After pedaling our rented bicycles for only about three miles along the Tammany Trace, we’d already crossed high over the tea-colored waters of a slow-moving river, spotted a rabbit dashing across our path and laughed at a chorus of birds answering the squeaking gears of our wobbly wheels.
Tranquil interludes like this are commonplace along the Trace, a former railway converted into a recreational trail that cuts through wooded stretches of the north shore as it links a string of communities. But, as this visit was in late May, that tranquility was also pretty hot. So my wife, Antonia, and I were relieved when the next bend in the trail brought us to Abita Springs, where cold beer, lunch and indoor distractions offered a welcome change of pace.
It’s this close mix of outdoor activity and smalltown charm that recommends the Tammany Trace as more than just a destination for serious cyclists and makes it such a unique daytrip. Start with the premise of a healthy pedal (ranging from easy to more-challenging distances) and on this outing you can sample a resurgent local brewing scene, leap-frog around splash park play stops for the kids and visit one endearingly oddball art attraction.
The Tammany Trace extends for 31 miles from Covington to Slidell, but its shortest leg, from Covington to Abita Springs, also offers the highest concentration of off-trail attractions. That starts at the Covington Trailhead, one of a series of official rest stops along the Trace with shade, benches and bathrooms. Brooks’ Bike Shop (416 E. Gibson St., Covington, 985-237-3658) is located a block away and offers half- and full-day rentals of sturdy, if sometimes battered, cruiser bikes.
Directly across from the trailhead sits the first of three breweries directly on the route, Covington Brewhouse (226 E. Lockwood St., Covington, (985) 893-2884; covingtonbrewhouse.com). Housed in an old railroad warehouse, it’s a small craft brewing operation where tours can resemble one-on-one audiences with the beermakers themselves. Those tours are available only on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, but if you miss that narrow window for a visit other opportunities await just down the road in Abita Springs.
City dwellers once flocked to this small town for the purported health benefits of artesian water from its namesake springs. The old bathing pavilions are long gone, but the laidback town still feels like a retreat, radiating out from a central rotary into streets of Victorian homes and bungalows set against trim green yards. The Abita Springs Trailhead sits in the town center along with a splash park, a playground and a cottage-sized museum on local history.
This is where Abita Brewing Co. (21084 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs, (985) 893-3143; abita.com) first got its start in 1986, though today its modern (and rapidly growing) brewery is just outside the village center. Guides lead large group tours through the facility before beginning generous tasting sessions in a welcome center appointed like an Abita-sponsored man cave.
Back in town, the brewery’s original headquarters has operated for 20 years now as the Abita Brew Pub (72011 Holly St., Abita Springs, (985) 892-5837; abitabrewpub.com), which is independent from the Abita beer brand but carries all of its products, offers Abita sampler tastings and serves a full menu of burgers, bar snacks and Southern-style entrees, like boudin-stuffed quail. Though it’s beer themed, the restaurant is family friendly.
Sit at the brew pub’s bar as Trace trekkers pour in for refreshments, or get a patio table under the umbrellas and oak limbs and watch others zoom past, and Abita Springs can feel like a cycling hub. This Saturday in particular, June 14, the town will resemble something closer to a bicycle convention as the Louisiana Bicycle Festival rolls around again.
Art in motion
The local artist John Preble started the event in 2000, though today he looks at it more as a happening for bicycle enthusiasts than a proper festival.
“There’s no money involved, no tickets, no registration, and I never really know who’s going to show up,” Preble said. “People just come and it goes the way they take it.”
They do tend to come early, and by 8 a.m. on the day of the event people have usually set up small displays of vintage bikes, parts and other goods to sell and swap around tents and tailgates. Around noon, they start gathering on bicycles for a procession around town.
Preble explained that this is a “spontaneous ride,” and definitely not a parade, which might trigger permits and other demands of officialdom. Nevertheless off around town the riders go, on high-dollar road bikes and high-wheel penny-farthing throwback cycles, on ordinary mountain bikes and exceptionally tall unicycles, on all manner of pedal-power contraptions built to look like trucks or easy chairs, and even, on occasion, a “rocket bike” that emits a mighty jet-pitched roar when revved up. Some neighbors host porch parties, hoping the procession will pass by their address.
The center of activities is always a small field a block from one of Preble’s better-known projects, the art installation formerly called the UCM Museum and now known as the Abita Mystery House (22275 Highway 36, Abita Springs, (985) 892-2624; abitamysteryhouse.com).
Across an off-kilter campus of outbuildings, Preble maintains a progression of campy vignettes, curious collections and cheeky renditions of old-fashioned roadside attractions all set to a scratchy soundtrack of New Orleans R&B playing from unseen speakers. There’s a coin-operated palm reader, a UFO crash site, taxidermy punch lines and push-button dioramas that bring jazz funerals, Carnival parades and a social history of Louisiana’s River Road to life with an apparatus of springs, pulleys, hinges, buzzers and bulbs. The retail shop up front, built in a vintage service station, has everything from gag gifts to fine, Art Nouveau-style jewelry designed by Preble’s late wife Ann O’Brien. The $3 admission is one of the best bargains for dollars-to-smiles you’ll find.
From Abita Springs, Mandeville is about nine miles down the Trace.
For those who pedal on — or, like us, who get in their cars back in Covington and drive the rest of the way — the trailhead here is another oasis with shady rest stops, a tower to climb and a splash park for the kids. And right there beside it, there’s the third brewery on this circuit.
Old Rail Brewing Co., which opened last summer, is a true brew pub, with a full-service restaurant up front and beers produced in a gleaming, glass-enclosed brewing facility just beyond the dining room.
At the bar, you can rest your heels on a bar rail fashioned from railway tracks as the bartender draws a pint from a row of beer taps fitted with rail spikes for draft handles. By this point on the trip, that rails-to-trails-to-ales progression should strike a familiar chord.
On Tap on the Trace
These three breweries are each located on or close to the Tammany Trace. For maps and other Trace details, see tammanytrace.org.
Abita Brewing Co.
21084 Hwy. 36, Abita Springs, (985) 893-3143; abita.com
Tours and tastings available Wed.-Fri. at 2 pm, Sat. at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.
To visit from the Trace, turn at Josephine Street and follow the two-lane Hwy. 36 to Barbee Road.
226 E. Lockwood St., Covington, (985) 893-2884; covingtonbrewhouse.com
Tours with tastings offered on Saturdays, 10 a.m.-noon.
Old Trail Brewing Co.
639 Girod St., Mandeville, (985) 612-1828
A brew pub, serving lunch and dinner Tue.-Sun. with beers made on premises.
Chafunkta Brewing Co.
21449 Marion Lane, Mandeville, (985) 869-0716; chafunktabrew.com
Just off the Trace (turn at Marion Lane), a very small brewery with tours on Fridays from 6-7 p.m. (though no tours June 13)
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.