Big River Trail Blazing Adds More Mileage To Tourism Byway

by George Waldon  on Monday, Mar. 12, 2018 12:00 am   4 min read

The cycling trails at Delta Heritage Trail State Park in Helena-West Helena will soon be a part of something bigger. (Source photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism)

The wheels are turning to build a 30-mile stretch of trail for cyclists and foot traffic in Lee and Phillips counties. The nearly $1.6 million project will extend the 73-mile Big River Trail in Arkansas and mark an important step toward creating a biking-hiking corridor along the full length of the state’s Mississippi River valley.

More than just a recreational amenity, the new section of trail represents a tourism byway that will connect downtown Memphis with downtown Helena-West Helena and its Cherry Street Historic District (see Historic Helena's Cherry Street Draws Investors).

It’s an important piece in an economic mosaic that area boosters are putting together to raise the profile of the Delta and enhance prospects for the future.

“Tourism has to play a big part of making east Arkansas grow,” said Phillips County Judge Clark Hall.

A grant of nearly $1.2 million from the Walton Family Foundation is providing the heavy lifting to pay for the trail. Rounding out the funding formula are contributions from Phillips County, $300,000, and Lee County, $100,000.

Construction of the biking-pedestrian project, administered through the Mighty River Rising nonprofit in Memphis, is expected to start this summer and be completed by year-end 2019.

“We’re in the engineering phase right now,” said Terry Eastin, executive director of Big River Strategic Initiative, which is helping facilitate trail development all along the Mississippi River. “They’re in the process of completing the survey and putting together the specifications.”

Most of the work will entail paving about 18 miles through the St. Francis National Forest to include a bike lane, signage and striping. The hilly, wooded setting promises to be an alluring path for visitors to traverse.

The meandering route, known locally as the High Road, follows a series of hardwood-canopied county roads on Crowley’s Ridge where it meets the Mississippi River levee in Helena.

“I make it over there once a week when the weather lets me,” Memphis cycling enthusiast Andrew Halliburton said of the Big River Trail. “It’s that much of an enjoyment. The wildlife we see over there so far is pretty awesome. I can only imagine how much more exciting it will be riding through the St. Francis National Forest.”

After a short run atop the levee, the new section of trail will travel west on Perry Street along Stringtown Road, Phillips County Road 242 and Phillips County Road 300 (the Old Little Rock Road) to connect with the Delta Heritage Trail.

The project will do more than connect Delta Heritage Trail State Park near Barton with Mississippi River State Park near Marianna. It will also link with 20.6 miles of shared-use trail the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism has completed from Delta Heritage south to Elaine.

All told, the new project will create an unbroken 123-mile trail from Elaine to the Big River Crossing on the Harahan Bridge in Memphis. The nearly 1-mile bridge across the Mississippi became the nation’s longest active rail-bicycle-pedestrian bridge when it opened to non-rail traffic on Oct. 22, 2016.

“Dad always hoped the bridge would spawn all of this additional development,” said Dow McVean, a principal of McVean Trading & Investments in Memphis. “Being able to connect everything together, which is what the new project will do, is building an even bigger network.”

The McVean family, including Dow’s father, Charles, championed the $17.5 million effort to add cycling-foot traffic to the nearly 102-year-old truss bridge. Dow McVean’s current challenge is making the Big River Regional Park in West Memphis happen. The project would add another 6.8 miles of biking-hiking loops featuring river vistas as well as the Memphis skyline.

“My main focus is trying to seek the funds to transform those 2,000 acres into a park,” McVean said. “I’m continuing to try and make that park a reality.”

Realizing the full 84.5-mile vision of the Delta Heritage Trail remains a high priority at the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. The rails-to-trails program, converting abandoned Union Pacific railways for recreational travel, is building in two directions.

Spring bids for construction of a 9.5-mile section north from Rohwer to Watson in Desha County are expected to launch work this year on the 12-month project. Two trailhead facilities and six trestle bridges are the big ticket construction items.

Design work should begin this year on a 9-mile section in Phillips County south from Elaine to Mellwood with a trailhead facility and a 4.4-mile section in Desha County from Yancopin to the Arkansas River with a trailhead facility and river overlook.

Construction of the $919,573 Arkansas City trailhead facility, the southern anchor of Delta Heritage State Park, should be completed this spring, followed by a formal dedication planned for October. From Arkansas City north, 14.4 miles of trail are completed along the Mississippi River levee to Rohwer.

Extending the rail-to-trail progress from Mellwood to Snow Lake is on the drawing board for completion by 2020. South of there lies the financial challenge of wetland crossings and renovating bridges spanning the White and Arkansas rivers.

Ballpark estimates to transform the rail bridges to bicycle and foot traffic: $20 million, each.

“Our goal is to do as much as we can up to the bridges,” said Kane Webb, executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “The views from those bridges are just amazing. I want to see the trail completed in my lifetime.”

South of Snow Lake, the railway path skirts through the southern edge of the White River National Wildlife Refuge and crosses the Trusten Holder State Wildlife Management Area between the rivers.

Trail boosters believe the river bridges most likely will require a public-private effort. Who will be the financial players to help fill in this gap on the biking map?

“We couldn’t say as of today, but there would be a lot of organizations in Arkansas and outside that would be interested in making that happen,” said Eastin, of the Big River Strategic Initiative. “We all know that federal money is drying up quicker than a wet cornflake in the sunshine.”



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