Friday, March 13, 2009

Fort Braden Trails (West Loop) Tallahassee, Florida

photo of signAnother good trail experience in the Tallahassee area is the Fort Braden Trails, 8.7 miles west of Capital Circle (SR 263) on the Blountstown Highway (SR 20).

The trails are located on the Fort Braden Tract of the Lake Talquin State Forest. The forest was established in 1977, mostly on land the State of Florida acquired from the Florida Power Corporation. Florida Power had held land in the area since 1929, when (as the West Florida Power Company) they constructed the Lake Talquin Dam on the Ochlockonee River to generate hydroelectric power.

The Fort Braden Tract itself is one of the few areas in the Lake Talquin State Forest that is closed to hunting, having been set aside for hiking and horseback riding. There are over nine miles of orange-blazed hiking trails, and over eleven miles of pink-blazed horse-riding trails. The hiking trails are closed to all but foot traffic. Foot traffic is allowed on the horse trails, but let's be fair and leave them to the riders. Anyway, large portions of the riding trails go through deep sand, and all of the water crossings are fords rather than bridges. Apparently, horses have not found an effective way to complain about poor footing or wet hooves. Both trail systems are closed to bicycles, although bikes are allowed on the tracts small network of forest roads. However, a better option for cyclists would be to head farther west to the Lines Tract of the Lake Talquin State Forest, which has a dedicated bicycle trail. The entire tract is closed to motor vehicles outside of the parking area.

Toilet photoThe parking area is quite spacious, or spacious enough to accomodate trucks pulling horse trailers. There's a picnic pavilion with a charcoal grill next to the parking area. A toilet is nearby but no water; make sure you bring everything you need to drink. Just north of the parking area are the trail heads.

There are three hiking loops; these are rather uninspiredly named the west loop, the central loop, and the east loop. These can be combined to form a single nine-mile loop; the mile markers on the trails are for this nine-mile loop. The individual loops range in distance from three miles up to about five miles. The trails are part of the Florida Division of Forestry's Trailwalker program; hiking any one of the three loops will satisfy the programs's requirements. The horse trails, by the way, are part of the Division of Forestry's Trailtrotter program. There is no Trailbiker program; bicyclists get the dirty end of the stick again.

The trail surface is good for walking and somewhat acceptable for running. Runners used to the roads will be put off by the roots, dips, and turns, while hardened trail runners will find the area a bit tame. I'd rather hike at Fort Braden and do my running somewhere else, but it's a matter of taste.

We've got to start somewhere, so let's start with the West Loop. The trail head for the West Loop is north and a tiny bit west of the parking area, through a wooden gate. The gate is supposed to keep all but foot traffic off the trail, but it's more of a reminder than a barrier. This is also the trail head for the Central Loop, which you'll notice almost immediately when you pass a sign directing you to go left for the West Loop and right for the Central Loop. The sign also lists the length of the West Loop as 2.9 miles--don't believe it. You actually pass a three-mile marker while you're still on the loop, and I've measure the entire loop at 3.37 miles.

From the sign you walk down to cross a small stream on a foot bridge at 0.11 miles, the first of many such crossings. The next is at 0.33 miles, after which the trail makes a hard left. Leaving the stream, the trail emerges from the trees and turns left to follow the edge of a field, crossing a forest road at 0.45 miles. A short distance later the trail returns to the trees, a wood of young oaks.

At 0.65 miles the trail crosses another forest road, this one the pink-blazed horseback-riding trail. This is not the last you'll see of the horse trail; the two networks intersect frequently. The trail crosses a third forest road at 0.86 miles; to the left you can see the north end of the road at the Blountstown Highway. Moving ahead, the trail passes a sign reading "MILE 1." This is for the nine-mile loop, but because the nine-mile loop starts with the West Loop, it's also the mileage for the West Loop. From the mile marker, the trail starts a descent to a small stream. Crossing the stream on a foot bridge at 1.03 miles, the trail then turns right to follow the stream as it flows down to Lake Talquin.

At 1.09 miles, the trail intersects with a blue-blazed trail on the left, the Eagle Scout Spur Trail. this is a short trail that connects the loop to a trail head at the back of Fort Braden Park, a Leon County recreation facility. There are rest rooms and water at the front of the park. The West Loop, however, continues on to recross the stream at 1.15 miles, and then turn left to follow the east bank of the stream. As the trail gets closer to Lake Talquin, it angles away from the stream. By one-and-a-half miles, you'll have caught your first glimpses of the lake through the trees. The trail makes gentle turns to the right to follow the shoreline.

By 1.56 miles, though, the trail is turning right again to leave the lake shore. Don't worry; there are more and better views of Lake Talquin up ahead. At 1.59 miles the trail crosses a pink-blazed horse trail and starts to follow a stream on the left. Eventually, the trail turns to the left to cross the stream on a foot bridge at 1.67 miles. Beyond the stream, the trail climbs to an intersection with a forest road at 1.80 miles, pink blazed to indicate that it's part of the horse-trail system. The trail drops to a foot bridge at 1.93 miles, followed by over half a mile of hill-free walking. The "MILE 2" sign is on this flat stretch, as is another stream crossing at 2.09 miles. At 2.23 miles the trail is back at the shores of Lake Talquin, and turns right to follow the water. Just past that, at 2.31 miles, is another intersection with the pink-blazed riding trail. At this point the two trails have a shared treadway, so it's possible that you might run into a horse. With so many miles of trails it's not particularly likely, but on a run one afternoon where I was the only person on the hiking trails, I met the only rider on the horse trails here. I stepped off the trail; there is no point in doing anything that might make a 1,500-pound animal nervous.

At 2.39 miles a sign on the left side of the road indicates a primitive campsite. "Primitive" means no plumbing and no electricity; nothing, in fact, other than a fire ring and a great view. Camping here requires a forest use permit, available at the Division of Forestry's office at 865 Geddie Road, Tallahassee, FL 32304. Whether you're camping or not, it's worth detouring a few feet to the campsite for an unobstructed view of the lake. Unless the weather is foul, you're likely to see boaters on the lake. Small islands peek out of the water, the tops of ridges and bluffs that were submerged when the Ochlockonee River was dammed 80 years ago. Turtles, ducks, and leaping fish may be visible on the surface. Overhead you may see hawks, cormorants, herons, egrets, or even bald eagles.

After leaving the campground, the hiking trail and the horse trail separate at 2.46 miles, the hiking trail going to the right and starting to climb up away from Lake Talquin. It's not a steep climb, nor an uninterrupted one, but you still have to pay back the elevation that you dropped while descending from the trail head to the lake shore. Near the "MILE 3" sign, a shallow trench runs on the left side of the trail. It runs straight enough to be some kind of earthwork, but it's too short to be a firebreak. Beyond the "MILE 3" sign, the trail makes a short drop to a bridge. After crossing a bridge, you come to a fork. Left will take you on the Central Loop and the rest of the nine-mile hike. To finish the West Loop, though, turn right and follow the shared treadway of the two loops up toward the parking area. A sign informs you that this is 0.3 miles away.

At 3.21 miles the trail dips to cross a stream on a small foot bridge, the last such crossing on the West Loop. From here it's an uninterrupted climb back up to the trail head. The trail passes the first fork and at 3.37 miles arrives back where it started.

The Fort Braden Tract is a fee area, by the way. As of 2 March 2009, there is a $2.00 per person charge for visiting the Fort Braden Trails. An annual pass good for all state forest lands is available through the Division of Forestry; this costs $30.00 and covers the driver of a vehicle and up to seven passengers. This could be your best deal if you're going to make several visits to the Fort Braden Trails. After you're first visit I'm willing to bet you'll want to make many more.


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