About this Itinerary
Beginning in Durham, North Carolina, the American Tobacco Trail extends more than 22 miles south through Chatham County to its southern terminus in Wake County. This popular, multi-use greenway provides easy access to urban and rural environs, from Durham’s Bulls Athletic Stadium and the American Tobacco Historic District to the scenic countryside of the rail-trail’s southern segment. The American Tobacco Trail (ATT) is part of the railroad corridor originally developed as the New Hope Valley Railroad, later to become the Durham and South Carolina Railroad and then the Norfolk Southern Railway system. The volunteer non-profit organization, Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (TRTC), works to preserve this corridor and is a good source for trail maps and current information on trail events and news.
The pathway is a combination of several surfaces with both paved and unpaved segments. A variety of trail users enjoy this route, including dog walkers and horseback riders, so it is particularly important to follow proper trail etiquette. Both pedestrians and bicyclists are expected to yield to horseback riders. Durham has several bike shops close to the trail: Durham Cycles is close to the Duke University campus and Seven Stars Cycles is less than a mile from the ATT trailhead and ballpark. The Raleigh-Durham International Airport is 14 miles southeast of downtown Durham.
Durham is a large city with an interesting and rich cultural heritage. There are historic places and landmarks throughout the city that speak to the area’s involvement in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the civil rights movement, and much more. Of particular note is the role that the tobacco industry played in Durham’s development (and for which the ATT is named); the American Tobacco Historic District, therefore, is the perfect place to spend time at the beginning or end of your ride. The district is full of old tobacco warehouses that have been converted into office spaces, restaurants, and entertainment venues, including a popular outdoor concert series called Back Porch Music on the Lawn.
Tobacco may have once been synonymous with Durham but now it would seem that food is taking a front-row seat in this city. Food-lovers will appreciate the diversity of cuisines that are available and be happy to hear that Southern Living magazine ranked Durham as the “foodiest small town in America” (one of many food-related accolades Durham’s chefs or restaurants have received). You could probably spend days upon months happily making your own assessment of this ranking. Visitors who don’t have that amount of time, however, can peruse the online guide, provided by the Durham Visitors Bureau, of restaurants listed under categories such as local favorites, celebrated cuisine and by neighborhoods and districts. Foodies will also want to support local food by visiting the Durham Farmers’ Market, which is open year-round at the Pavilion in Durham’s Central Park, though days and times change with the season.
What about lodging? As you might imagine, there are plenty of hotels, inns and B&Bs to choose from as well. If you prefer to stay close to the downtown and university area, here are several options that are under two miles from the trailhead: Hilton Garden Inn Durham/University Medical Center, The King’s Daughters Inn and Blooming Garden Inn. With any of these, you will be conveniently situated near city center and all its multitude of offerings, including the Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham’s Central Park, the ballpark and BrightLeaf Square, another set of renovated tobacco warehouses now a lovely courtyard mall with shops, restaurants and its own summer concert series.
Parking is available at the northern trailhead beneath the East-West Expressway on Morehead Avenue, across from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Heading south from Durham, this northern segment of the trail travels through neighborhoods and past shopping centers and businesses with multiple road crossings. For nearly eight miles, the 10-foot-wide pathway has a paved, handicapped-accessible surface with mile markers every quarter mile; be prepared to share this popular path other recreational users. There are several spur trails that connect to the ATT; the first is the Rocky Creek Trail (mile 2, after crossing Fayetteville Street), which takes you to Elmira Park where there are water fountains and restrooms. At mile 3, the trail crosses Riddle Road and divides; a branch of the ATT trail, once a route for Norfolk Southern’s passenger service, runs east for a 1.5 miles.
The original railroad opened in 1906 and functioned, in large part, to transport tobacco leaf from Wake, Chatham and Durham counties for processing at the lucrative American Tobacco Company in Durham. Established in 1890, the American Tobacco Company became so successful that it eventually acquired the Lucky Strike Company— the iconic Lucky Strike smokestack and water tower still stand today in the historic district. If you are interested in learning more about the beginnings of the modern day tobacco industry, consider visiting the Duke Homestead State Historic Site and Tobacco Museum after your bike ride; it’s about four miles north of the ATT trailhead in Durham.
From Riddle Road to Southpoint Crossing Drive, the trail parallels Fayetteville Road for most of the way. When the pathway crosses Fayetteville Road (mile 4) you will see Solite Park, another place to stop for restrooms and picnic shelters. Near mile 6, you cross Dunhill Road and soon after the trail turns west at the Southpoint Crossing Shopping Center. The trail continues to run behind the shopping center and crosses NC 54. Look for the 270-foot steel pedestrian bridge that takes you over I-40 and past the western section of the SouthPoint Mall. Once you cross Scott-King Road you are in Chatham County (miles 10.7-15.3); Herndon Park, on Scott-King Road, is the only place to stop for restrooms on this stretch (open seasonally from late March to early November).
The 14-mile southern section of the ATT courses through beautiful pine and hardwood forests and its rural sections boast plentiful wildlife, including beavers, herons, hawks, songbirds, vultures, squirrels, owls and deer. Hunters do use portions of the southern segment to access wildlife areas but are not allowed to carry loaded firearms on the trail. This segment is also open to equestrian riders; in Chatham County, the trail consists of a dual-surface to include hoof-friendly, crushed granite screenings and, in Wake County, the surface is entirely unpaved.
Much of the 4.7-mile Chatham section is surrounded by privately-owned land and you are frequently reminded not to leave the trail. During the hot summer months, the shaded, tree-lined trail is a welcome respite from the heat, but come prepared with plenty of sunscreen, water and snacks. Where Kitt Creek joins Northeast Creek at about mile 11, you cross the water way on the Northeast Creek trestle. After the intersection with O’Kelly Chapel Road, the Old Chatham Golf Club borders the west side of the trail and you soon come to the Pittard Sears Road Trailhead where drinking water is available. The highest rail trestle of the ATT is at mile 13.5 and takes you over Panther Creek. New Hope Church Road, the final trailhead in Chatham County, is less than a mile farther.
Forests, farmlands and marshes will surround you on much of the 6.5-mile Wake County segment of the trail, though you are never too far from people or the sound of cars passing by. There are no drinking water fountains on route but restroom facilities are located at White Oak Church Road and New Hill-Olive Chapel Road trailheads. The pathway is unpaved and historical markers dot the way; note that the mile markers are for this section only and begin from the trail’s southern terminus. Look for the sign that indicates the tobacco barn where workers used to dry, cure and bundle tobacco crops. When you come to the parking lot at Wimberly Road (mile 18 or Wake Mile 3.5), consider backtracking north briefly to enjoy a respite from the bike while sipping wines produced by a local winery. Cloer Family Vineyards is less than a mile off the trail (take Wimberly Road northwest to Castleberry Road) and hosts wine-tasting on Fridays and Saturdays.
From Wimberly Road, you have 3.5 miles remaining of the trail. Enjoy the meandering of White Oak Creek, look for beavers at Beaver Creek and simply take time to savor the beauty of the season, from the brilliant colors of springtime wildflowers to the deep, changing hues of the autumnal leaves. Note that signs along the trail inform you of poison ivy that may be in the area. You will cross three bridges, pass under Highway 64 through a short tunnel and have several road crossings in this stretch.
The southern trail terminus is at New Hill-Olive Chapel Road. Those who are hardy and gung-ho may wish to turn around and head back to Durham the same day, but others may wish to stay in nearby Apex, rest and do the return trip the next day. Apex, a suburb of Raleigh, is about five miles east of the trail along Olive Chapel Road, but note that the road has moderate traffic and so may not be well-suited for families with young children or those not comfortable riding next to traffic. About half the on-road route can be avoided by detouring onto Beaver Creek Greenway, which heads toward downtown Apex and parallels Olive Chapel Road for just over two miles.
Apex’s downtown is centered around Salem Street. If you arrive at dinner time and are hungry for brick-oven pizzas or specialty pastas, Anna's Pizzeria (100 N. Salem St.) is where you want to go. For American fare, Salem Street Pub (113 N. Salem St.) has a friendly neighborhood vibe. After dinner, unwind with a performance at the Halle Cultural Arts Center (237 N. Salem St.), which offers concerts, movie nights and other special events.
About a mile south of downtown, reasonable accommodations can be found at the Candlewood Suites (1005 Marco Dr.) or the Holiday Inn Express (1006 Marco Dr.).
The town of Apex was so named because it was the highest point on the Chatham Railroad. In the morning, shore up with coffee and pastries at Buttercream’s Bakeshop (101 North Salem St.), then take a leisurely stroll through the town’s Historic District along Salem Street for a sense of its railroad heritage, including the old Union Depot , dating back to 1914, and a cherry red caboose restored by the Apex Historical Society.
If you’re in town on a Saturday between mid-April and mid-October, stop at the Apex Farmers Market (220 N. Salem St.) to pack a picnic lunch for your trip back to Durham.
If you need a little encouragement during the home stretch, remember all the enticing eateries at the American Tobacco Campus or visualize a quick bee-line to Bull City Burger and Brewery (north on Blackwell St. and right on E. Parrish St) after your bike ride; it is one of four breweries in Durham and the others aren’t far away (should you want to head off on your own unofficial tour). After your great trail adventure, you’ll certainly have something worth celebrating!