwallis Road near Hillside High School.
During a period in the 20's, this small spur of less than ten miles, now transporting tobacco instead of timber, made enough money to pay for the operation of the entire 900+ mile network of railroads owned by Norfolk Southern. In 1920, the larger railroad Norfolk Southern leased out the track owned by Durham and Southern Railroad, and constructed track from Keene directly to the warehouse area now known as the American Tobacco District in downtown Durham.

the map below shows the location of the line before the construction of Jordan Lake

In 1945, a devastating hurricane hit southeastern NC, causing severe flooding on the Cape Fear River, particularly in Fayettville, NC. With normal legislative alacrity, the government of NC finally authorized the construction of a flood control project 1963. Originally named the New Hope River Project, it called for a dam on the New Hope River to flood sections of that river and the Haw. Secondary uses for the lake were to provide drinking water and recreation.

Before construction was complete, the legislature changed the name of the dam to the B. Everett Jordan Dam to honor B. Everett Jordan, a US Senator from NC. The lake then became known as Jordan lake.

According to statute, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) is required to replace railroad track that it inundates with the creation of a new lake. Construction of the replacement line to the east of the original track was completed in 1974 and remained in use until 1981, at which time the line was abandoned (before Jordan lake was done filling - in 1983). There is a great video about the construction of the rail line at "Bridging Rails to Trails", a frustratingly unfinished website containing information about the ATT. The video contains an animation showing the relocation of the rail line, and the filling in of Jordan Lake.

There a lots of good local stories concerning the ATT. The best one I heard was that the railroad had to carry three loaded trains as part of it's certification. The story goes that the third train took up the track on its way out after certifying the line. Great story, and totally believable, but I was unable to confirm that, or a number of other anecdotes that I came across in my reading.

After the railroad abandoned the line, several large sections of it were bought by public and private interests to construct, among other things, Sharon Harris nuclear power plant, and a section of I-40, and portions of the Woodcroft neighborhood in southern Durham. The NC DOT was pleased that they didn't have to build an expensive overpass to cross the train tracks when they built I-40, now we're paying for it as Durham tries to fund a pedestrian bridge across I-40 that will complete the ATT. It should be pointed out that a pedestrian bridge costs considerably less to build than an interstate overpass or rail bridge.

Almost immediately upon abandonment, a six mile stretch from Bonsal to New Hill was purchased by the East Carolina Chapter, National Railway Historical Society
for use as a working museum, or a "hobby railroad". The New Hope Valley Railroad still operates passenger trains on this section of track one Sunday every month.

Between 1995 and 1998, the NC DOT purchased the bulk of the line still owned by Norfolk Southern. Founded in 1989, the Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy has worked to bring this former rail corridor into public use as a trail. The first three miles of trail was opened in Durham in 2000. Since that time, almost the entire trail has been graded and conditioned, with a portion in Chatham county being the last section to be completed. Also in Chatham county are two former railroad bridges that are now being re-fitted to allow pedestrian, cycle, and horse access. This grading and bridge construction project is currently projected to be complete in mid- August. Once that is finished, the only broken link on the trail will be the pedestrian bridge over I-40. Durham has settled on a final design for the bridge, and construction is slated to begin this summer. The city says this project will be complete by the end of 2010.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Forest Ridge Mountain Bike Trails

I caught this on the Triangle Off Road Cyclists site today:
"Mark your calendars!
A public workshop for Forest Ridge Park will be held Thursday, June 4, 2009, at 6:00 -8:00pm at Campbell Lodge, located at 3237 Spottswood Street.
Come take a look at schematic drawings for Phase I.
The expectation is trails will part the first phase of park construction. As details develop, updates will be posted."
The Forest Ridge Park MTB trails have been anticipated for some time now. has been teasing me with an icon for a trail on its local area trail map. Click on the icon for Forest Ridge for "more info" and you're greeted with the message "Coming Soon"!

One of the great things about mountain biking is that the enthusiasts of the sport take such a lead in locating sites, advocating for use, and constructing trails. Anyone with an interest in helping out is always welcome on trail work days and the vast majority of mountain bike trails in the area were created by volunteers.

Mountain bike trails are fairly cheap to construct, and good trails get a lot of use, so it's a good return on the municipality's investment. Constructing and maintaining trails that are fun to ride, challenging enough to draw experienced riders, and simple enough to be accessible for novice riders, while insuring the long-term environmental sustainability of the chosen site is a fascinating mix of science and art, and will be the subject of a longer post.

Get to the meeting if you can, and make your voice heard!


I just had a chance to scan the draft master plan and the appendix for the Forest Ridge Park, and it provides interesting insight into the public process for creating a park. Looks like the mountain bikers create a vocal lobbying group which is sometimes in conflict with wildlife managers.

The mountain bike community is pushing for 20 miles of singletrack trail, which would be the first sanctioned mountain bike trail in Raleigh. Urban Wildlife Biologist Anna Smith with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission wrote an particularly intriguing email to the park committee (starting on page 132 of the appendix) in which she documents some of her reservations about the park, and states that she thinks 20 miles of mountain bike trail would not be compatable with good wildlife management on the site.

Regardless, it seems that mountain bike trail construction will occur during the first phase of development of the park. Not because it is a high priority for any of the agencies parterning to create the park, but because loud, assertive mountain bikers have been present at every stage of the planning process, and the local mountain bike clubs will build the trails with no charge to the city.

All of our interests compete when we start debating public space. The issues brought up in the construction of a public park pit wildlife against recreation, agency against agency, and even create competition between parks under the same management. My policy professor once commented that you can tell good public policy by the fact that no one is happy with the decision.