There is a man on Plum Street who rides through the bible-black predawn every morning here. By 4:30 a.m. he’s on his bike pedaling west on the levee path. He is Destrehan-bound and back before the previous night’s stragglers make it home from the Maple Leaf.
Ryan Lawson, the cyclist I’m talking about, is just one of the many people I’ve met in New Orleans who has found ways to become deeply committed to cycling. But he will be the first to admit that, outside of the levee path, riding in New Orleans isn’t always the easiest.
So, if you’re feeling a little tired of dodging calderas on your morning commute, or if you have a healthy hankering for riding outside of the city, I’ve looked into a couple of scenic trails within an hour’s drive that will have you and your bruised coccyx cooing with delight.
In early 2003, New Orleans Metro Area Mountain Bike Organization (NOMAMBO) partnered with the Corps of Engineers in order to design a variety of trails for hikers and mountain bikers at the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
The group is particularly methodic about how they clear the biking trail. Aside from regular upkeep, they make bridge crossings out of wood and metal grating and jumps out of hard-packed dirt and clay. They also design and hang signs that are reminiscent of those you’d find on the streets of New Orleans to mark off different sections of the track. These different areas which are named things like “Headless Horse” and “Zephr” are good for different kinds of riding.
One complete lap at the spillway is approximately 5.5 miles. It’s fast and has a nice flow to it, and just like a good jazz band, the spillway track wouldn’t be the same without its solid rhythm section.
This single-track trail, which becomes more challenging with more speed, is designed to suit the most inexperienced riders as all the advanced features have bypasses. But don’t let that fool you; if you decide to take on the features here, namely the 24-foot log, you will be challenged.
Even on some of the hottest days, the trail stays relatively cool for these parts as a good portion of it meanders by the water and hides in the shadow veils of swamp trees.
This is certainly a path to ride if you enjoy nature as there is a lot of that here to enjoy.
It’s open year-round, but depending on the season expect to encounter different hazards. In June, you will find the highest heat and humidity, and in August there are poisonous plants off the trail path. Every season, you run the risk of running into wildlife, but as long as you’re respectful, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Aside from the new wooden berm, there is some crazy stuff back there,” says John from NOBS with a giant smile on his face. “We saw a bobcat once.”
What used to be the Illinois Central Railroad corridor and was at one point the heart of St. Tammany Parish’s economy has been converted into a 31-mile paved trail which is now called Tammany Trace. Referred to locals as “the Trace”, the path connects Abita Springs, Covington, Lacombe, Mandeville and Slidell.
The trace is accessible by foot, bicycle, rollerblade, wheelchair and horse and is Louisiana’s first and only rails-to-trails conversion.
I usually access this bike trail from either the Abita Trailhead or the Mandeville Trailhead depending on whether or not I’d rather bike to the brewery or state park first. Positioned near the Old Mandeville Cafe (690 Lafitte Street, Mandeville 70448), the Mandeville Trailhead is only 2 miles northwest of Fontainebleau State Park. This 2,800-acre park stretches across Lake Ponchartrain and is an ideal spot for swimming, sunbathing and picnicking.
Abita Brewery (21084 Louisiana 36, Abita Springs, (985) 893-3143) offers tours and tastings for cyclists over 21 and is a nice place to start or end your bike ride.
The Trace is a nice way to move from different parks strewn across the Northshore. During your ride you will cross bridges that were constructed from original railroad trusses while getting majestic views of southeastern Louisiana bayous and rivers.
How To Choose
Before you decide on a trail, always evaluate your ride. Whatcha workin’ with? You’re going to want a path that caters to your setup, and also your mood.
If you’re feeling adventurous and have a mountain bike, head west to the Spillway for a mountain biking swamp safari.
On a cruiser, hybrid, road bike or even on a mountain bike (if you’re feeling tame), you’ll want to head north over the Causeway for a scenic ride of small-town Louisiana.