Trail blazed: How the Tammany Trace came to be
For decades, the old Illinois Central railroad tracks ran through St. Tammany Parish, delivering goods and people far and wide. But by the early 1990s, the old corridor was no longer in use and its future very much in doubt. So, in December 1992, St. Tammany Parish, with the help of federal money, purchased the stretch of track with the idea of paving it and transforming it into a trans-parish “rails to trails” recreational path for use by bicyclists, hikers and horseback riders. Not all residents were on board at first, with some worried it might attract crime or that, after the significant outlay of taxpayer money, it would go unutilized. The plan moved forward anyway, and on Sept. 17, 1994, the first section of the project — an 8.5-mile stretch running from Abita Springs to Mandeville — was opened. From there, it was full-steam ahead.
Twenty-five years after the initial purchase, the Tammany Trace — which now stretches 31 miles from Covington in western St. Tammany Parish to Slidell on the parish’s eastern side — is more popular than anyone could have anticipated. This year, it was voted into the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Hall of Fame, joining 30 other similar trails from across the country. More than 300,000 people visit the trail each year, and there are plans to expand it further into downtown Slidell.
- The multi-use path is one of the most popular recreational spots on the North Shore. On any given day, visitors walk, jog, run, rollerblade, cycle and ride via horseback on the tree-lined path.
- The year before St. Tammany Parish purchased the land that would become the Tammany Trace, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act was passed. This legislation allowed federal transportation money to be spent on bicycling and walking projects. The Tammany Trace was among the first projects in the country to receive this federal funding, which helped pay the $1.4 million price tag.
- The Tammany Trace features six trailheads: in Covington, in Abita Springs, at Koop Drive north of Mandeville, in downtown Mandeville, and in Lacombe and Slidell. Each trailhead has its own nearby attractions, like the Mystery House in Abita Springs, the Kids Konnection playground at Koop Drive, and a splash park and amphitheater in Mandeville. The trail also connects other outdoor attractions like Fontainebleau State Park and the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
- The Abita Springs Trailhead runs through the town’s Tourist Park, which includes a pavilion repurposed from the 1884 Louisiana World’s Cotton and Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. The nearby Abita Springs Trailhead Museum documents the town’s history and culture, while also serving as a visitor’s center.
- Located at the Tammany Trace Trailhead Headquarters off Koop Drive between Abita Springs and Mandeville, the Kids Konnection inclusive playground is intended for children with or without special needs. Created as a place in which all children of all abilities are able to play together, the playground features latex-free surfaces, a roller slide that does not produce static electricity (which interferes with cochineal implants), and a sand area. It also includes a feature called “sway fun,” which enables children in wheelchairs to experience the feel of swinging.
- On Wednesdays, a local Farmer’s Market offers produce, prepared foods and live music at the Covington Trailhead. In April and October, the trailhead hosts the Rockin’ the Rails concert series. Additionally, an art market takes over the area on the first Saturday of every other month.
- In 2010, the Zac Efron drama “The Lucky One” shot for a time at the Covington Trailhead, which served as an open-air market for the film’s purposes.
- The Trace also passes through the 18,000-acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Created in 1994 to preserve local wetlands threatened by urban expansion, the refuge is prime for wildlife spotting. A variety of birds can be found in the marsh, both migrant and year-round. Visitors can also spot alligators, as well as deer, rabbits, muskrats, nutria and otters.
- When the Tammany Trace won the Rails-to-Trail Hall of Fame honor, it beat out two runners-up: the Rio Grande Trail in Colorado and the Historic Railroad Trail in Nevada.
- It costs St. Tammany Parish about $1.1 million annually to maintain the Trace. Almost 90 percent of the budget goes toward maintenance, with the rest paying for administration. The maintenance budget comes from the parish’s 2-cent sales tax in unincorporated areas and on rentals.
While the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain boasts any number of well-known attractions and distractions, the North Shore maintains its own uniquely laid-back atmosphere and undeniably quaint charm. Contributing to that is the Tammany Trace, which provides something people from throughout the metro area can truly appreciate: a vehicle-free place to enjoy the great outdoors. Whether Trail visitors are content with a leisurely stroll or are looking for a vigorous workout, the Trace provides all of its visitors with equal does of recreation and relaxation.