The American Tobacco Trail – Durham, NC

We were excited to explore the American Tobacco Trail, formerly the New Hope Valley Railroad, that runs through North Carolina’s Durham and Chatham counties. It sounded historic and romantic, and we anticipated cycling past old fashioned general stores with carved Indian statues and former tobacco farms and barns. 

Not quite.

We started in downtown Durham, specifically at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. (Sadly, this is not the same baseball field in which Kevin Costner elicited errant pitches from Tim Robbins and starry-eyed sighs from Kellie).  It was pretty quiet on a weekend morning but a few shops were open, including one that kindly filled our water bottles.

Speaking of which, we’ve bought numerous insulated plastic water bottles over the years that promised to keep water cold, but they never did. Now, we carry stainless steel double-walled water bottles (the ones made famous by S’well a few years ago). We have to be careful not to pack these with too much ice because it does not melt – at all – and we sometimes end up with just ice and no water. But it’s wonderful to have bracingly cold water throughout our rides now.

Back to the ride: we embarked upon the asphalt/concrete path that led out of downtown and were soon winding through long, shaded stretches of woods that led south for the next 22.6 miles.  We call this and rail-to-trails similar to it “Zen” trails because, with little visual variety, they can be described as either tranquil and serene or boring. These trails range from flat to slightly rolling but they never have more than a 3-4 degree incline because that was the steepest railroad engines could handle at the time the tracks were laid. (That’s still steep enough to produce a groan from Jim.)

In his defense, a steep decline would have been risky on this ride since his front brakes fell apart on the drive down and he was relying solely on the rear brakes. Shout out to the nice guys at The Bicycle Chain in Durham for fixing them for our next ride.

Again, back to the ride: we hit a detour about three miles in and had some trouble with the signage (or lack thereof).  Within 15 minutes of our ride, Kellie had asked directions from three different people, while Jim, for obvious reasons, did not. (Can we get a knowing eye roll, Ladies?)  It seemed for the first 6-8 miles of the ride, we passed through traffic intersections about every quarter mile, which meant waiting at lights every five minutes or so.  Only one or two of the intersections appeared to have shops nearby for buying water or energy bars, so it’s best to plan ahead.

Jim, after I suggested adding 10 more miles to our ride.


We do have to hand it to the locals, though: in addition to the very well-kept trail, there were lots of well-constructed and maintained access paths to neighborhoods bordering the trail. On this beautiful morning, they brought bikers, runners, rollerbladers and lots of Saturday strollers onto the trail.  Entire families seemed to be taking their “morning constitutional.”

Four miles prior to the end, the pavement stopped and the path became a mixture of grass, gravel and clay. On the map, it appeared the trail traversed through one of the many bodies of water in the area called “Jordan Lake” (yeah, it’s weird) so we hoped the trail would open up to a view of this.

Not quite. There were swampy areas on either side of the trail, but that was the extent of the water view.  With the exception of the many intersections, it was basically tree-lined the entire 22.6 miles – which did make the temperature perfect on an otherwise steamy summer day.

After 45 miles (10 more than we had originally intended), a cold beer couldn’t have come soon enough. We chose Clouds Brewing in Durham’s Brightleaf Square, a renovated brick warehouse area a short drive from the trailhead.  This annex of the Raleigh taproom was large inside with exposed red brick and lots of large screen TVs.  On the brick and blissfully shaded patio out front, Kellie ordered a flight: Mean Girl Raspberry and Black Currant Kettle Sour, Mango Weisse, El Hefe Hefeweizen and Clouds 9 Belgium Strong Ale, all of which she sampled simultaneously (taking sips of each one rather than finishing one before moving to the next like most people). Jim went for his usual pint of IPA (1IPA Hybrid Session IPA).   We also had some delicious fried pickles (or as they are properly called, “Frickles”) and stuffed mushrooms. After burning almost 1700 calories, we’re feeling decadent, indeed!

Got any thoughts or recommendations about the American Tobacco Trail or other breweries in the area? Comments are welcome below.


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