Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stadium Drive Bike Trail, Tallahassee, Florida

Stadium Drive TrailThe second rail-trail in the Tallahassee area was the Stadium Drive Bike Trail which runs from the intersection of West Pensacola Street and Stadium Drive near the Florida State University campus to a point on Ocala Road just south of West Tennessee Street (US 90). The trail follows part of an old rail route to Bainbridge, Georgia which was later re-routed to south of town. Portions of the railroad continued to be used over the years for various reasons, such as to deliver coal to the FSU heating plant and to service a cement factory. Over the years, though, more and more of the track was removed and by the 1990s it was abandoned entirely. During that same decade it became a rail trail.

In the first years after the pavement was laid down not much was done in the way of maintenance. Brush grew up on either side of the trail turning it into a tunnel through the jungle. This created safety issues. Among FSU students, the proverbial height of foolishness was taking the trail at night.

Emergency call boxA few years ago, though, the city of Tallahassee came through and cleared the brush around the trail, eliminating cover for potential ambushers. Not coincidentally this happened just before college football season--thousands of fans use the trail to reach FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium on game day. The following year, lighting and emergency call boxes were added to the trail. The lighting is better than on most streets and the call boxes are spaced closely enough that you are never more than 200 feet from a call box (and often much closer, because the call boxes are not spaced evenly). A few places have been patched where cracks in the pavement threatened to swallow bicycle tires, but the whole trail really needs to be re-paved. Football season is still months away, so maybe the city will get around to re-paving later this year.

The north end of the trail is on the east side of Ocala Road between two holding ponds, just south of the intersection of Ocala Road and West Tennessee Street (US 90). From here it climbs a small rise; this peaks quickly and most of the rest of the trail slopes downward to the FSU campus as you come off the high ground near San Luis Ridge. To the right is the first of two side-trails into Heritage Grove; other apartment complexes along the route have also hooked into the trail. Just past a quarter mile, a concrete walk twins off to parallel the trail. For the next 0.37 miles the trail is a concrete walkway on the left and an asphalt bike path on the right.

At 0.44 miles the trail crosses Chapel Drive. After crossing Chapel, the land to the right of the trail is mostly residential, with apartments and scholarship houses on the left side. Through the trees on the left you can catch your first glimpses of the FSU campus, making out the medical school and the soccer stadium. On a clear day (and most days in Tallahassee are clear) you can spot buildings downtown, including the state capitol.

At 0.87 miles the trail arrives at a monster tunnel under Stadium Drive, wide enough for a two-lane highway. A smaller tunnel goes south under Pensacola Street. The large tunnel runs for 150 feet and comes out across a parking lot from the University Center, a complex of brick building wrapping around FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium. In plain view is an enormous stained-glass window depicting Coach Bobby Bowden, dwarfing the larger-than-life bronze statue of the coach below it. Looking past the stadium, in the distance you can see the State Capitol, the Department of Education building, and other large buildings downtown.

At this point it's hard to say what the trail does. It can't follow the old railroad right-of-way, because that was obliterated during stadium expansion in the 1990s. In fact, University Center Building C sits directly over a portion of the old rail route. Until a couple of years ago, an asphalt path stretched from the tunnel to Chieftain Way, but that was removed right before the 2007 football season. If the trail continues at this point, it follows the wide, concrete sidewalks past the tunnel. This is easy enough to follow to the one mile point in front of the entrance to the Al Dunlap Football Practice Fields. The issue is confused at this point by a lot of intersecting concrete walks, but if you follow the wide one that curves next to the baseball stadium and the ticket office, you'll go by the Heritage Fountain and arrive at the intersection of Chieftan Way, Champions Way, and Pensacola Street (1.18 miles). Cross Champions Way to reach the south side of Pensacola Street, where a wide sidewalk with a "center line" of painted tomahawks appears to be the trail. Follow the trail to the intersection of Varsity Drive and St Augustine St, where you'll be directed to cross Varsity Drive and then continue south to West Gaines Street. Once you cross Gaines Street, though, you have to admit that the trail is over. No sign says as much, but there just isn't any place to go. There are plans for a connector going from here to the north end of the St Marks Rail Trail on Gamble Street, but you can't ride a bike on a plan.

Even if you measure all the way from Ocala Road to Gaines Street, the the Stadium Drive Bike Trail is only about a mile-and-a-half long, so you aren't going to get a lot of people driving miles to use it for recreation. There isn't any parking for them anyway, except for some metered spots near the University Center. Local use is heavy, however. There are always people on the trail walking their dog, doing part of a run, out for a fitness walk, commuting to or from the FSU campus on foot or on bike, walking to the grocery store on Ocala Road, or biking to a restaurant on Tennessee Street. It's generally not crowded except on home game days for FSU during the college football season. If the connection to the St Marks Trail is ever made, the lack of a trailhead parking area could be a problem, but right now this workhorse of a trail does just fine without one.

-- Herb Wills

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