The 2016 holiday season is now in the rearview mirror, and 2017 is off to a grand if somewhat chilly start. But even though the holiday season has passed, it’s still fun to ask that one question: What was your favorite holiday gift?
If you enjoy hiking or biking, it’s hard to beat the gift of a new trail, and if you enjoy trails along the Chattahoochee, then you got just what you wanted with the opening of Phase 4 of Roswell’s Riverwalk trail project in December. This new trail, which includes lots of boardwalk through wetlands or over water, takes hikers and bikers through a portion of the wetlands near Azalea Drive and Willeo Road.
The newly opened section of trail has a total length of about a mile. It provides much improved access from some of the trails of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area to the Chattahoochee Nature Center and will eventually connect to CRNRA’s Gold Branch Unit as well. That will make for some truly impressive hiking and biking opportunities; in fact, in a TV interview, Roswell Mayor Jere Wood noted that the newly opened boardwalk trail will become “part of probably the best trail system in America.”
There’s something undeniably appealing about boardwalk trails, and there are actually two sections of boardwalk included in this phase of the Riverwalk project. The longest, with a length of about seven-tenths of a mile, starts near Azalea Drive and continues to near Willeo Road. A shorter boardwalk segment is at the Willeo Road end of the project, starting near the Chattahoochee Nature Center. In between is about a tenth of a mile of paved trail.
The surface of the new boardwalk is constructed from synthetic planks made from recycled plastic, with handrails of made from lumber. This type of boardwalk, which is being seen more and more on projects of this type, is of course good for the environment and has the added advantage of offering better traction when wet than might a traditional wooden walkway.
Following the official ribbon cutting on Dec. 16, the new trail quickly became a popular destination for hikers and cyclists.
With entry points on Azalea Drive and also on Willeo Road, the new trail section can be traveled in either direction. However, most find it easiest to start at the Azalea Drive end (that is, the end nearest to Roswell Road) since that allows you to park in the designated parking areas provided for folks who are visiting Azalea Park.
From the parking area, begin by turning left onto the trail along Azalea Drive and heading downriver on the paved trail which parallels the road. If you started at the last parking lot, like I did, you’ll pass two picnic areas, including covered pavilions, and a restroom building. There’s a water fountain, too, though it wasn’t working. Hopefully it’s functioning during the summer months. It could make for a refreshing stop during a warm-weather hike.
After the last of the picnic areas (this one with a playground) the trailside development ends. Beyond it, you’ll be hiking with Azalea Drive on one side and wetlands on the other.
As you start this part of the hike, keep an eye out for the “Shallow Ford” interpretive marker on the left, wetlands side of the trail. I always enjoy markers like this one, which add a sense of history to any hike. This particular marker identifies the point where the 16th U.S. Army Crops under command of Major General Greenville Dodge crossed the river in pursuit of the Roswell Battalion, which had retreated ahead of the Union army.
The marker features a sketch showing how the area may have looked in the 1860s, and looking across the river it’s not hard to imagine what things might have been like on those hot July days more than 150 years ago. At that time, you’ll recall, Bull Sluice Lake formed by Morgan Falls Dam was still many years in the future. Thus, instead of the peaceful near-lake that you see there today, you’d have been face to face with the full width of the free-flowing Chattahoochee River.
Before the war came to town, folks crossed the river near here on a covered bridge located upstream of the ford. However, the Roswell Battalion had burned that covered bridge as it retreated. Thus, for the Union troops, fording the river was the only way to get across.
How was the crossing? Writing to General Sherman on July 10, 1864, Dodge noted that “[t]he ford is half a mile or more in extent, very rough, and impracticable except for troops.”
A diary entry by James P. Shell of the 16th Army Corps further described the crossing by saying that “the bottom was rough and rocky hard on bare feet.”
Folks like me, who like to wade parts of the Chattahoochee when fishing, know just how tricky the footing can be, and that’s while wearing modern waders and carrying not a heavy rifle but only a fly rod.
Beyond the marker, the paved trail continues along Azalea Drive. Depending on where you park, you’ll walk about six-tenths of a mile on the paved trail. And then there it is: the new-and-still-shiny timber entry portal that marks the beginning of the boardwalk trail.
The boardwalk, which still has its own pleasantly woody version of that new-car smell, initially follows the length of a narrow spit of land separating the main river from a shallow bay of sorts. Zigzagging back and forth as it goes, the walkway offers an ever-changing perspective on the wetlands ecosystem that defines this part of the river.
Two observation platforms on this portion of the boardwalk make it easy to stop and look for wildlife, especially water and wading birds. The first platform, which you’ll soon come to on your right, gives you a good look across a large shallow flat where you can usually find a variety of birds. The second, on your left, looks out over the waters of the main river channel. Be sure to bring your binoculars.
About 150 paces beyond the second observation platform, you’ll cross a short bridge spanning a channel connecting the main river to the shallow flat. Water flows into and out of this flat as the level of Bull Sluice varies with water releases from Buford Dam many miles upriver and from Morgan Falls Dam a short distance downriver.
Across the bridge, the boardwalk turns right. Another 120 paces brings you a third observation deck. This one provides a different perspective on the shallow flat and is another great place to take a break, look for wildlife or stretch out your muscles.
Beyond that third platform, the boardwalk continues for several hundred yards to the boardwalk’s other portal near Willeo Road. Once you reach that portal, the trail itself turns left and parallels Willeo Road toward the Chattahoochee Nature Center. At first the way is paved, but the boardwalk soon returns as the route swings out over the water once more. Again, the level of the water will vary with the level of Bull Sluice Lake. But regardless of the level, keep your eyes out for wildlife in the nearby wetlands and in the water itself too.
That last section of boardwalk ends near the Chattahoochee Nature Center. There’s no convenient parking at this end of the trail, though some folks park along the side of Willeo Road.
This is sure to be a popular trail at all times of the year, and as spring and summer approach the tableau will change with the change of seasons. Every walk or ride on this trail has the potential to show you something new, and I hope you’ll be able to enjoy it soon.
And be sure to say hello if you see me on the trail. I’ll be the one with the hat and the camera!