A Georgia woman’s audacious plan: Build longest U.S. paved bike trail

By connecting with other trails, it would link Athens to Savannah
TWIN CITY, GA -- Mary Charles Howard expects the small town of Twin City to benefit from the proposed Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, which would be the longest paved trail in the nation. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

TWIN CITY, GA -- Mary Charles Howard expects the small town of Twin City to benefit from the proposed Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, which would be the longest paved trail in the nation. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

She had already been warned about the doubters and critics.

Mary Charles Howard, a 38-year-old mom with three young kids and a warm smile, stood in the restaurant’s back dining room, facing about two dozen Swainsboro community leaders, all men, most of them older. There was a judge, the CEO of the local hospital, business leaders, law enforcement officials, retirees.

She had driven from her shrinking small town, nearly an hour away, to this small town to sell them on her audacious dream.

“OK. Who am I, and what is this Georgia Hi-Lo Trail?” she began.

If all went as she hoped, this talk with the Swainsboro Exchange Club would be an important step in getting Emanuel County community leaders to embrace her vision of a bikeable, walkable, joggable, skateable path that would snake from the rolling red clay hills of North Georgia through the middle of the state, down to the coast. She wanted them to see the trail as she has come to see it: a small-town-affirming, good-for-everyone, economy-boosting, wildly-ambitious-but-still-achievable dream.

Even if they agreed, there were many more to convince.

That’s how it goes when you are trying to build the longest paved trail in the United States. The Georgia Hi-Lo — she came up with the name — would be nearly twice as long as the current apparent record holder. It would start where Athens’ Firefly Trail will end once completed, in Union Point in Greene County. Then it would stretch 211 miles — at least hypothetically, since the exact route isn’t locked in — all the way to Savannah.

The envisioned 12-foot-wide ribbon of concrete would cut across some of the state’s poorest areas, where many local government budgets are painfully tight for essentials, much less aspirations and hopes.

It would slide through towns so tiny that even some seasoned Georgia travelers have never heard of them. Places like Kite, where much of the historic town center is in ruins. And Harrison, where the post office was recently shuttered and the last new home might have been built in 1991.

SWAINSBORO, GA -- Mary Charles Howard speaks about the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail with an attendee at a meeting of the Swainsboro Exchange Club. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for the AJC

For five years, Howard has been waking up at 4 a.m., before her kids rise, trying to get this thing going. Now, there are glimmers that maybe something might happen. A few miles of trail to start with, as a foothold for her dream.

She’s hoping that by mid-October supporters can submit applications for state grants to help build segments in at least two communities, perhaps in Washington County, where she lives, and adjacent Hancock County, both in Central Georgia. She figures they could be in place by the spring of 2026. If locals like what they see, it might spark support for more segments. Under her current timeframe, she thinks it might take 12 years to build the entire project.

Don’t underestimate Mary Charles, say people who know her. She thinks the trail will help keep small towns alive, including hers. Sandersville is one of the many rural stretches of Georgia that are losing population.

Chris Hutchings, the interim county administrator in Washington County, says he is a big supporter of both the plan and Howard, who attends the same church that he does.

“She is great at dreams, dreaming beyond what most people dream about,” he said.

SWAINSBORO, GA --  Mary Charles Howard, center, speaks to Swainsboro Exchange Club President Damien Scott, left, and J.D. Bailey, right, after her presentation on the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail during a recent meeting. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Birthing a dream

“So I grew up in Sandersville,” Howard explained to the men in the Swainsboro restaurant’s meeting room. “I still live in Sandersville. I did go away to the University of Georgia and practiced landscape architecture in Chapel Hill. But it was my mission to find a man to be my husband who would move to Sandersville. If you are from a small town, you know what I’m talking about. Like you have to hunt for your person who will move back to the small town.”

Her dad, she told them, had hoped that he would have a son to whom he could give the family first name of Charles. But she was the last of five daughters, so she got it — Mary Charles.

Her story drew laughs from the club members. She didn’t tell them about what happened five years ago to her dad, who had been her best friend and walking buddy. Or how it had led her down this years-long path.

She says she is the ninth generation of her family to live in Washington County. She grew up on a 600-acre farm, land her great grandfather called Miracle Farm.

Her father, Charles Jordan, was a senior executive in Sandersville’s kaolin industry, which supplies the white clay used in paper, paint, medicine and other goods. Howard remembers being told as a little kid that the kaolin would run out soon. It’s still there. But, ever since, she has worried about her hometown’s future.

Her dad was “a land man,” with duties that included buying land for pipelines and other company uses. He knew all about the painstaking process of trying to convince people to part with land to make room for something new.

On his own farmland, he cut extensive trails, which he would walk for miles each morning. Often he’d take his daughters along. Howard treasured the outdoors and the time to grow close to him.

“We’d get to a fork in the road and he’d say, ‘OK, you decide which way to go.’” Through the woods or the fields? The pasture with the flowers? Or maybe over the creek with a bridge that made her think of the enchanted land from the children’s novel, “Bridge to Terabithia.”

She was 7 when she decided she’d one day become a landscape architect.

Mary Charles was a remarkably determined kid, her mom said.

In high school, on the morning before her junior prom, she was driving to get her hair done. She recalls a massive pickup truck barreling toward her. She had to learn from others what happened next.

There was a horrific collision. Her mom, Cheryl Jordan, remembers being told it took the firefighters hours to get her broken daughter out of the white Jeep Cherokee. Howard was life-flighted to Augusta. Her face needed multiple surgeries. Bones needed fixing. Physical therapy for the teen, who had been a talented cross-country runner, would take hours a day and last for months.

“I was like, ‘Push me. Push me further,’” Howard said.

She was 16, and doctors said she would never run again. Eight months after the accident, she won her region’s cross country final.

The trauma “kind of changed Mary Charles,” her mother said. She became even more determined. “I think it made her realize she needed to do all she could do, as fast as she could do it, and enjoy the life that she had.”

After graduating from UGA, she got work specializing in trail design. She married. Then she and her husband, a real estate attorney, lived in Athens, had their first child and decided to move to near Sandersville, where she had a family support system.

As much as she cherished being back, she saw what was missing. Playgrounds she had used as a child were gone.

And where could she take her kids in a stroller for a nice walk? Where could a family safely ride bikes?

Local officials didn’t offer a solution. She knew about a project in Athens and its surrounding communities to turn an old railroad bed into a mostly concrete path called the Firefly Trail. When completed, it will run 39 miles.

It would be nice, she thought, if it extended to Washington County.

“But then, how in the world could you do a project like this and stop it in the middle of nowhere? We should take it somewhere big,” she told the Exchange Club. “That is how the idea of the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail came about.”

SWAINSBORO, GA -- Exchange Club of Swainsboro member Watson Mosley, center right, listens to Mary Charles Howard's presentation about the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail at a club meeting. Howard envisions the trail connecting from near Athens to Savannah, passing through Swainsboro on the way. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

In the beginning, it was an idea — a huge idea — maybe for someone else, some day.

Then her dad died. He was 69, trying to clear a tree along one of his farm trails. The tree swung back in an odd way and struck him in the chest.

She was devastated. And within days, she had come to a decision. If she wanted change, she was going to have to lead it herself.

Trails everywhere

Trail building is booming in much of the nation.

The 20-county Atlanta region has more than 400 miles of bikeways, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Nationwide, there are in excess of 40,000 miles of multiuse trails, according to the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Roughly 25,700 of those miles are trails on old railroad beds — more than double the number from 2010.

Federal, state and local government dollars have helped pay for much of the growth. So have private donations and special taxing districts. Also helping fuel the spread: beliefs that the trails will be popular recreation and greenspace amenities that boost civic esteem, help nearby businesses, grow property values and offer options for cleaner travel. Georgia’s best-known trail, the partially built Atlanta Beltline, is credited with producing all of that.

But the state’s longest paved trail is the Silver Comet Trail. It starts in Cobb County and runs 61 miles west to the state line, where it connects with the Chief Ladiga Trail, which plunges another 33 miles into Alabama.

People walk along the Silver Comet Trail in Smyrna during the early days of the COVID pandemic.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Georgia Hi-Lo would be more than twice long as the combined Silver Comet/Chief Ladiga and even far longer than the 119-mile-long Paul Bunyan State Trail in Minnesota, which is often cited as the longest single, continuous paved multiuse trail in the nation.

Building the Georgia Hi-Lo will be more difficult than the Silver Comet was, predicts Eric Ganther, transportation planner for the PATH Foundation, a nonprofit that worked on the Silver Comet, the Beltline and other key paved trails in Georgia and neighboring states.

Many of the other trails have been built primarily on the bed of abandoned rail lines, which can make it easier and faster to acquire land and easements and can reduce opposition from neighboring property owners. But less than a fourth of the Georgia Hi-Lo’s path would be close enough to use former rail routes, Ganther said.

PATH is shepherding the project’s potential course. (A major donor to PATH is the James M. Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Howard said it has taken her small nonprofit, the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail Inc., three years to raise from local governments and donors most of the $120,000 needed to pay PATH for its work.

Eager to provide more recreation options before the trail is built, Howard’s nonprofit launched the Kids Bike League and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foundation to finance it. The program teaches kids how to ride bikes and cuts dirt paths for them to do it on.

It would take years to build the 211-mile Georgia Hi-Lo Trail. So trail proponent Mary Charles Howard launched the Kids Bike League. The program teaches kids in nearby communities how to ride and creates dirt paths for them to ride on at league camps. (Matt Kempner / mkempner@ajc.com)

Credit: Matt Kempner

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Credit: Matt Kempner

Steps to start a trail

How do you launch a 211-mile trail while raising three kids under the age of 10? Wake up earlier. Recruit volunteers. Ask people for in-kind gifts of everything from concrete to land.

Howard pulled back from much of her landscape architecture business so she’d have more time for the Georgia Hi-Lo. But that means she contributes less to the family’s finances, so she said she and her husband have had to cut back on their spending.

She said she isn’t paid a salary as her nonprofit’s only full-time staffer, but she received a small amount as a coach for the summer Kids Bike League program.

Mary Charles Howard is pushing to build the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, which would be the longest paved trail in the nation. With other trails, it would connect Athens to Savannah and Tybee Island. She also launched a summer bike and arts camp for kids to serve children in small towns where the trail would eventually be built. (Matt Kempner / mkempner@ajc.com)

Credit: Matt Kempner

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Credit: Matt Kempner

In the Swainsboro restaurant, Howard encouraged members of the Exchange Club to see the Georgia Hi-Lo’s possibilities.

“There is magic in the great outdoors that so many kids don’t get to be exposed to,” she told them. “If we could just get them on a trail, it is just the tip of them realizing what is out there to go explore. That gets their creativity going. It gets their self esteem: ‘Yeah, I can make a difference. I can do something.’”

Paving the trail, rather than having a crushed rock path, will reduce long-term maintenance costs local governments would be responsible for, she told them. And it would make the trail accessible for more people, from seniors to residents out for a stroll with their dogs. “The trail is for everyone.”

Mostly, she predicts, it would be used by locals. But there also would be travelers from elsewhere who would support local businesses along the way, Howard said. By giving people more to do, more newcomers might want to put down roots and some young residents will have more reason to stay.

“Maybe y’all’s children didn’t move back home,” she told the Exchange Club members, “but it is not too late for your grandchildren to move home if we get a trail like this.”

SWAINSBORO, GA -- The fountain at Swainsboro's Patriot Square is in the center of downtown. The proposed Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, creating a connection from the Athens area to Savannah, could pass through Swainsboro. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The price tag? PATH’s running estimate is that the Hi-Lo could cost $1 million a mile. That would put the total cost over $200 million, and that’s assuming state and local governments and private citizens would donate easements for the trail.

Howard and PATH say federal and state grants set aside specifically for trails could cover 75% of the Georgia Hi-Lo’s construction costs. But local governments along the trail and potential donors would still need to come up with millions of dollars in cash, in-kind services and land donations.

And, after the trail is built, local communities would be responsible for the costs of maintenance, from cutting grass to cleaning up litter.

In the next five years, Howard said she hopes to build two to three mile segments in each of the counties. Ultimately, she’d like the trail to connect with schools and town centers and go by local and state parks.

But that’s not up to her.

“I don’t want to come into these other communities and say we are coming through your town,” she told the Exchange Club. “We want to plant the seed and see is this something you want. If so, how would it come to the town? What would that look like?”

No one’s private property, she said, would be used for the trail without their consent.

This summer, she’s held meetings, trying to gather feedback from people in each area. She asked government leaders for help advertising the meetings. Relatively few people attended.

On social media, many who have heard about the trail like the idea. “Wow, this is awesome! I’ll do it,“ said one. “Can’t wait,” wrote another. Someone else posted “#bucketlist.”

David McKeehan recently bought a vacant hardware store in Twin City in Emanuel County. He was checking on the building when he heard about Howard’s idea of building a bike trail nearby.

“I’m excited,” he said. “More people in town is going to keep it from dying.”

David McKeehan recently bought a vacant building he hopes to renovate in Twin City, Ga. Later, he was excited to hear about the proposed Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, which could pass nearby. He said it could attract more people to town. (Matt Kempner / mkempner@ajc.com)

Credit: Matt Kempner

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Credit: Matt Kempner

But others see serious problems ahead. On social media, some have predicted the trail will attract drug dealers, murderers, rapists, homeless people, four wheelers and litterbugs. They wonder if trail builders might try to take their land without their consent, cutting them off from their farm pastures.

They question how it will work having bicyclists pass by areas where locals hunt.

One of the biggest worries is the cost to local governments — and therefore taxpayers.

Andy Johnson, who owns a trucking business in Emanuel County and attended one of Howard’s meetings, said the key issue is that the trail “is a want, not a need.”

“We have much more pressing things going on,” he said.

But he said there could be great benefits from much shorter trails that could connect popular points, such as a local college campus to a downtown or a city center to a nearby state park.

More than 200 miles away, the Silver Comet trail cuts through 30 miles of rural Polk County, attracting locals and out-of-town cyclists who patronize local businesses, said county manager Matt Denton. “It’s been a blessing and a benefit to Polk County.”

Local maintenance responsibilities haven’t been a big cost, Denton said. And, in Polk, the trail “hasn’t been a crime issue.”

Metro Atlantans may remember two crimes that stood out on the Silver Comet over its 25-year history: a woman cyclist who was killed in 2006 and a woman who was brutally beaten in 2014. Both occurred in Paulding County, which later installed security cameras along the trail.

SWAINSBORO, GA -- At a local Exchange Club meeting, a member raises his hand to ask questions of Mary Charles Howard about her proposal to build the Georgia Hi-Lo Trail. Howard envisions the trail going from Athens to Savannah, including through Swainsboro. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Howard drew a polite audience at the Exchange Club meeting. But members had questions.

How do trail builders intend to deal with environmentally sensitive areas? What would happen to people’s private property? How would maintenance be handled?

“I’m going to play devil’s advocate,” said one attendee. “I’m a businessman, and I deal in dollars and cents. And with this much dollars, I got to make that make sense. So I’ve got to have a return.”

How would it make money back? he asked.

After leaving the meeting, another man, J.D. Bailey, contemplated Howard’s plan.

“Hers is a grand vision. I hope she succeeds,” the 75-year-old retiree said. “But she better be ready to fight some battles.”

And if the trail is ever built, what would he do?

“I’d probably take my dog out there and walk, walk, walk.”

TWIN CITY, GA -- A bicyclist rides in Twin City, a community that could be included on the route of the proposed Georgia Hi-Lo Trail, which would stretch 211 miles through Middle and South Georgia. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

12 trail systems in Georgia:

Atlanta Beltline (partially built; plans for a 22-mile loop and 11 miles of connector trails) https://beltline.org/

Silver Comet Trail (61 miles that connects with Alabama’s 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail)

Dragonfly Trails (Columbus, 34-plus miles) https://www.columbusga.gov/planning/dragonflytrails.htm

Firefly Trail (partially built; plans for 39 miles out of Athens) https://www.fireflytrail.com/

Stone Mountain Trail (downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain, 18 miles) https://www.pathfoundation.org/stone-mountain-trail

Big Creek Greenway (north Fulton and south Forsyth) https://www.alpharetta.ga.us/government/departments/recreation-parks/facilities/big-creek-greenway and https://parks.forsythco.com/Parks/Big-Creek-Greenway

Carrollton Greenbelt (18 miles) https://www.carrolltongreenbelt.com/

St. Simons Island Trail System https://www.goldenisles.com/listing/st-simons-island-trail-system/184/

Jekyll Island bike trail system https://issuu.com/jekyllisland/docs/maps_ji-all?fr=sMzUxMDUwNDc1NDM

Man O’ War Railroad Recreation Tail (10 miles, Harris County) https://exploreharriscountyga.com/attraction/man-o-war-trail/

Arabia Mountain PATH (DeKalb, Henry and Rockdale counties) https://arabiaalliance.org/trail-maps/arabia-mountain-path-trails/

Tide to Town urban trail system (partially built, Savannah) https://www.savannahga.gov/2952/Tide-to-Town

Some of the longest paved trails in the U.S.:

Paul Bunyan Trail (Minnesota, 119 miles) https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_trails/paul_bunyan/index.html

Silver Comet Trail/Chief Ladiga Trail (Georgia-Alabama, 61 miles plus 33 miles)

Raccoon River Valley Trail (Iowa, 89 miles) https://www.raccoonrivervalleytrail.org/

Little Miami Scenic Trail (Ohio, 78 miles) https://www.miamivalleytrails.org/trails/little-miami-scenic-trail

Great Miami River Trail (Ohio, 77 miles) https://www.miamivalleytrails.org/trails/great-miami-river-trail

Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes (Idaho, 73 miles) https://parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/parks/trail-coeur-d-alenes/