If the secret to tidying up is to only keep things that “spark joy,” then perhaps the secret to getting into shape is to find an exercise goal that does the same.
For me, there are few more joyful ways to get in shape than a spring weekend exploring the Silver Comet/Chief Ladiga Trail as it rolls through forests, pastures, cotton fields and old Southern rail towns.
The trail is one of the longest railway-to-hiking/riding trail conversions in the country. At 94 miles, the ride from Smyrna to Anniston, Ala., can sound intimidating, but with a few months of regular training, you can be ready for a weekend ride just as the springtime dogwood blossoms.
Where to begin
Trailheads are scattered every five to 10 miles along the trail, but to ride the entire length, start at the Mavell Road Trailhead in Smyrna. Expect to see lots of intimidating riders with expensive bikes and Lycra jerseys, but the beginning of the trail is also busy with families out for a casual ride or a leisurely walk. The foot traffic is a good reminder to go slow at first and warm up a bit.
There are a few easy-to-remember rules for cyclists. First and foremost, walkers and joggers have the right of way. Be courteous — it can be scary to have a fast-moving bicycle buzz by. Pass on the left, as you would in a car. And if you come up behind someone, give them a warning. Most often that’s done with a shout of, “On your left!” I have a bell on my handlebars — it’s friendlier and gets noticed more quickly.
Even though the area around the first miles of the trail are heavily developed, the trail passes through a forested corridor. In the summer, the coolness of the shade feels heaven-sent, but an extra layer is helpful in the spring.
The first miles of a long ride can feel like a slog, but after five or 10 miles, I slip into a rhythm. The Hiram Trailhead, just east the 15-mile marker, typically marks my first sense of accomplishment. If you’re just in it for a casual ride, it’s a good place to turn around and head back to Mavell Road. To keep going is a sign of commitment.
Keep on moving
Before continuing, I often reward myself with some ice cream at the Cycology bike rental shop a few yards off the trail. For more serious refueling, there are several lunch options a half mile up Seaboard Avenue in Hiram’s main business district. Texas Roadhouse is the closest, and offers burgers, steaks, and a full bar.
Starting here, the Silver Comet really shows its train line roots, first with the bright red caboose in the trailhead parking lot and then a little further on, at the Pumpkinvine Trestle. Built in 1901, the railroad bridge runs 126 feet above Pumpkinvine Creek. The Paulding Wildlife management area starts here, and the metro part of metro Atlanta is a well behind you. The forest is thick and lush, and for long stretches you’ll hear nothing more than your wheels on the trail and the wind in your ear. Looking like something Wile E. Coyote would chase the Road Runner into, the 800-foot-long Brushy Mountain tunnel is a few miles further into the wilderness.
Rockmart, one of the gems of the trail, is at mile 37. For a mile or so, the Silver Comet overlaps with the town’s lovely Seaborn Jones Park and passes over Euharlee Creek on a scenic bridge. Enjoy it, because the most challenging part of the entire trail looms.
“There’s a story for every mile of this trail,” said Ed McBrayer, executive director of the PATH Foundation, the organization that oversaw the acquisition and construction of the trail, and the miles between Rockmart and Cedartown might be the most storied.
Although most of the Silver Comet Trail is made up of rail corridor, the PATH Foundation had to negotiate more than 30 easements to stitch together this 10-mile stretch. The most notorious of those miles, known as Mount Trashmore, is the trail’s steepest climb and sits on the north end of the Polk County Landfill. Just when the hill has you gasping for air, you want to hold your nose.
“The rise is about 300 or 400 feet in a quarter mile, but it’s worth it,” McBrayer said. “It’s the highest point on the path, about 1,100 feet. On a clear day you can see 10 miles or more, almost to Rome.”
A few miles after the big hill, it’s a slow, easy glide into Cedartown for the night.
Accommodation options are limited, but the Quality Inn, just off the trail, is clean, quiet and inexpensive — exactly what you want after a long ride.
Cedartown’s 19th century Main Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is highlighted by the Cedartown Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia. Housed in a defunct bottling plant, the extensive collection is a love letter to Atlanta’s most famous corporate citizen. Like rolling along on the rail line itself, Cedartown leaves you with the sense that you’ve entered a different era. The best dinner option is Jefferson’s restaurant. I have a weakness for fish and chips, and theirs is pretty good. There’s a full bar, which is a primary need for many cyclists after a day of pedaling.
The final leg
In the morning, your legs will be stiff. Walk it off, stretch a bit and have the free breakfast at the Quality Inn. The ride is shorter today and almost all pleasure. The first goal is the state line, nine miles away. This is where long-distance readers earn their bragging rights. Take a picture with the iconic arch or the granite marker laid into the trail. You’ve ridden your bike from Atlanta to Alabama. Own it — it’s a big deal.
The Silver Comet Trail ends here, but Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail, named after the Muscogee tribal leader who ceded the land to the United States in 1832, continues for another 33 miles.
The trail is slightly narrower and a little bumpier where tree roots have caused the pavement to crack, but the cotton fields around the trail stretch out to a lovely, hilly landscape. When you cross a road named Crimson Tide Way, you know you are in Alabama.
The Eubanks Welcome Center in downtown Piedmont is a favorite stop for cyclists. There’s an antique refrigerator full of cold drinks in the back room, and the walls are lined with memorabilia from the town’s days as a railroad stop. With 19 miles to go to Anniston, the day’s ride is nearly half over.
Hand-painted signs are scattered along the full length of the trail, some offering political opinions, others advice on how to ensure the health of our eternal souls. A mile or so outside Anniston, there’s one that invites riders to step into a bamboo forest. With the end so close, it’s tempting to keep pedaling for the last 10 or 15 minutes. It’s worth the stop, though. The sun streams in through the 20-foot-tall reeds and the outside world feels blocked out and distant.
The trail ends at lovely Michael Tucker Park where there are picnic tables, restrooms, and camping to rest and regroup.
In the parking lot, you’ll see the serious riders in their Lycra loading their expensive bikes into their cars. But they have nothing on you — you’ve just ridden the entire 94-mile trail.
What to take on your ride
• A companion. There are long stretches of trail with little traffic, and it’s always safer to have a friend along for a long ride.
• Plenty of water. There are watering stations at many trailheads along the way, but you don’t want to be caught short.
• Cell phone and an external battery.
• A spare bicycle tube and changing tools.
IF YOU GO
The Silver Comet Trail begins at Mavell Road Trailhead in Smyrna and travels west to Alabama where it connects with Chief Ladiga Trail near the Esom Hill Trailhead. The trail ends at Michael Tucker Park in Anniston, Ala. Combined, the trail is 94 miles long.
Where to Stay
Quality Inn, Cedartown. $70 a night, breakfast included. 925 N. Main St., Cedartown. 770-749-9951, www.choicehotels.com.
Where to Eat