I recently realized that as much as I talk about the American Tobacco Trail and as often as I go running on the trail that I've never actually written a blog post on it. Clearly I had to fix this.
The American Tobacco Trail is the product of a rails-to-trails project converting 22+ miles of railroad track into a mixed use trail. The tracks were originally built in 1905 to haul smoking tobacco from local farms to Durham cigarette factories, but as tobacco production relocated and railways were replaced by interstate trucking and tobacco production waned, the railways fell into disuse and then were abandoned.
Things changed in 1987 when the Durham City Council passed a resolution saying all abandoned railways should be incorporated into the Durham greenway system, and the Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (TCRC), a volunteer non-profit organization, has played a significant role in organizing and building the American Tobacco Trail. (source)
The ATT now runs from Durham to Apex and includes miles of paved, mixed, and compact gravel surfaces. Since the trail is so long and has diverse surfaces and amenities at intermittent trailheads I am breaking this up into a series of posts focusing on a few miles at a time and highlighting special features, parking, and amenities.
Because of holiday and shopping traffic I elected to start at the Apex terminus of the trail rather than the Durham trailhead. The trailhead is very easy to find with straightforward directions from Google to a large gravel parking lot off New Hill-Olive Chapel Road.
Parking is plentiful and there are off-grid bathrooms (re: fancy permanent port-a-potties), but no running water. A trailhead shows a map of the trail, gives a very detailed history of the railway system, and provides general information to trail visitors.
The ATT runs through quite a bit of NC wildlife game lands, and as I parked my car I heard the ring of gunshots in the distance. It's the height of deer season, but I wasn't worried because the trail is fenced off and hunters may not shoot across the trail or carry loaded firearms on the trail. Even so, it's not a bad idea to wear bright colors if you're running on the ATT.
About a mile into the trail you cross a decent sized bridge over Beaver Creek, except Beaver Creek is more swamp than creek with naked skeletal tree trunks and cattails that have exploded into cottony seeds, all dry and brown in the November chill.
The compact gravel surface is great to run on. It's all gravel ground to fine sand and packed together on a wide, even trail. I wouldn't love to take a road bike on this section, but it's great for running, hiking, horseback riding, and any mountain/hybrid/cyclocross biking. Oh, and sled dog racing on wheeled carts. Yeah, it's great for that, especially since it's a solid 3.5 miles from the trail head to the next parking area at Wimberly Road access and there's not much else between the start and this access point besides beautiful empty trail, thick forest, some bridges, an echoey tunnel under Highway 64, and a fair bit of horse poop.
The trail is marked every quarter mile with a mile marker counting down from mile 22. It said 18.5 miles at the Wimberly Road access, so running to there and back to the New Hill-Olive Chapel trailhead gave me just over 7 miles running according to my GPS watch. Plan appropriately for water, make some noise through the tunnel, and enjoy miles of scenic trails. If you're looking for some great scenery for running, hiking or biking then the trail from New Hill-Olive Chapel trailhead is a great escape.