LeBlanc: Southern Walnut Creek Trail provides miles of pedaling bliss

Separated-from-the-road paths connect Govalle Park to Walter E. Long Park.

Bicyclists, prepare to be wowed.

A sparkling new ribbon of pathway has opened in Austin, and it serves up nearly 10 miles of separated-from-the-road pedaling bliss between Govalle Park and Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park.

The 7.3-mile paved Southern Walnut Creek Trail dips, curves and weaves along Boggy Creek and Walnut Creek, crossing five bridges and four bike underpasses along the way. Short spurs connect it to the East Communities Branch of the YMCA, the Austin Tennis Center and Davis White Northeast District Park.

At its eastern end, near the intersection of Johnny Morris Road and Daffan Lane, the trail flows into the first phase of another new bike path, the Austin to Manor Trail. That adds 2.5 more miles to the route, extending it first along a wide sidewalk and then along an old railroad corridor through Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park. The trail now ends at Lindell Lane, but planners hope to tack on another 2.5 miles, taking it to Ben Fischer Park in Manor.

The Southern Walnut Creek Trail cost $7.3 million and was paid for with money from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Construction began in May 2012, and it’s been opening in stages since last October. A grand opening isn’t planned until October, when it’s cooler.

I hopped on my road bike, grabbed a pal and pedaled from the Austin American-Statesman offices to the trailhead at Govalle Park, then zipped all the way to the trail’s end and back. In all I covered about 28 miles.

Highlights? No mingling with traffic — need I say more?

The trail is 10 feet wide, and most of the way you don’t even see roads, cars, houses or any kind of structure. I did, however, nearly roll right over a large, hissing snake that slithered out of the underbrush. It was one of two snakes — as well as a quick-moving turtle, an outstanding field of sunflowers and numerous butterflies, birds and giant grasshoppers — we encountered. On the way out, we stopped at Govalle Park to top off our water bottles and leap in the pool to cool off. (Awesome!)

Lowlights? Tall grass and plants along the trail make it hard to see around some corners. Pay attention and stick to the right side of the trail. Also watch for speeding cars where the trail crosses Johnny Morris Road.

Besides connecting residents to destinations like parks and the YMCA, the trail gives cyclists long stretches of pavement they can ride without stopping. “This is unique in that you’re going for a good hour or two hours and you don’t have to stop,” says Nadia Barrera, urban trails program manager for the city of Austin.

Because it’s separated from motor traffic, it’s appealing even to beginners. That’s obvious on weekend mornings, when a steady stream of cyclists cruises the path.

“It gets to that all ages and abilities network we’re trying to build,” Barrera says. “It’s providing that extra level of comfort for everybody, and we hope we can build out more of these facilities for people to use.”

The trail is also good news for the hundreds of athletes who participate in the weekly Thursday night cycling races at the Driveway, a closed circuit track on Delwau Lane. Before the path opened, many of them dodged traffic and rode along U.S. 183 to get to and from the races. “Now there’s a perfectly separated, great way to get there that’s easy even for kids,” Barrera says.

There could be more good news coming down the pipe, too.

In late August, the Austin City Council will consider the long-term Urban Trail Master Plan, which includes the proposed Northern Walnut Creek Trail. It ultimately would cross the entire city, connecting the Southern Walnut Creek Trail all the way to Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park on North Lamar Boulevard.

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