Friday, February 25, 2011

From Grandin to Keystone Heights on the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail

Florida's Office of Greenways and Trails lists the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail as "In Development." You won't find a trace of the trail in either Palatka or Lake Butler, but it's not just a project on paper. There is already about ten miles of rail trail in place, a twelve-foot wide paved multi-use trail stretching from Grandin to Keystone Heights. We checked out the existing trail on 13 February 2011, starting from trailhead at Twin Lakes Park, near the midpoint of the trail. Based on that trip, here's an east-to-west description of the trail.

The east end of the trail is in Grandin, just north of the intersection of State Road 100 and County Road 315. You won't find any signs or a formal trailhead here, but trail users park on the undeveloped rail bed on the east side of CR 315. The trail starts on the west side of CR 315, heading roughly west and north parallel to SR 100. This phase of the trail was completed in October 2010 according to the Office of Greenways and Trails. It's also a lonely stretch of trail, veering quickly away from SR 100 to traverse woods and prairies--or maybe the prairies are seasonal lakes. It certainly wasn't the season when we went by, but drainage culverts through the trail bed about ten feet above the prairie indicated that someone expected a lot of water in the area. Nearly 2-3/4 miles from Grandin the trail comes back into sight of SR 100 at Putnam Hall. There's a gas station and convenience store just south of the trail at Putnam Hall in case you need any essential supplies like chips or soda, or you just want to spend a few seconds in air conditioning.

After Putnam Hall the trail and SR 100 veer apart again as the trail crosses from Putnam County into Clay County. The Clay County stretch was the first phase of the trail, opened in 2008. Upland pine forest is punctuated by the occasional pond (none of which had much water in them when we explored the trail). Just past 5-1/2 miles the trail passes Twin Lakes Park, the only real trailhead along the trail. Located at 6065 Twin Lakes Road in Keystone Heights, the park has water, rest rooms, and parking.

West of the park the trail and SR 100 start angling back toward one another, and by the time the trail arrives in Keystone Heights proper the trail and the highway are alongside one another. For a short stretch through Keystone Heights the blacktop trail pavement is replaced with cement. There are also quite a few road crossings in Keystone Heights, but not more than 200. These could get annoying if you were doing some serious cycling or running, but not if you're walking or just pedaling around. The stores and restaurants on this stretch are also a bonus for the casually-paced trail users.

On the northwest side of Keystone Heights the trail continues to run alongside SR 100, but a stand of trees separates the trail from the highway, and you can at least pretend that you're going through open country again. Soon, though, a sign announces "END TRAIL," and the trail does end, at SE 57th Street. Across the street you can see the old rail grade continuing through the pines, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has signs up letting you know that even if there isn't a trail here, this is part of the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail, and alcohol and motorized vehicles are prohibited--so leave the beer and jeeps at home.

The entire trail corridor from Palatka to Lake Butler is similarly protected, all 47 miles of it, even though only just over ten miles of trail currently exists. I don't know when the whole 47 miles will be bicycle-ready, let alone the more grandiose plans for including the trail as part of a 100-mile path from St. Augustine to Lake City. But just outside Palatka, where the Florida Department of Transportation is rebuilding the SR 100 bridge across Little Rice Creek, they're simultaneously building a bridge across the creek for the trail. This doesn't mean the trail is coming any time soon; in Leon County the trail bridge across Fisher Creek was in place for years before any of the GF & A Rail Trail was built on either bank. But alt least we know that when it's time to extend the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail from Grandin to Paltaka, Little Rice Creek won't stand in the way.