The tally, recorded at the Eubanks Welcome Center in Piedmont, was started in 2000 shortly after the first section of the trail was opened, said Jack Holder, director of the center. He chalks the increase up to a good Internet presence and to word-of-mouth recommendations from visitors.
The trail attracts visitors from all over the country and even international visitors, Holder said. He’s spoken to a family who is coming from Wisconsin on the recommendation of friends and a couple from Chicago who learned about the trail when they rode another trail with a family wearing Chief Ladiga Trail T-shirts.
“The best advertising, though, is mouth-to-ear, you know, people talking about it,” Holder said.
Those thousands of people traveling the trail have an impact on the nearby communities and businesses as they pass through. Janis Burns, director of Jacksonville’s Parks and Recreation Department said although the department has only recently started signing people in at its newly opened train depot, she knows the trail brings a lot of people into the community. Jacksonville, with its restaurants and accommodations fairly close to the trail, is a starting and stopping point for some riders, she said.
“To me it’s amazing,” Burns said. “I truly believe that the impact within Jacksonville is really big because of the trail.”
The city is hoping to capitalize even further on the connection and is working on a greenway, a spur off the trail leading to downtown Jacksonville, which would make it even easier for riders to access the city’s many restaurants.
Jennifer Gillette, owner of Solid Rock Café in Piedmont said her restaurant benefits from trail traffic. She estimates that in good weather about a quarter of the restaurant’s business comes from the riders stopping for a bite to eat.
“We’re actually the only restaurant in Piedmont that’s close to the trail,” Gillette said. “It’s been wonderful for us, for our business.”
She is also considering opening the upstairs of the building as a bed-and-breakfast specifically for people on the trail. Right now, she said, there are no accommodations available in Piedmont for the people riding the trail except for campgrounds.
Holder would also like to see more places for people to stay along the trail. Eventually the trail will have campgrounds and recreational vehicle hookups. This fall, the Chief Ladiga Campground opened, and there is a primitive campground that many Boy Scout troops use in Piedmont. But there are plans for more along the trail. The trail is still very young, Holder said.
“It was completed in 2007, the Alabama side, and the Georgia side was completed in 2008,” Holder said. “It’s still a young trail as far as visitors are concerned.”
Alabama’s Chief Ladiga Trail and Georgia’s Silver Comet Trail merge to become 95 miles of paved surface. That is the longest paved biking trail in the country, and in Holder’s opinion, one of the most scenic. That alone has been enough to draw visitors. But additional improvements could bring in even more. Holder noted the final 7-mile section that was originally proposed in Anniston would connect the trail to the Amtrak Train Station on Fourth Street. That extra seven miles could make a big difference in the number of people on the trail, Holder said.
Holder said the link to the train station would open the Chief Ladiga to visitors from across the country.
“You could get on (a) train in New York, and put your bike on there if you wanted to do a biking vacation; ride the train all the way to Anniston,” Holder said. “Take it off, and ride your bike all the way back to Atlanta, and catch the train all the way back.”
However, the trail has been hung up in Anniston for quite some time. The city was awarded a grant in 1997 from the National Recreational Trails Fund at the same time as Weaver and Jacksonville, but only the Tucker Park access point at the northernmost border of Anniston was created in the city.
The city is still working on creating its portion of the trail. City Manager Don Hoyt said the McClellan Development Authority owns a spur of the old railroad that went through Fort McClellan and that could connect the trail with Alabama 21 which could then connect to the Amtrak station.
Councilman David Dawson said he would be willing to commit to such a plan if the rest of the council is ready to move forward. However, not much of the project would be in his ward. The majority would be in councilmen John Spain and Ben Little’s wards.
“What we do that’s good for the city is good for all of us,” Dawson said. “If they were ready to support that, I would support it.”
The plan would also have to be approved by the MDA.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs in the fall nominated the trail to become a National Recreation Trail. That would put the trail under the umbrella of the National Park Service and would make it eligible for additional federal grant funding. Grant award announcement will be made in the summer, Holder said.
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.