Riding the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga Trails

My amazing wife asked what I wanted to do for my birthday. I had heard about this beautiful bike trail that ran from Smyrna, Georgia through the Talladega National Forest and ended at Anniston, Alabama. At 109 miles long, it was the longest continuous Rails-To-Trails project in the US. At first, she was a little nervous about me going by myself but she knew I was going to take the camera and would be stopping regularly so anyone else along for the ride would quickly be driven nuts.

I drove up to Smyrna and stayed overnight at the Comfort Inn. Not a bad place to stay. It's only a mile from the start of the trail, offers free wifi, and they have a hot breakfast bar in the morning. Smyrna Bicycles is right on the trail and agreed to let me park my SUV in their parking lot while on the ride.

Day One

The plan was to ride from Smyrna to Cedartown the first day. From the bike shop parking lot to the Holiday Inn Express parking lot would be 55 miles.

Day One - Starting Out

Silver Comet Trail - Mile 0

Taking it all with you

Traveling solo presents a few challenges. You have to take everything with you. There are no support vehicles to handle the transportation of clothes and stuff. Notice the bag on the back of my bike? It's mounted on a quick-release rack. The top part or trunk contains all of my toiletries and a digital SLR Nikon camera. The side pannier bags hold everything else. The left bag has a pair of Keen sandals, a bottle of sunblock, glasses, and the charger for my phone and external battery. The right bag has a tee shirt and a pair of shorts, three pairs of socks, a spare jersey and riding shorts. The small bag on the top bar by handlebars contains an external battery to keep my iPhone 4 fully charged on the long trips, a few small snacks, and a point and shoot camera. The small bag that is usually attached under the seat and holds the spare tubes, tire wrenches, CO2 inflaters, etc, is attached to the back of the trunk using a couple of reusable zip ties.

Dew-covered Spiderweb

Also seen along the trail over the three day ride were five white tail deer, one of which was a baby that couldn't have been more than a couple of months old, a hen turkey that looked to be about 15 pounds, a hawk, and a black racer snake. Unfortunately, none of them were in the mood to be photographed. :-(

Lots of covered bridges in the eastern part of the trail

Hazy Morning Sun Rays

Lush Trailside Vegetation

Paulding County Sheriff's Substation on the Trail

Golf Course Vista

Coot's Lake

One of many rest areas along the trail.

It's hard to describe the forest. It's so thick and healthy that you wonder, in certain parts, if a human has ever actually walked through it. To say that it is beautiful and breathtaking doesn't come close to doing it justice. You really have to see it for yourself.

Silver Comet Trail

Silver Comet Trail

Silver Comet Trail

Trestle Bridge Over River Gorge

Brushy Mountain Tunnel

Brushy Mountain Tunnel - West Entrance

River Outside of Rockmart

Small Rapids on River Outside of Rockmart

Rockmart Riverwalk

Silver Comet Trail Logo on Bridge in Rockmart Riverwalk

Rockmart Boardwalk

The Surprise

All of the websites and literature about the Silver Comet Trail talks about how it is built on a former railroad bed so is, therefore, all "railroad grade", which means slopes no greater than 2%. What none of it mentioned was that the Path Foundation was unable to secure the old railbed from Rockmart to Cedartown so part of the trail had to be built on private land. This land is most definitely NOT railroad grade. Unfortunately, I was not really prepared for the steepness of the hills that suddenly loomed and they kicked my butt pretty hard. At mile marker 47.5 there is a sharp bend at the bottom of one hill. I learned later that there are accidents, including lots of broken collarbones, at this location almost every weekend from people going to fast and unable to make the sharp turn. Beware. Anyway, I finally made it over and down into Cedartown.

That evening I checked out the elevation graph in my GPS tracking software for that day's ride. The hilly section looked like one of those hospital heart monitors!

Historic Silver Comet Depot in Cedartown, GA

Historic Silver Comet Depot Welcome Center

The room and facilities at the Holiday Inn Express were more comfortable than the Comfort Inn, the wifi was stronger, and the breakfast bar was better. Unfortunately, the county health department showed up at my room and wanted to condemn my riding gloves as a bio-hazard. They were pretty ripe! They let me slide after I explained they were actually an experiment in a portable, easily-deployable bicycle anti-theft device. No one's going anywhere near the bike if you hang these puppies on it! ;-)

Day Two

The second day was to be a 91 mile round trip from Cedartown to Anniston, Alabama and back. It seemed like a prudent idea to get on the road early so I left the hotel about a half an hour before sunup, picked up some Gatorade at the CVS, and then hit the trail.

Full Moon Morning - Long Days Mean an Early Morning Start

It's only 10.2 miles to the Alabama state line and it's a fast, easy route. The Silver Comet Trail crosses many roads and streets along the route but every one of them is marked well in advance with stop signs and several even have traffic lights.

Entrance to the Chief Ladiga Trail at the Alabama State Line

Crossing the state line into Alabama

Once you cross the state line, you're in the Talladega National Forest. Verizon Wireless has a tower on top of the mountain in the forest but none of the other carriers do. If your cell phone is on any carrier other than Verizon, you'll have no signal at all. My iPhone 4 is on ATT. The GPS tracking continued to work with no problem but there was no carrier signal at all until a few miles outside of Piedmont. This lasts about eight or nine miles at the most. If you're making a solo trip through this area and are concerned, you could pick up a one month, disposable cell phone on the Verizon network to take with you in case of emergency.

The Chief Ladiga Trail turned out to all be railroad grade. There really isn't much to see from the trail while you're in the national forest. The trees are so thick and the rock walls so tall that the only view I had was straight ahead. You can really fly on this section. I was cranking along at a comfortable 21+ mph through most of it.

Piedmont Welcome Center

Downtown Piedmont

On the other side of Piedmont, the tree roots are winning out over the pavement and the trail gets teeth-jarringly rough in several places. Also, they've replanked several of the bridges, which now have a lip on them. The state has already approved the funding and accepted a bid for repaving the trail. Work should be finished before the end of this year. Then the buckles from the tree roots and the lips on the replanked bridges will no longer be a factor. In the mean time, be careful!

Early Morning Pasture

Alabama Farmland

Chief Ladiga Bridge and Tree Canopy Tunnel

Peaceful Park in Jacksonville, AL

The Chief Ladiga Trail ends in a pretty park just outside of Anniston. There really isn't anything around there. I went, I saw, I took a photo...

End of the Line in Anniston, AL

...but I rode the 6 miles back to Jacksonville for lunch. When you get to the historic trail station in Jacksonville, turn south about four blocks and you'll find a place called Struts. They have terrific burgers and didn't seem to mind my smelliness. Skip the fries and go for their homemade potato chips. Trust me, you'll want to do this. They're terrific.

The ride back to Cedartown was long but uneventful. I ended up stopping to rest more than anticipated but that was no big deal.

Day Three

Cedartown to Smyrna. Okay, this time I knew about the hills and was mentally prepared for them. They start about two or three miles outside of Cedartown and only last about five miles. This time, I was in "granny low" gear very early. When I finally made it to the top, I dropped it in the tallest gear available to pick up some speed. Then I let gravity take over and got low and got fast! I hit 33.8 mph doing nothing but coasting down the next hill and it was enough to carry me, barely, to the top of the next one. More coasting... then it leveled off for the easy cruise back into Rockmart. Much, much easier!

After a nice rest, I began the final leg back to Smyrna.

A River Runs Through It - Meandering Alabama Mountain River

My Shadow on the Trail

Old School - Antique Farm Implements

Just Riding Along

Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly - Limenitis arthemis

Common Buckeye Butterfly - Junonia coenia

Sometimes the trail has to jog over a little. That means you might have to veer off onto public roads for a short stretch. This is usually only a few yards and the trail entrances are well marked so it's easy to stay on track.

Trail Entrances are Always Visible.

And finally I was back!!!!!! Three days, 200 miles, a little over 9000 calories burned. Temps in the mornings were in the upper 60s and in the afternoon were in the low 90s. It didn't rain once and humidity was very moderate compared to central Florida.

Victory! Solo 200 miles in three days.

A couple of tips and observations.

  • On the drive up to Georgia, there was the possibility of rain. The heavy duty plastic bags from McDonalds are excellent covers for a bike seat. Wrap them as tightly as you can, winding the excess around the seatpost and secure it with a velcro strip. Cheap and it works great.
  • Pumping up your tires in the morning before heading out is problematic when you're taking it all with you. Floor pumps are too heavy and frame pumps usually can't pump up to the range of 110 to 120 pounds. I ended up borrowing a pressure gauge and using a CO2 inflater. This is not ideal as it took a lot of fiddling and guessing before finally getting the right pressure. What we really need is a small, lightweight, plug-in pump that can hit 120 psi.
  • If, after a couple of days of hot, sweaty rides, you start to get a little chaffed and didn't bring any chamois butter, you can substitute one of those little tubs of Promise margarine. If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't ask.

What a vacation! That was really fun. :-) With apologies to Mr John Denver, I ripped off the tune of Take Me Home Country Road...

Almost Heaven...
Sil-ver Comet.
Chief Ladiga,
Let's go ride the trails!


P.S.: I threw this collage together as an experiment. Looks like it could be on a tee-shirt. Surprisingly, no one in the area seemed to have tee-shirts about the trail.

Silver Comet Trail

Click here to open a slideshow of the images from this tour.