This time of year, the Tammany Trace Bike Trail is filled with the sights and sounds of fall.
by Erin Z. Bass
Most people just head to New Orleans and stay there, never venturing outside the city. But on the other side of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the longest continuous bridge over water in the world that feels like it’s going to dunk you right in, is what’s called the Northshore. Made up of towns like Covington, Mandeville, Abita Springs, Lacombe and Slidell, this area is filled with its own version of culture, dining and quirky sites and festivals. And the Tammany Trace Rail to Trail is the perfect way to experience it.
The first Louisiana trail to be part of the Rail-to-Trail network, the Tammany Trace follows the former Illinois Railroad line for 31 miles through the five historic communities mentioned above. Much of the trail is paved, some of it running along residents’ back yards, other parts winding under the interstate and over railroad bridges. This time of year, the trail is nice and wooded, with plenty of shade and shadows and even a few mysterious sites along the way.
Trail headquarters are located in Mandeville and offer bike rental at the Kickstand Cafe, Friday evening concerts and a Saturday morning farmer’s market. This is a great spot to hit the trail and head either north to Abita Springs and Covington or southeast to Lacombe and Slidell. Choosing north means you’ll ride for about 4.5 miles and end up in the charming town of Abita Springs. But first you’ll pass the Abita Mystery Museum, a hidden gem that may just be the highlight of your trip.
Located in an old vintage gas station (you can’t miss it from the trail), this folk art museum includes thousands of found objects and homemade inventions. There’s a miniature Southern town, diorama-style, with push-button activation, the amazing Bassigator, House of Shards, Sister Claire’s Fortune Telling Shack, the Hot Sauce House and lots more you have to see to believe.
Originally known for its natural spring water, Abita Springs is now better known for its beer. After the museum, the trail will take you to the Abita Brew Pub, where massive burgers, salads and sandwiches await, along with samplers of beer and seasonal offerings.
For extra biking fuel, order the Deep South Burger, topped with cheddar cheese, bacon and BBQ sauce. There’s also the Blackened Shrimp and Avocado Salad with Abita Turbodog Remoulade Sauce or the Two Napkin Roast Beef Poboy. Sit outside on the patio to watch other bikers on the trail while you eat, and take it easy on the 10 beers on tap, because the Abita Brewing Co. and Tasting Room are just down the street. You might first want to walk across the street to the Trailhead Museum to learn more about the history and culture of Abita Springs in between brews.
Not directly on the trail (ask your waiter how to cut through the neighborhood to get there), the brewing company is only a short ride from the pub and offers tours Wednesday through Saturday. Free tours begin with the taps being opened up for a tasting free-for-all, followed by a video and behind the scenes look at the brewery.
Hopefully, you’ve still got your wits about you and can continue on to Covington for another 3.5 miles. You’ll pass over the Bogue Falaya River on your way to the trailhead, which does offer restrooms and water fountains. Lock up your bike here and plan to explore downtown Covington, with plenty of restaurants, shops, art galleries and bars. The Three Rivers Art Festival, held the second weekend of November, is a great time to be there, but every Saturday there’s a farmer’s market, and an Art Market at the Trailhead is scheduled for October 6. (Rockin’ the Rails, a free concert series, is also being held Thursdays in October at the Trailhead.)
While at the Trailhead, check out the museum, then HJ Smith’s Son General Store and Museum. There’s also Columbia Street’s art galleries, including the St. Tammany Art Association. Time for a snack? Buster’s Place has chargrilled oysters, homemade onion rings and crabmeat-stuffed jalapenos or grab a coffee or glass of wine at Coffee Rani.
If you’re in the mood for a more secluded route, you may want to ride southeast at the Mandeville Trailhead. Two miles in, you’ll get to 2,800-acre Fontainebleau State Park. (The park is closed indefinitely due to damage from Hurricane Isaac, but depending on when you’re there, call 985-624-4443 to find out if it’s reopened yet.)
Your next stop will be the fishing village of Lacombe, 6.7 miles down the trail. Cemeteries, ancient live oaks and the Bayou Lacombe drawbridge are highlights, as is New Orleans Chef John Besh’s restaurant La Provence, located on Hwy. 190, which runs parallel to the trail. Sunday is the only time the restaurant is open during the day, but dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday from 5-9 p.m.
Other highlights along the eastern route include downtown Slidell and Camp Salmen, an old Boy Scout summer camp on Bayou Liberty. Which way you choose to go just depends on what you’re looking for.
If you rented a bike from Kickstand, you’ll have to return it by 4 p.m. on a weekend. And even if you’re on your own bike, you may want to switch out your ride for a car to head to dinner or check out some of the other sights in the area. A beautiful ride or drive is down the lakefront in Old Mandeville. You’ll feel like you stepped into a Tennessee Williams play when you see the historic homes overlooking Lake Pontchartrain. For dinner with a view here, try Rips on the Lake, The Barley Oak Draught Haus or head a few blocks inland to Louie & The Redhead Lady, featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Three blocks from the river on Lamarque Street is the Dew Drop Jazz & Social Hall (pictured above). Built in 1895, when jazz was getting its start across the river in New Orleans, the little wooden building was presenting the likes of Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong. Check the Dew Drop’s calendar for upcoming shows or just take a walk around to get a glimpse of musical history. Ruby’s Roadhouse, also on Lamarque Street, is another popular spot for live musicThursday through Saturday. Or, if you feel like getting out of town, head north from Covington to Pontchartrain Vineyards, which presents live music in the vineyard (tasting and picnic supplies encouraged) throughout October and November.
After a day of biking and possible evening of dancing, you’ll want to rest your head nearby. Thankfully, the area has its share of bed and breakfasts, as well as hotels and campgrounds. Louisiana’s Northshore makes a perfect day trip, but we promise you’ll want to spent at least one night and probably two after a day of biking and brews on the Tammany Trace.
If You Go
Louisiana’s Northshore website is a wonderful resource for everything you’ll need to plan your trip. Tammany Trace hours are sunrise to sunset, and pets are not allowed. Bike rental at Kickstand Cafe is available from 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sundays. Bikes rent out fast on weekends, so you may want to reserve in advance by calling 985-626-9300. The Abita Mystery Museum is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day.
In addition to events mentioned above, keep in mind that Madisonville’s Wooden Boat Festival is October 13-14, Slidell has a Fall Antique Street Fair October 27-28, and Pontchartrain Vineyards has a Holiday in the Vines Festival November 24.
Photo Credits: Trace photo at top and Pontchartrain Vineyards at bottom courtesy of LouisianaNorthshore.com.