Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Another Visit to the GF&A Trail, Tallahassee, Florida

Part of the Georgia, Florida, and Alabama Railway's holdings was fifty miles of track from Carrabelle on the Gulf of Mexico to Tallahassee, Florida. Now the United States Forestry Service has incorporated just over a mile of the old GF&A railbed in the GF&A Trail in the Apalachicola National Forest. I had visited the trail in July, 2008 when construction was going on; I returned on 23 January 2009 to see what the completed trail looked like. There was still some work in progress, but the trail was complete enough to be used.

The south end of the GF&A Trail is on Helen Guard Station Road, just west of the intersection with Springhill Road. There is no formal trail head here, but there is plenty of room to park along the road near the trail. South of Helen Guard Station Road you can see the old GF&A railbed through the trees, paralleling Springhill Road. The trail, though is to the north. It's a paved trail, surfaced with asphalt. Where the edge of the trail is perched above a steep ditch, metal rails have been added for safety. Stay alert, because it's not much fun to run into a railing, either.

A quarter mile north of Helen Guard Station Road, on the west side of the trail there is a trail head parking area where the trail crosses unpaved Forest Road 354. The parking lot was surfaced with crushed lime rock the day of my visit; it looks like it may be paved in the future. From the parking area you can see some concrete pilings that once supported a building. Strolling through the woods in this area, you can find quite a number of these pilings. An old Civilian Conservation Corps camp? A military base? The Great Pyramids of Wakulla?

North of FR 354 the trail continues in a straight line until you near Fisher Creek. The railroad bridge over Fisher Creek has been gone for decades, so the trail makes a jog to the east to share Springhill Road's bridge at .63 miles. A sturdy barrier separates trail users from automobile traffic. Once across the creek, the trail jogs back to the west to rejoin the old railbed. Because the railbed is higher than Springhill Road, there is a small downhill to the bridge followed by a small uphill.

Just past a mile, the trail leaves the railbed for good, swerving to the east to cross Springhill Road at 1.05 miles. For trail users, this is the only stop sign on the trail. There are all sorts of warning signs and caution lights on Springhill Road warning vehicles about the trail, but this is a new trail that drivers haven't had much time to get used to, so use extra caution crossing the road.

Across Springhill Road the trail turns again to the north. The trail here is not built atop the old railbed, so it's more rolling and winding. The shoulders are wide and level--not only are metal railings unnecessary on this stretch, but it's possible to run or walk off the pavement. The forest here is mostly young longleaf pines (some planted in rows), seasoned with a few oaks and sweet gums. Looking down, the trail is littered with pine needles, pine cones, acorns from at least two species of oak, sweet gum seed balls, and the sandy hoofprints of deer.

Three dirt roads cross the trail on this stretch, all marked with signs warning "NO MOTOR VEHICLES." The first, at 1.57 miles, is a double-track road that looks more inviting for a run or a walk than the trail itself. The second, at 1.84 miles, is barely there at all, perhaps an unused ATV trail. The third, at 2.11 miles, is another double track. After you cross it, look through the trees to the right where you should be able to see Trout Pond.

The Trout Pond Recreation Area, at 2.40 miles, is the north end of the trail. The Recreation Area has been closed for several years, but it has been getting a facelift preparatory to re-opening as a trail head for the GF&A Trail. There is a new building with restrooms and water fountains next to the end of the trail, and the parking lot has a new layer of pavement and new paint. Nothing was open yet when I visited; there was nothing to do but take a lap around the parking lot and then turn around.

To visit the GF&A Trail, drive south from Tallahassee, Florida on Springhill Road (SR 373). Go 7.8 miles south of Capital Circle SW and look for FR 354 on the right. Trail head parking is off of FR 354. You'll see the warning signs for the trail crossing about 0.8 miles before you get to FR 354, and the Fisher Creek bridge will be about 0.3 miles before FR 354. If you want to go to the south end of the trail, drive another quarter mile past FR 354 and look for Helen Guard Station Road on the right. The Trout Pond trail head was not open yet, but it will be 6.0 miles south of Capital Circle SW on the left side of Springhill Road.

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