About this Itinerary
Hidden in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama, the Richard Martin Trail is a remarkable rail-trail, packing-in both natural beauty and historic interest in its short 10 miles. Past the site of the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle, through downtown Elkmont and surrounded by wetlands, this path offers visitors a chance to be immersed in the unique flora, fauna, and cultural legacy of this southern state.
The Richard Martin Trail (a.k.a. Limestone Rail-Trail) is named after a community citizen who, along with other volunteers, worked for 25 years to establish the trail in Limestone County. Appreciated by bird watchers, naturalists, historians and recreationalists, the trail is enjoyed by many throughout the year but is particularly popular with equestrian riders, so be prepared to encounter plenty of horses along the way. If you intend to bike the route, take a mountain bike or hybrid to best manage the packed gravel surface. Also be sure to bring food and drink as Elkmont is the only place to purchase refreshments along the trail. The path is predominately enclosed by tree canopy providing shade and cooler temps during the summer months. Details of annual trail events and activities, such as Sassafras Tea Day and Horse Buggy Day, can be found at the Limestone County Parks website.
Huntsville International Airport, the closest domestic airport, is 28 miles east of Athens. You can rent a bike in Huntsville at Trailhead, Inc. The trailheads are located just north of Athens and at the Alabama and Tennessee state line. The southern terminus has a pavilion, parking for vehicles and horse trailers as well as restroom facilities. It is possible to access the trail mid-route in the town of Elkmont as well, where you'll find parking, good signage, a historic depot and a refurbished railcar. At the northern terminus, there is a restored 1800s church with restroom facilities as well as a parking area.
As the southern trailhead is only 3.5 miles from downtown Athens, you may want to include time in your trip for exploring this small university town. For overnight lodging, there are several hotels in the area including Hampton Inn & Suites and the Holiday Inn Express. Camping is available at the Round Island Recreational area, located on the Tennessee River 11 miles southwest of downtown.
To get to the trailhead, take Jefferson Street north to Piney Chapel Road. Once on the trail, you pass through pristine wetlands and cross a few rural roads in the first 5.5 miles to Elkmont. This section of the trail is nearly as straight as an arrow aiming north and tends to be more widely used than the segment beyond Elkmont. It is mostly level with a slight decline about four miles in. Along the entire Richard Martin Trail, keep an eye out for eastern bluebirds and great blue heron. Sassafras, dogwood and redbud trees grace the path and their blossoms dazzle in spring. At every time of the year, however, wildlife and beauty abounds: jewel weed calls to hummingbirds and butterflies with their summer-time bloom and fall commands respectful attention with its autumnal display of color.
After four miles, you come to the site of Alabama's bloodiest Civil War conflict, the 1864 Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle. A historical marker commemorates this event in which more than 200 Union soldiers were killed. The Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad had reached Elkmont by 1859 and was controlled by the Union army for just a few years. In 1864, after defeating Union forces in Athens, Confederate troops moved north toward the strategic rail trestle at Sulphur Creek. The Sulphur Creek Trestle battle ensued, resulting in no Confederate losses and 800 surrendered Union soldiers transferred to Confederate prisons.
The Tennessee and Alabama Central rail line became the Nashville & Decatur Railroad in 1866 and the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N) by 1871. The L&N built the existing depot in Elkmont and served the area for many years transporting mail, perishable goods and cotton. Once in Elkmont, take a moment to sit by the red caboose at the depot and relax awhile. There are a handful of eateries as well as a convenient store. Goat cheese aficionados won’t want to miss a visit to Belle Chevre’s cheese shop and tasting room. They have been handcrafting French style goat’s milk cheese for two decades and you can find their product across the nation. Limestone County is fortunate to be home to many small farms and local producers; local crafts and products are sold at Limestone County’s Farmers Market and some farms offer guided tours.
Leaving Elkmont, you’ll head north for 5.2 miles, cycling past cotton fields and woodlands. It was the search for land to grow cotton that drew early settlers to the fertile river valleys of Alabama, and cotton, as a labor-intensive crop, that eventually fueled the labor systems of slavery and sharecropping. Cotton remains today an important part of Alabama’s agricultural economy. A highlight of this section of the rail-trail is the covered bridge at Sulfur Creek (mile 8). When you get there take a minute to pause, step back in time and imagine life here during earlier eras. The trail ends a couple miles further at the Tennessee and Alabama state line.
Upon returning to Athens, consider heading to 306 Barbecue for a southern-style, hickory-smoked meal. It is several miles from the town center but worth the drive if you are in the mood for pulled pork, ribs or smoked chicken. There are plenty of other opportunities for good southern food if you want to stick close to downtown, however, such as LuVici’s on the square.
Today, you’ll have time to explore Athens, which originally was a cotton and railroad town; settlers came here in the 1800s because of the fertile soil, and the railroad would become a major supply route during the Civil War. It has four historic districts full of antebellum period homes and buildings. You can find information about these homes and historic district walking tours at the visitor’s center. Stroll through Courthouse Square and visit the Houston Memorial Library and Museum.
You also may be interested in the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives, located in the old L&N freight depot. The museum houses collections of artifacts honoring war veterans and their families, from the Civil War to the present. For those fortunate enough to be in town for Singing on the Square, a night of free music held the third Friday of each month (April – September), set up your lawn chair and kick-back to enjoy the sounds.