ON A MILD SATURDAY AFTERNOON in January, I'm riding my bicycle along the Clear Fork of the Trinity River just southwest of downtown Fort Worth. It's an easy ride through a primarily urban landscape, and the river itself is mostly tame—it gambols sedately over man-made stone dams and between broad sloping levee walls. Still, there are a number of hints pointing to the natural setting that once existed here. The water is clear, revealing a limestone riverbed that is the signature of so many great Texas rivers, and cormorants, ducks, and egrets congregate along the banks. Once I pass Forest Park, woods and open spaces on both sides of the river make it easy to forget that I am in the middle of Texas' sixth-largest city. I surrender to the thrum of the spokes through the air and the rhythm of the tires on the concrete.
Believe it or not, I came to Fort Worth to ride my bike. While most tourists come to visit the now world-renowned Modern Art Museum or see the Stockyards, a rumor that you could cycle from Fort Worth to Dallas along trails following the Trinity River is what inspired me to make the 200-mile drive up Interstate 35 from Austin. I soon discovered that the rumor was too good to be true—for the moment, at least. As I write this, all the major municipalities between Dallas and Fort Worth—including Arlington, Grand Prairie, and Irving—have begun work on their portions of the Trinity Trails System, a grand plan for a 250-mile network of trails that will eventually tie together the main tributaries that make up the Trinity River watershed. When the project is finished, you'll be able to ride from the southeast corner of Dallas County all the way north to the Oklahoma border and west across the Mid-Cities to Fort Worth. Right now, however, Fort Worth is the only city to have substantially completed its part of the deal and the best place to get a taste of what's yet to come.
The Trails project is a massive undertaking but nonetheless long overdue. After all, the Trinity River, which is the longest waterway in Texas to begin and end in the state, is the original heart of the Metroplex. In 1839 John Neely Bryan came across the confluence of two of the river's main forks. Believing the site had the potential to host a bustling commerce center, he returned to the spot two years later and founded Dallas. For the next few decades, settlements advanced rapidly toward the town up the Trinity River from the coast, and packet steamboats began to follow them farther and farther upriver. But the waterway was still wild and only intermittently navigable. Boats did eventually reach Dallas, but the city's ambitious dream of becoming a major port was never realized.
Over time, the Trinity, which had once represented great hope for the city, came to be viewed as a disaster-prone waterway standing in the way of progress. Storms frequently caused severe flooding. During the Great Flood of 1908, the Trinity rose more than fifty feet and spread more than a mile wide, destroying bridges and ferries in Dallas, leaving four thousand people homeless and killing at least eleven. Forty-one years later, in May 1949, eleven people died in Fort Worth when waters lapped at the second story of the Montgomery Ward warehouse on West Seventh. There were other floods in between, which made constructing levees a priority. By the sixties, a decades-long project undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had subdued the river with dams and reservoirs, and channelized it through Fort Worth and Dallas.
The river no longer posed a threat to the Metroplex, but for many inhabitants, this was a Pyrrhic victory. When all was said and done, what the engineers had left behind was little more than a trapezoidal ditch where water flowed only after a storm. The river was tame but dead and so too was one of the ecological jewels of the region.
Fort Worth was the first city to recognize what had been lost and decide to do something about it. In the same spirit of enlightened noblesse oblige that built the Amon Carter Museum and the Bass Concert Hall, prominent citizens like Phyllis Tilley (an energetic civic leader), Preston M. Geren, Jr. (the father of state legislator Charlie Geren), and Ruth Carter Stevenson (Amon Carter's daughter) went to the city in 1968 and proposed drastic improvements to the fifty miles of river system within Fort Worth's city limits. This initiative resulted in the formation of Streams and Valleys, an independent nonprofit organization that worked closely with the Tarrant Regional Water District, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and city and county departments to restore the river. Two years later, with the construction of low-level dams, water began to flow year-round once again. Since then, Streams and Valleys has raised money to establish several parks, plant about five hundred trees, and most recently, build more than thirty miles of trails along the Clear and West forks of the river, which converge in the heart of downtown. The organization shows no signs of slowing down, either; there are plans for more recreational improvements along the river, including easier canoe portages and a white-water rodeo for kayakers.
But for now, the bike trails, which penetrate the city's diverse neighborhoods, are the group's greatest achievement. They reunite the city with the original watershed and provide a rare opportunity for residents to get outside and see the community from a completely new perspective. Nearly all the trails are paved, and none require a mountain bike—any old two-wheeler will do. What's more, detailed maps of the system are posted at each of the sixteen trailheads, making it easy for out-of-towners like myself to take advantage of them.
On my second day in the city, I head toward Lake Worth along the West Fork. The paved path follows the top of the broad earth levees, whose banks are