The end of the newly opened segment of the Tumbling Creek connector.

The newest section of the Highlands to Islands Trail to open brings visitors out of the tunnel, closer to the reality of a path that will eventually link Gainesville with the south end of Lake Lanier.

The most recent expansion of the planned 30-mile pedestrian and bike-friendly paved trail extends beyond the tunnel near the Department of Labor on Atlanta Highway/Ga. 13 into the woods abutting the University of North Georgia (UNG) Gainesville campus. There, the new .6-mile segment ends with a bridge over Balus Creek, at the edge of another important link expected to open later this spring.

From its inception more than 25 years ago, the Highlands to Islands Trail has inched forward as a partnership of trailblazers has pieced together designs and construction teams. The collaboration between Hall County, Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and the cities of Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Oakwood and Braselton is paving the way. The trail will ultimately run between Gainesville’s historic Longwood Park on a Lake Lanier cove and the entrance to Margaritaville at Lanier Islands on the southern end.

Improvements and additions

In the year since Lakeside’s 2022 report, additions and improvements to the greenway have escorted in more visitors, events and businesses. Even during the rainy winter, walkers, runners, skaters and folks seeking a respite from routine set out on the Midland Greenway where a skate park, inclusive playground, dog park, and fitness court await just steps away from Downtown Gainesville.

Runner on sidewalk in front of the Midland letters sign.

A runner whizzes by the Midland sign.

“Visitors to the park have increased dramatically and any given weekday evening or weekend you’ll see all matter of families, couples, and individuals exercising or walking their dogs, or playing a pickup game of soccer or playing on the playground. Our community is really just enjoying the park, “ said Kate Mattison, Gainesville Parks and Recreation Director.

She added that lighting installations in Midland cast a welcome glow, especially at the Engine 209 Park, where a historic train engine formerly stationed downtown now reigns over a different track. “Engine 209 Park is spectacular at night with the train itself lit, as well as the playground, bridge and mural. It’s a beautiful space,” Mattison said.

New restrooms have opened near the park’s upper end and at the skate park.

Construction continues

The city’s old industrial warehousing hub and once blighted area now attracts thousands to public events such as this month’s Skate the City, Waterfest, and Art Walk. All around, red earth foots construction of new residential quarters and workers refashion old digs into new ventures, such as Nofo Brewing Company’s multi-faceted facility at a former warehouse on the greenway. The brewery, distillery, restaurant and event space are slated to open in July.

A 2.5-mile gap still exists between the Midland Greenway and another popular Highlands to Islands segment, the Chicopee Trail, which hits the woods near Palmour Road and emerges beside bustling Atlanta Highway near the entrance to Elachee Nature Science Center and Chicopee Woods. Currently the north end adjacent to Midland abruptly ends at the intersection of Pine Street and Industrial Boulevard.

“Work continues by the City of Gainesville on the design for the Airport Connector Trail, which will close the gap between the Midland Greenway and the Chicopee Trail,” said Joseph Boyd, Transportation Planning Director for the Gainesville Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization. “Design work is expected to wrap this summer with the city shifting toward construction later in the fall and winter of 2023/2024,” he said. The construction is funded through a $785,000 contribution from Pilgrim’s Pride plus SPLOST VIII trail and greenspace funds.

Small links are big

The Airport Connector is seen as the biggest piece connecting Gainesville and Oakwood. But even the minor links, such as the segment currently ending at Balus Creek have an impact. “Those small connectors are the catalyst “that can put more people on the trails,” Dan Schultz, Oakwood Planning and Development Director previously told Lakeside. “People don’t realize what a large effect those connectors can have.”

Boyd said the current goal for the Airport Connector Trail is phased openings beginning in Spring 2024. In the meantime another important link, the entire Tumbling Creek connector, is expected to open in May or June. The rainy winter delayed its planned opening this month. It will extend from the new bridge at Balus Creek to the intersection of Landrum and Mathis Education Drive on the campus.

“We anticipate a ribbon cutting for the Tumbling Creek section of the Highlands to Islands Trail in May; however, as always, that date is dependent on the weather and could change,” said Sarah Crowe, Hall County public information officer. The program will include remarks from county officials and stakeholders and light refreshments.

“The Tumbling Creek section is an important section of the (trail) as it connects the University of North Georgia to the trail and promotes additional interconnectivity to the existing trail along Atlanta Highway. The interconnectedness of the Highlands to Islands Trail makes it ideal for both recreational and commuter use,” Crowe said.

Within days of the planks being laid on the new bridge, runners and walkers were already heading through the former terminus at the tunnel onto the new span over the babbling creek. Some peered longingly at the cut through the forest where the route will eventually put them closer to nature and connectivity with entities in the broader trail community.

Main Photo: by Jane Harrison; Midland sign photo: by Alan Hope