These are heady times for those who dream of a rail trail like the Silver Comet Trail in Newton County. That vision took a huge leap forward, when Newton Trails signed a lease agreement last year with Norfolk Southern Railroad. Fast forward to 2017, and a successful fundraising push means downtown Covington residents and visitors will soon have a new stretch of 12-foot-wide concrete trail to explore.
Construction has started on the half-mile section between Elm St. and Floyd St., to open by Spring. But, this series will take you on an intimate journey along all 15 miles of the rail corridor – from the boundary between Covington and Porterdale on the western terminus, to the other end of the line past Mansfield near Newborn. If you drive around and between those cities, you’ve seen where the old rail line once crossed our roadways. But, unless you’ve ventured off road, there’s so much still to discover.
Last October, Newton Trails celebrated the soft opening of a 1.5-mile section between Turner Lake Rd. and Emory St. It’s called a “primitive rail trail” for now, because the uneven surface covered by the crushed gravel left when the tracks and ties were removed. It’s a perfect path for hiking, casual walks, and perhaps mountain biking -- but, not so well-suited to road bikes, comfort bikes, strollers, or personal mobility devices. Imagine something between the natural wonder of the Appalachian Trail and the defined edges of an unpaved country lane – without the cars – and you get the idea.
Viewing an aerial map of the trail, you notice things are much closer together than they seem by car. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but even with distinctive curves, this section of trail efficiently connects the Washington Street corridor, the Clark’s Grove live-work-play neighborhood, and the US-278 business district.
What neither the aerial map nor a drive-by glance can tell you is what it feels like to actually be out there on the trail. However, Chris Johnson can.
Chris loves walking the trail near his home in Clark’s Grove with his wife Stephanie, their children, and the family dog. We sat down to chat on a recent Sunday afternoon the Tex-Mex restaurant the Johnsons own.
“It’s a nice, safe place to walk,” Chris says of the rail trail near their home. “I like to get the kids out there with no vehicle traffic. It’s amazing how wooded it is – so beautiful and peaceful. You can’t believe you’re inside the City Limits of Covington.”
Chris says many neighbors regularly use the rail trail, which runs along the entire western edge of Clark’s Grove phase 1 (where the Johnsons live) and also around phase 2 on the north side of Clark St., where home construction is just now picking up again.
Looking at the aerial view, you also notice how many restaurants and other business are touched by just this one short segment of trail. Washington St. establishments accessible by trail include Tava’s Dinner, Hester’s Pool Hall, and Walden’s. Milazzo’s Ristorante in Clark’s Grove is a good midway point. Approaching US-278, the trail runs right behind Buddy’s BBQ and More, Bangkok Grill, Burrito Loco, and Firehouse Subs. And, those are just the eateries directly along the trail; many other spots are but a short walk or bike ride away.
As residents and also owners of Burrito Loco, Chris and Stephanie have two good reasons to support the rail trail development – though Chris says the family health and wellbeing are his biggest motivation. Before the couple moved their Tex-Mex restaurant from Conyers to Covington, Chris says the mountain bike trails at Georgia International Horse Park brought a steady stream of hungry/thirsty customers to their door.
As we talk, Chris mentions a recent family outing to the Atlanta Beltline, noting that trail has drawn young people and remarkable economic development. He imagines a similar effect for Newton County when the corridor is developed into a 15-mile paved stretch to attract visitors from across the region.
Eventually, the Sunday afternoon lunch crowd dwindles, allowing Stephanie to join us. She echoes what Chris has already shared, reiterating that the trail is an integral part of life in the Johnson household.
“It makes the community prettier,” she says. “It gets families outdoors to spend time together, and that’s a good thing.”
To experience a good thing yourself, take a hike soon with your family and friends. The trail is easy to access from parking at Covington City Hall or at Turner Lake Park, where you can use the pedestrian tunnel and Clark Street sidewalks/bike lanes to reach the trail.
And, when all that exercise makes you hungry and thirsty, stop into one of those restaurants. Tell them Newton Trails sent you!