At 2.98 miles, the Central Loop is the shortest of the three hiking loops at the Fort Braden Trails. The trail head is the same as that for the West Loop, a wooden gate north and a little west of the Fort Braden Trails parking area. However, a few feet past the trail head, at the first fork in the path, you need to take the right fork to follow the Central Loop. You're still sharing treadway with the West Loop, but you're on the Central Loop. Don't worry if I haven't made this clear--just make sure to take the right fork. Starting off, the trail heads downhill in a wood of mostly young oaks seasoned with a few southern magnolias. As the trail gets lower, the trees increase in size and a stream appears on the right, which the trail crosses at 0.16 miles. 200 yards farther on, the trail passes a small steephead on the left.
At 0.34 miles the trail arrives at another intersection. The left fork takes you across a bridge and counter-clockwise around the West Loop, so you'll want to avoid the bridge and take the right fork to continue clockwise around the Central Loop. Some signs on the bridge explain this, but confuse matters by mentioning the East Loop.
At 0.51 miles a small footbridge takes the trail over a stream, after which the terrain becomes mostly flat. There is still some elevation to lose before the trail arrives at the banks of Lake Talquin, but the downhill isn't noticeable. The trail crosses another footbridge at 0.66 miles. At 0.74 miles a larger, meandering stream appears on the left. As the trail runs along this stream, you cross the pink-blazed horseback-riding trail, which crosses the stream at a ford here. After that, the hiking trail moves away from the stream and crosses a footbridge over a smaller stream at 0.79 miles.
The going is still mostly flat when the trail intersects the pink-blazed horse trail again at 0.90 miles. A little bit farther on, just past the end of the first mile, you can start to make out Lake Talquin through the trees. The trail turns to the right to follow the lake shore, which will be on your left. At 1.1 miles the hiking trail's orange blazes are joined by the riding trail's pink blazes, and the trails share a treadway along the lake front for a while. Traffic isn't so heavy on the trails that you're likely to run into any horses, but it's possible.
Still sharing a treadway with the horse trail, the trail crosses a forest road at 1.16 miles, then emerges into an open, grassy area, a kind of park on the shore of Lake Talquin. There is a shelter here with picnic tables, a charcoal grill, a couple of benches with a view of the lake, and hitching rails for horses. This is not a bad place to stop and have a drink, a snack, lunch, or a look at Lake Talquin.
The trail exits on the other side of the picnic area, still sharing a treadway with the horse trail. About a hundred yards farther on, you pass a "MILE 4" sign. You haven't gone four miles; this is a mile marker for hikers doing the nine-mile loop that combines parts of all three loops. Your actual progress up to this point is about 1.24 miles. A little farther on, at 1.29 miles, the shared treadway ends, and the horse trail continues along the lake while the hiking trail heads to the right and inland. A little later, the trail heads back to the left and the lakeshore, crossing the horse trail at 1.39 miles. From here, the hiking trail has the view of the lake while the horse trail goes farther inland. To the best of my knowledge, no horse has ever said anything positive about the view of the lake, anyway.
Around a mile and a half, the trail heads away from the lake briefly and uphill to skirt the mouth of a creek flowing into the lake. Looking to your left, you can see where the creek meets Lake Talquin, and below the trail you can see a steephead spring that feeds into the creek. At 1.57 mile you make a bridgeless crossing of the creek, then turn left back toward the lake. As the trail regain the lake shore, at 1.60 miles you come upon a sign and blue blazes leading to a primitive campsite. Amenities are limited to a fire ring and a great view of Lake Talquin. Campers are required to have a Forest Use Permit, available at the Florida Division of Forestry offices at 865 Geddie Road. Shortly after the primitive campsite, the trail turns to the right and heads away from Lake Talquin for good. At 1.70 miles the trail crosses a north-south forest road, giving you one of your last views of Lake Talquin to the left.
At 2.02 miles a foot bridge takes the trail over a small stream. There's another sign for a primitive camping area on the right side of the trail at 2.12 miles, but this one is not as easy to find. A small arrow on the signpost points west; follow it if you want to visit the campsite. This will take you uphill and onto an east-west running forest road. The road is easy enough to follow, but there are no blazes to assure you that you're going the right way. After over 100 yards of trudging uphill, you arrive at the campsite. This is the one referred to on the maps of the Fort Braden Trails as the group campsite; it includes a picnic table, charcoal grill, fire ring, and a lot of hitching rails for horses.
Back on the Central Loop, the trail drops after the primitive camping area sign to cross a small stream on a foot bridge. Climbing away from the stream, the trail arrives at an intersection with the East Loop at 2.17 miles. Go right here, following the signs directing you back to the trail head. The trail crosses the pink-blazed horse trail, after which there will be a ravine on your right and a ridgetop to your left. That would be a small ravine and a small ridge; this is not the Appalachian Trail. Shortly the trail arrives at another intersection with the East Loop. Once again follow the sign directing you to the trail head and turn right, down into the ravine. At the bottom of the ravine the trail crosses a small stream on a foot bridge at 2.39 miles, then turns left to climb out of the ravine.
Once out of the ravine, the trail once again crosses the pink-blazed riding trail. After passing a stand of recently-planted longleaf pines, you descend into another small ravine. At the bottom of the ravine, at 2.60 miles you once again cross a small stream on a foot bridge. Shortly after that you cross the last foot bridge of the Central Loop and climb out of the ravine. At 2.75 miles you reach the top of the climb and an intersection, follow the orange blazes and turn left here. At 2.79 miles the trail makes another left to follow a torturously sandy road for about 60 yards. After the loose sand, though, the trail returns to a firm-surfaced path in the woods. A sign along the path proclaims "MILE 9," but that's for the combined loop, not the Central Loop. Just around the corner from the sign is a wooden gate marking the end of the loop (but not the same gate you started at). Go through the gate and turn left to return to the parking area. You might also want to check yourself for ticks; at times the Fort Braden Trails have been plagued with them.
- Fort Braden Trails (West Loop)
- Fort Braden Trails (East Loop)
- More photos of the Central Loop
- Florida Trailwalker Program
- Lake Talquin State Forest