It’s 93 degrees, more arid than sticky, 5 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, with a faint breeze and not a cloud in the sky. Not ideal conditions for anything except swimming, really, but curiosity takes hold. And you set off on a hybrid bicycle—the comfort of a mountain bike, with skinnier tires better for streets—for a 4.5-mile section of Atlanta Beltline corridor that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared officially open for public use last week.
You’ll soon realize that approaching the interim Southside Trail with skinny bike tires—like your half-full, lukewarm water bottle—lands somewhere between naive and really stupid.
Take the Beltline’s recently finished Eastside Trail to where it ends, then cross Interstate 20 and beware that bike lanes in this stretch of Ormewood Park are dicey moonscapes of concrete right now.
The thwack of construction begins here at Glenwood Avenue, where the Southside Trail starts on the eastern side of town, and it continues, in intervals, around the entirely of the interim trail already. This is an intensely rocky first stretch where the built-for-speed tires of road bicycles should not dare tread. Walkers and joggers should be mindful of twisting ankles, too.
But for outdoor enthusiasts, the soil-stabilizing rocks—like new wooden bridges for safety, crosswalks, signage, and lighting in tunnels—is a marked improvement from the abandoned railroad tracks found here last year.
The entire Southside Trail, as officials have pointed out, will be “shovel-ready” at some point next year. Construction on an initial, 3/4-mile paved section, branching off the Westside Trail in Adair Park, could begin within months. The rest will hinge on funding.
Moving on, the trail smooths out in places, but be mindful that—especially under bridges—spots thick with sand can quickly turn bikes sideways.
So far, you’ve see one well-dressed commuter on a bicycle built for comfort with a basket and one sweaty exerciser in helmet and riding kit. The crowded Eastside Trail this is not, of course.
Next is the first of more than 10 new access points that have been added, this one linking to Mercer Street.
Ahead (like behind) this point are stretches almost impassibly sandy, if you’re trying to ride without fatter tires. On a safer note, fencing has been put up as the trail crosses over Ormewood Avenue.
At left is the 24-unit Farmhouses at Ormewood Park, one of several residential communities betting on the Southside Trail’s future allure. A dusty landscape of rocks is ahead.
By this point, you realize the terrain, despite the calming presence of nature (and wildflowers), makes this sojourn the antithesis of a leisurely beachside cruise. It’s a jolting ride. There are no water fountains.
Little kids at Trestletree Village are engaged in a playful shouting match—a contest of who can be loudest between the buildings. Like bicyclists, they have access to the trail via a new wooden staircase.
At left, one of the railroad’s old signal boxes has been transformed into a free book exchange library box. Other artifacts from the corridor’s CSX days dot the landscape.
Bending around toward Boulevard, the terrain is still rocky and intense on a bike without suspension. The revised crossing at Boulevard has enhanced crosswalks and—like all places where the interim trail meets surface streets—florescent-green pedestrian and bicycle crossing signage and flashing lights, engaged with a push of a button.
Be advised that drivers, especially at rush hour, aren’t accustomed to stopping for trail patrons as with other Beltline sections.
Despite your edging the tire of the bike into the street, a dozen drivers blow through the crosswalk.
On the left, beside Boulevard Crossing Park, where a significant expansion is planned, about 320 Class A apartments are rising, some of them rare micro units of 500 square feet. The Pollack Shores development will also include 15,000 square feet of Beltline-adjacent retail.
Elsewhere, for sale signs on commercial properties abound.
Passing this substation, we see a new Beltline vista toward downtown—a view from the south that puts downtown’s tallest structures first.
It’s a fresh perspective for Atlantans who’ve grown bored with Eastside Trail scenery.
Almost immediately after that, on the right, is the mixed-use Beacon, a former warehouse district, and neighboring townhomes.
The Pratt Stacks community will eventually have 16 buildings. Finishing touches are being applied to several of them, with downtown and Midtown peeking over distant trees.
It’s an elevated position, a few stories above the street, not often found on existing Beltline segments.
Next are temporary safety measures and sidewalk access at Hill Street.
At right is the gorgeous green of DH Stanton Park—completed back in 2011 as one of the city’s first new Beltline-adjacent parks—with its “sprayground” in the distance.
At the Milton Avenue crossing just beyond Peoplestown, with Chosewood Park at left, it’s the same story with impatient drivers who ignore the presence of someone actually trying to cross the crosswalk. (Pushing that button at left is advisable).
It’s here that about half the air pressure is purged from your bike tires, on purpose, in fear the wrong jagged rock will make them explode. That’s the Fulton County General Services Department across the street, at right.
What’s destined to be a highlight of the entire Beltline network comes next—an arched tunnel built of stone and brick, with mercifully packed mud inside for easy riding.
Pictures don’t relay it, but it must be 10 degrees cooler in there on a scorching day. And a camera flash brings out the ancient brickwork.
Inside the tunnel, the path has been regraded and slightly elevated to thwart flooding. Overhead, it carries active railroad and Hank Aaron Drive’s junction with other streets.
Just beyond the tunnel, be warned that busted glass (likely spillover from trash strewn across the corridor’s banks here) is everywhere. It’s a multicolored galaxy of shards, reflecting upward as the sun dips.
Past Carver High School with both tires still thankfully inflated, this long, interim wooden bridge appears over Pryor Road.
Underneath intown Atlanta’s widest highway, the Connector, traffic whirls and thumps overhead as the temperature again drops.
Fresh graffiti dominates down low. The faded territorial markings of taggers long retired looms higher.
Up next: a makeshift launch ramp over a little ravine!
At right is construction progress at Pittsburgh Yards, a community-driven project adjacent to the Beltline that’s repurposing a former brownfield site as a mixed-use destination—but one that aims to boost surrounding neighborhoods with jobs more than attract tourists.
Rounding toward the interim trial’s end is another temporary bridge over Metropolitan Parkway.
At this point, it might seem counterintuitive, but to find the Beltline’s paved Westside Trail, heed the advice of that top arrow and venture into those woods.
You’ll find a snaking, slim trail that’s easily bikeable if a little overgrown—and voilà, you’re at the southern terminus of the Westside Trail.
Despite a leisurely place, many stops, and the jagged landscape, it was a surprisingly quick journey—about 40 minutes between Ormewood and Adair parks.
The relatively creamy smoothness of the Westside Trail is a welcome change, as you pedal back toward downtown on half-flat tires.