Enjoy small towns and nature during a leisurely bike ride on Louisiana’s Northshore.
By Carolyn Thornton
Are you a nature lover, history buff or someone who prefers the amenities of city life? When exploring the Tammany Trace, you don’t have to choose because this cycling escape on the north shore of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain has it all.
Covington has a Trace trailhead (above) and a cache of galleries and boutiques, such as Rosemary’s Closet (below left), a vintage clothing shop. Carolyn Thornton photos
Louisiana’s only rails-to-trails conversion, the 31-mile roadbed near New Orleans follows the route of the former lake line of the Illinois Central Railway. Endurance riders will want to bike the entire route from Slidell to Covington. For a more leisurely overnight getaway, make Mandeville your home base. Biking east toward Slidell, the Trace slices through pristine ecosystems of hardwoods, pine forests, ponds and cypress bayous. The northwestern route rolls into small towns with ample diversions. There’s no need to pack a lunch because casual restaurants can be found near all the trailheads.
The eastern route
Breakfast is not included in the Marvilla Guest House in Mandeville, but that’s no problem as the Broken Egg Café is located next door. To make up for the lack of breakfast, bikes or kayaks are available for guest use. The Pollyanna Bed and Breakfast and Pontchartrain Winds are other B&Bs in Mandeville’s historical district located just a few blocks from the Trace Trailhead. Bikes can be rented at the Kickstand Café adjacent to the Trailhead and Cultural Interpretive Center.
Another lodging option is one of 10 fishing-style cabins set on pilings in Lake Pontchartrain at Fontainebleau State Park. The Trace runs right through the 2,800-acre park that’s named for a king’s favorite forest outside of Paris. Fontainebleau was the sugar plantation of Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. Ruins of his 1829 mill still stand. Nature and hiking trails in the park have signs identifying native flora.
Leaving the Trace, cross U.S. Highway 190 from Fontainebleau State Park to explore the boardwalk trails of Northlake Nature Center, considered St. Tammany’s “secret garden.” In addition to cypress swamps, beaver dams and the site of an archaeological survey where Acolapissa Native Americans lived more than 500 years ago, the center contains the ruins of a clubhouse and golf course planned for Gov. Richard W. Leche. When the governor was imprisoned after a federal mail fraud scandal in 1939, the course was never finished and nature quickly reclaimed the site.
The nature center also draws birdwatchers for the Great Louisiana Bird Fest, April 16–18. Birders hope to catch a glimpse of the rare red-cockaded woodpecker, one of eight woodpecker species sighted in St. Tammany’s refuges.
Between Fontainebleau and Lacombe, one of two sections of the Tammany Trace incorporates horse trails. Lacombe retains its small-town atmosphere with the Bayou Lacombe Rural Museum (open only on Sundays), several cafés and picturesque churches. The Crab Festival celebrates seafood each June beneath ancient live oaks netted with Spanish moss.
After a rigorous ride through pine and hardwood forests, the Trace skirts the wetlands of Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, one of several put-in points for boats and kayaks. Detouring just minutes north from the Trace’s end at the Slidell/Carollo Trailhead, you’ll discover restaurants and retail shops at North Shore Square Mall.
The northwest route
Back at the Trace trailhead in Mandeville, a pavement map outlines the boundaries of Lake Pontchartrain. Since the 1800s, this piney woods playground has welcomed people to experience the area’s pine-scented air and artesian waters.
From here, the Trace angles north to a green caboose, which serves as the trailhead information center and ranger headquarters. It’s located on Koop Drive off state Route 59. A souvenir center, picnic tables, water stations and the Kids Konnection playground round out the complex.
Cycle another 4.4 miles to Abita Springs. To escape the yellow fever epidemics of the late 19th century, city dwellers flocked to Abita Springs. By the turn of the next century, Abita was booming with four hotels, numerous boarding houses, five stores and a company that bottled the spring water and shipped it all over the U.S. The water is still bottled nearby.
Sip a root beer or beer at the Abita Brew Pub Restaurant at Abita Springs Brewery, which offers tours (take state Route 36 to the entrance).
The Abita Trailhead Museum displays changing exhibits with a smattering of local history. The Louisiana Bicycle Festival held each Father’s Day is sponsored by the Abita Mystery House at the UCM Museum.
Continuing west, a 3 1/2 -mile ride brings you to the Covington Trailhead. Signs point the way to a cache of antique shops, boutiques (some right on the Trace) and artists’ galleries centered around Columbia Street in downtown Covington.
For a little lagniappe (something extra), follow the trail along Mandeville’s lakefront. Graceful pre-Civil War Anglo-Creole homes face the live oak lined shore of Lake Pontchartain. With history at your back, this is the best place to relax and watch the sunset.
Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.