Sunday, February 22, 2009

Eastern Shore Reconnaissance

I was in Daphne, Alabama on 20 February 2009. I know that the oldest Mardi Gras in the United States was going on across the bay in Mobile, Alabama, but that was entirely coincidence. I had other reasons for being there. Honest.

That morning I left the hotel to take a walk around. Not a hundred yards away, the sidewalk ran across a pleasant wooden bridge, and across the street there was a wooden boardwalk with no end in sight. I paused on the little bridge to watch the turtles swimming in D'Olive Creek, and spotted the biggest alligator in Daphne. I went back to the hotel to get Judi. Quite accidentally I had stumbled into "Gator Alley," more formally known as D'Olive Boardwalk Park.

We started walking north from a trailhead parking area on the west side of North Main Street. The trail here is just a wide, concrete sidewalk, but it becomes a wooden boardwalk as you cross D'Olive Creek. Once across the creek, the boardwalk turns west to pass under the Eastern Shore Parkway (aka US 98). Just in case there are no real alligators around, three statues of the reptiles have been placed here on the grass along the trail. After you've gone under the highway, the trail turns north and leaves the boardwalk to meander on a concrete path through a lightly-wooded grassy area. The trees disappear, and you are about to go under Interstate 10. I'm not sure how anyone was ever able to jump through all the hoops to put a non-motorized path across an interstate highway right-of-way, but I'm not complaining. Continuing north along the water, you cross under an exit ramp, the east-bound lanes, and then the west-bound lanes of Interstate 10.

Immediately upon reaching the north side of Interstate 10, the trail becomes a board ramp, with wooden "switchbacks" taking you up to the level of the superhighway. Here you're disconcertingly close to cars and trucks going 70 - 80 mph. You're probably making the drivers nervous, too. The ramp dumps you onto another concrete path that winds up a grassy slope to Battleship Parkway. And that's it for Gator Alley.

However, the trail gives every appearance of crossing the Parkway, and then continuing east as a sidewalk to the Old Spanish Trail (US 90), where it turns north as a sidewalk heading uphill toward Spanish Fort. We continued to follow it to a visitor center at the top of the hill. I inquired how far the trail continued.

"Not very far," was the answer.

I went out for a run later that day, planning on finding out how far was "not very far." "Not very far" turned out to be about half a mile north to where the trail disappeared in a shopping center parking lot at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Spanish Fort Boulevard, and then another few hundred yards east after the trail reappeared outside the parking lot before petering out along Spanish Fort Boulevard.

Later on, I learned that I had been on part of the Eastern Shore Trail. In spite of the impressive name, outside of Gator Alley, it's just a sidewalk. A wide sidewalk, but a sidewalk. Along Old Spanish Trail it wasn't even particularly good for cycling because of the sharp jerks the route made to dodge around utility poles. I happened to see some other portions of the Eastern Shore Trail during the weekend, and they were also sidewalks. Some parts of the trail were less than sidewalks. "The part of the route to the USS Alabama is on the shoulder of the highway," reads one description of the trail. Now, one thing that Fairhope, Daphne, and Spanish Fort all desperately need is sidewalks. If calling their sidewalks the "Eastern Shore Trail" is what it takes to get them built, fine. But it's being over-sold to tourists with descriptions like this:

"Cycle along the 24-mile Eastern Shore Trail, a pedestrian/cycle path from the USS Alabama Battleship Park in Mobile to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear and beyond. Route passes through bayside communities of Daphne and Fairhope."

Gator Alley is a nice place to take a short stroll if you're staying near Exit 35 on Interstate 10 in Alabama. If you're looking for something a bit longer in the area, you might want to check out the 5 Rivers Center, Meaher State Park, or Historic Blakely State Park.

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