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 strewn with old-fashioned looking sluices, gauges, and all the fixtures needed to maintain mastery over nature. For me, Fort Worth is inextricably linked with art, and so this methodical appropriation and reorganization of nature takes on the air of a unique installation. From my bicycle, the whole city, threaded lightly with bridges, buildings, billboards, parks, and pylons, each intersecting differently with the sky, becomes a huge sculpture in progress.

On my return I rest for a moment facing downtown, where the trail runs between the river and a deserted baseball stadium through a wide stretch of grassland turned brown by winter. I gaze up at the glinting glass skyscrapers and the glazed-candy courthouse on the top of the high, wooded bluff. From my vantage point across the river, the quiet afternoon affords each element of the city’s soundtrack—sirens, train whistles, and horns—a distant feel. This isn’t exactly the postcard-perfect great outdoors experience I typically long for, but considering that I’m in a giant urban area, it provides a nearly equal feeling of escape.

A dozen more trails fan out across Fort Worth, and I sampled nearly all of them in one weekend. Although it’s the only city in the Metroplex that has such a complete system of trails, Arlington and Irving both have shorter segments open. In Arlington you can hike or bike along the West Fork at the River Legacy Park, and Irving has completed more than 5 miles of trails along the Elm and West forks as part of its own Campión Trails development— which will include 22 miles of greenbelt along the Trinity—for cyclists, horseback riders, and hikers. Carrollton, Farmers Branch, and Grand Prairie all have similar plans in various stages of development.

Which leaves us with the big piece missing from this puzzle: Dallas. So far, that city has no trail system built along the Trinity, but an ambitious new master plan, the Trinity River Corridor Project, is in the works. Unlike Fort Worth’s slow but steady approach, the Dallas plan, five years in the making, attempts to deal at once with all the opportunities and challenges associated with improving the river corridor. The city will develop the area economically as well as recreationally, and the plan will include 170 acres of wetlands, a realignment of the river channel, up to five stunning new bridges, and two lakes close to downtown. Oh, and yes, 36 miles of bicycle trails to boot.

It’s a sweeping idea, fitting for a city nicknamed Big D, and there are positive signs that the city will be able to follow through with it. On January 10 the Texas Supreme Court turned down a second request for a hearing by opponents who were looking to block the project. Since then, planning has begun on Buckeye Trail in Rochester Park and a Moore Park gateway to the trail system, and according to project staff, recreational portions of the plan will be among the first to be tackled. If all goes well, maybe I’ll finally be able to make that ride from Fort Worth to Dallas.

Access and Resources: Maps of the Fort Worth bike trails are available at the visitors center downtown, at 415 Throckmorton. Several miles of trails are also open to horseback riders. For more information on the entire Trinity Trails System, including maps of existing and planned routes, visit trinityrivervision.org.