Bridge completes American Tobacco Trail transformation

CorrespondentJune 4, 2014 

  • Want to go?

    The American Tobacco Trail is open from 8 a.m. to 30 minutes before sunset every day of the year except Thanksgiving , Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Durham sections are open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. to accommodate bike commuters.

    Bicyclists should yield to all other trail users; pedestrians should yield to horse riders. Trail mileages are painted on paved sections; elsewhere they’re marked on small posts or obelisks.

    Horse trailer parking is available at White Oak Church Road and New Hill-Olive Chapel Road parking areas. Pets must be kept on a leash.

    Cyclists riding the paved sections might opt for road bikes with skinny, smooth tires; for the gravel sections, a hybrid or mountain bike with fatter, knobby tires handles better.

    For printable trail maps and a history of the trail , see

— Six months ago, bicyclists riding the American Tobacco Trail could go seven miles from downtown Durham to the north side of Interstate 40. But no farther.

Or they could pedal the 15 miles from the trail’s southern terminus near Apex almost to the south side of I-40. But no more.

What cut the rides short was the trail’s missing gap – a bike and pedestrian bridge over I-40. Completion of the bridge was delayed eight months in part because of issues with safety fencing.

When the 270-foot-long bridge opened in February, the event evoked cheers from legions of cyclists, joggers and walkers who now could traverse the entire 22-mile trail in one trip.

Tim and Sarah Warren of Raleigh made their first trip across the bridge on a recent Sunday, riding about three miles toward downtown Durham before coming back. They had started at the White Oak Church Road parking area in Wake County; he on a road bike, she on a hybrid. “Today it was well used,” Sarah Warren said. “There were a lot of people on it riding bikes, jogging. Some people use it for commuting.”

That same day, bicyclist Becky Posada of Durham said she’s seen a big increase in users since the I-40 bridge opened. She was wheeling her hybrid bike on a rural section in Wake County. “I love this section because it tends to be less crowded,” Posada said. “I always see deer or snakes or turtles or rabbits. I love that it feels 10 degrees cooler in the summer.”

The American Tobacco Trail ranks as North Carolina’s longest rails-to-trails trail. Converting the abandoned railroad bed into a car-free pathway for walkers, joggers, cyclists and horse riders has spanned 15 years. The trail draws its name from the rail line that once carried tobacco leaf to the former American Tobacco Co. factory in Durham.

The trail forms part of the East Coast Greenway, a 2,900-mile corridor that links rails-to-trails, urban greenways and waterfront esplanades from Calais, Maine, to Key West, Fla.

If you’re new to the trail, here’s a guide to landmarks and parking areas from downtown Durham south through Wake County. Mileages are based on Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy maps and personal GPS readings.

•  Start: The trail begins at the American Tobacco Historic District. The former American Tobacco factory holds restaurants, offices and apartments. Parking is available. The trail is paved for the first 13.5 miles.

•  0.5 miles: From the bridge over U.S. 15-501, northbound riders get their first glimpse of the “Lucky Strike” cigarette name on the water tower above the American Tobacco building. Continuing south, riders pass through a mostly wooded landscape interspersed with modest homes.

•  4.1 miles: Just beyond the Fayetteville Street crossing, on the right, is Solite Park. This begins an area with a thick tree canopy, providing welcome shade during summer.

•  6.3 miles: After Woodcroft Parkway, an American Tobacco Trail sign marks an abrupt turn to the right. Riders going north at this three-way intersection need to turn left. Turning right leads to parking off Fayetteville Road . Continuing south, the trail twists and turns through a warren of shops and apartments, then crosses N.C. 54 before turning left beside the Highgate Centre office park.

•  7.1 miles: The trail’s centerpiece, the twin-arch I-40 bridge, is only the second bicycle-pedestrian bridge of this type in the United States, according to the City of Durham. The cost of the bridge and 4.2 miles of paved trail on either side was $11 million. Downhill from the bridge is the The Streets at Southpoint mall.

•  8 miles: Just beyond Renaissance Parkway, beaver ponds lie on the right. Waterfowl can be seen here. Deep woods that are part of Jordan Lake Game Lands border the trail.

•  8.6 miles: From Massey Chapel Road, it’s pretty much a straight shot to the southern terminus through mostly rural countryside.

•  10 miles: The parking area off Fayetteville Road has a porta-potty but no water.

•  10.5 miles: The C. M. Herndon Park at Scott King Road has parking, restrooms and water open from April to late November. A mile away, the trail passes into Chatham County and Jordan Lake Game Lands. The first of five bridges south of I-40 crosses Northeast Creek.

•  12.3 miles: Pittard Sears Road, with parking and a seasonal water fountain, is just south of Old Chatham Golf Course on the left. A mixed pine-and-hardwood forest dominates the scenery.

•  13.5 miles: New Hope Church Road marks the end of pavement and beginning of compacted gravel screenings to the trail’s end. The 8.5-mile section is open to horse riders. It’s one mile to the Wake County line.

•  16 miles: White Oak Church Road parking area has restrooms but no water. Three quarters of a mile south, on the left, a historic marker points to a standing tobacco barn. The sign says that during the peak of tobacco production in the mid-20th century, North Carolina had about 500,000 tobacco barns, a structure now disappearing.

•  18.5 miles: Wimberly Road parking area lies 1½ miles north of U.S. 64 where trail users pass under the highway through a tunnel. After U.S. 64, two bridges span Reedy Creek and Beaver Creek and, appropriately, beaver-created wetlands in the Jordan Lake Game Lands.

•  22 miles: The trail terminates at the New Hill Olive Chapel Road parking area. Restrooms are available but not water. From U.S. 64, take N.C. 751 south to the parking area.

The I-40 bridge completed the trail, said Curt Devereux of Durham, president of Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an advocacy group for the trail. Extending the trail south toward New Hill has been discussed, he said, but there are no plans to do so.

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