Shaffer: Walnut Creek Greenway is Raleigh's best

jshaffer@newsobserver.comApril 13, 2014 

  • if you go

    Apologies to the city’s park planners, but this trail is poorly marked. Signs are completely lacking at three crucial points. Keep these tips in mind on your ride.

    • The greenway starts at Lake Johnson, jutting off from the loop trail. There are no signs telling you where it starts, at least not that I could see. Maps are posted along the loop, but there is no “You are here” indicator. Park in the lot on Lake Dam Road, pedal down the trail that runs below the dam and take the unmarked path to the left. Don’t mind the big gate blocking your way.

    • After a mile or two, the greenway hits a dead end at Trailwood Drive. Again, no signs to give pointers. Turn left on Trailwood, right on Avent Ferry Road and the trail starts again to the right just past the bus stop.

    • The greenway disappears when you hit Little John Road, just past the bridge on Rose Lane. Follow Little John for about half a mile until the trail starts again in Worthdale Park.

    • You might want to arrange for a shuttle home from the Neuse River on Poole Road. Riding the greenway in both directions is a 30-mile trip, too much for me.

— The quest stretched over 15 miles of asphalt, cutting across Raleigh from west to east, taking me through a bog full of croaking bullfrogs, past a junkyard packed with ruined cars, under a wooden railroad trestle and through eight dark tunnels.

The Walnut Creek Greenway officially opened last week, the newest strand in Raleigh’s tangle of trails, and I’m calling it the best.

The city offers better scenery: the Company Mill Trail at Umstead State Park, the Magnolia Walk in Oakwood Cemetery, the falls at Lassiter Mill. But to me, this greenway shows Raleigh at its most Raleigh – beauty spots with the warts.

So I rode it Friday on my wife’s red Schwinn, trusting middle-aged legs. In a couple of hours, I bisected the city almost from border to border, traveling from Lake Johnson in the west to the Neuse River in the east. There’s hardly a better way to pass a sunny weekday.

The first surprise is Walnut Creek itself. It’s not a body of water many people get to experience. I’m guessing only 1 in 100 people realize they’re driving over it on South Saunders Street and that it drops down a little waterfall beneath them.

It’s a charming little creek, full of twists and bends, flowing slow with an occasional ripple. Near South Saunders, there’s a ruined bridge so forgotten there’s not even a road leading to it anymore. Past Garner Road, it turns swampy and green, full of beavers and herons, alive with croaks and chirping.

You pass the Walnut Creek Wetland Center on Peterson Road, not to mention the handy signs explaining that the beaver’s scientific name is castor canadensis.

In a car, you can hardly see the creek.

The second surprise is Centennial Campus, the high-tech wing of N.C. State University. Walnut Creek Greenway cuts right through the middle, where you see the busy researchers behaving like college students. There’s a Frisbee golf course there. Students go sunbathing on the banks of Lake Raleigh. I never knew any of this. I always imagined the entire student body indoors, hands buried in some kind of circuitry.

The third surprise is the grit this trail puts on display. Ride the Walnut Creek greenway, and you’ll find out what happens to junked cars, how razor wire can be useful and where bums wash their feet. I passed a row of old tires on the creekbed near Wilmington Street, mossy and green.

As I approached the Neuse, I discovered a string of abandoned school buses parked in the woods. One of them was painted red, white and blue, and according to the lettering on its side, it once carried the flock for Freewill Baptist Church, pastored by a fellow named Rudolph Outlaw.

In all, the ride took me four hours, but I stopped to take pictures and notes, and for a shrimp sandwich at the Farmers Market just off the trail.

I couldn’t get a figure Friday for what the entire greenway cost over the years, but the last 4.5-mile leg came with a price tag of $3.7 million. I’m calling that money extremely well-spent, and I’m proud that my nickels helped build it.

The thing that surprises me about Raleigh every day is the neighborhoods upon neighborhoods tucked behind each other, more of them every time you explore. Streets you couldn’t name. Parks your kids have never played in. We’re not a big city, but we’re a really mixed bag – a jumble of curiosities best seen on a bike. or 919-829-4818

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