Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lake Overstreet Trail, Tallahassee, Florida

Like much of the land in north Leon County, the Lake Overstreet property was cultivated for cotton in the nineteenth century, and then became hunting land in the twentieth century. In 1994 it became part of Maclay Gardens State Park, and many of the old hunting roads became trails while others were allowed to return to the forest.

The Lake Overstreet Trail itself consists of two loops--the Lake Overstreet Loop and the Ravine Loop--connected by a short trail. There are at least five trailheads, but the most popular is located across Meridian Road from the Forestmeadows Athletic Center (4750 North Meridian Road), a facility of the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department. The following tour of the trail will be given starting from the Forestmeadows trailhead, then making a circuit of the trails by starting out counter-clockwise around the Ravine Loop, taking the connector to the Lake Overstreet Loop, going clockwise around the Lake Overstreet Loop, taking the connector back to the Ravine Loop, and then finishing the remaining portion of the Ravine Loop to return to the Forestmeadows trailhead for a total 4.91 miles. There are other ways of covering the same ground, of course, but this circuit is the one that Daniel Smith measured and marked with green-numbered mileposts as an Eagle Scout project. So by going this way around the trails, you can take advantage of his labor. Make sure to pay no attention to the brown-numbered mileposts, however--these were also placed by Smith, but measure distance starting from the Maclay Gardens trailhead.

Park at Forestmeadows Athletic Center and follow a paved, concrete path east to a crosswalk on Meridian Road. Once across Meridian Road you're at the trailhead. If you don't have a current Florida state parks pass, you'll need to drop a dollar in honor box at the trailhead. Straight ahead is an off-road bicycle trail, but we'll be going to the right and following the multi-use trail south as it parallels Meridian Road through the woods. The trees here are fairly young sprinkled with a few older live oaks, possibly the previous owners logged the property shortly before selling it to the state. The trail is used by horseback riders, cyclists, walkers, hikers, and runners, and if you arrive after work or on a weekend you're likely to see representatives of all these groups, some accompanied by their dogs. The surface includes sandy stretches that are loose when the weather has been dry, baked clay stretches that are slick when the weather has been wet, and more than a few stretches that are just right in almost any conditions.

Nearly 100 yards past a brown-numbered milepost ("2") that you should ignore, at 0.40 miles you'll need to make a left turn taking you east, away from Meridian Road. The park has placed a brown left-pointing arrow sign here to make sure you go the right way. (When in doubt at an intersection, follow the arrow signs.) Going straight would take you along an old hunting road through a gated fence an onto the property of Maclay School, but we want to continue around the Ravine Loop. This stretch is the only part of the circuit that is not old hunting road, but was constructed soon after the land became part of the state park. It thus winds a bit more than the rest of the Ravine Loop Trail. If you're already ready for a break, there's a bench on the left side of the trail at 0.54 miles. A bit beyond the bench, at 0.58 miles there is a small pond through the trees on the left side of the trail. Depending on the season, the undergrowth may be too thick to see the pond, or, if it has been wet, the pond may come up to (or over) the trail here. Ducks use the pond, and you may hear some taking flight, startled by your presence.

Moving away from the pond the trail rejoins an old (and very straight) hunting road at 0.70 miles. There is an intersection with the off-road bicycle trails on the left at 0.83 miles. At 0.91 miles you come to the connector road. The Ravine Loop continues on the left, but we'll keep to the right and take the connector road to the Lake Overstreet Loop. About halfway down the connector, the green-numbered mile mark will be on the right side of the road. At this point, the trail becomes noticeably downhill; you're starting the descent to Gum Pond. The Ravine Loop is almost flat, but the Lake Overstreet Loop definitely features some hills. Erosion has always been a problem on this downhill stretch of the connector trail, and at some distant point in the pre-park past someone dumped a load of brick fragments here to improve the road. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks this was a successful project.

At 1.07 miles you come to the end of the connector road and reach the Lake Overstreet Loop. Remember that we'll be going around this loop clockwise, so keep to the left (you'll be returning on the trail to the right). There is a bench at this intersection, as well as an information board, and a number of signs that probably only make sense to someone who already knows the trail so well that he doesn't need them. Beyond the intersection, the trail continues even more steeply downhill till it reaches bottom at the bridge over the Gum Pond drain at 1.21 miles. Gum Pond will be on your left. Inviting you to sit and view the pond is a small bench, the Eagle Scout project of Hardin Lovett. To the right of the trail is a small stream, the overflow from Gum Pond. During dry periods this stream may not be flowing at all, but when it does carry water it flows into Lake Overstreet.

Past the Gum Pond drain, the trail climbs steeply to pass under a set of transmission lines at 1.35 miles. To your right, the transmission line right-of-way drops away to give you a view of an arm of Lake Overstreet. Beyond the lake you might be able to make out a trail crossing under the lines--this is where you'll be in another two miles. You can see places where large birds have built nests on top of the transmission line supports, ignoring nearby nesting platforms. The grassy power line right-of-way is also a good place to spot wild turkeys and grazing deer.

Across the power line right-of-way the trail re-enters the woods and passes an old homesite on the left. The building had grown gradually more decrepit over time and has now been largely removed by the park. It's likely that soon only the concrete foundation pillars will be left. Nevertheless, a sign warns you of dire consequences if you remove anything from this "archaeological site." Beyond this, the trail starts to drop again, this time into the Lake Overstreet basin. Still going downhill, at 1.52 miles you arrive at another intersection with picnic tables and a restroom. The loop continues to the left. To the right is a short spur that takes you to an old landing on Lake Overstreet. There is a bench here overlooking the lake, and a bike rack and hitching posts for the convenience of cyclists and equestrians respecively. Bird watching on the lake is excellent, especially with good binoculars or a telescope. This would not be a bad destination, but for us it's a detour--we continue around the loop.

The trail drops almost to lake level, then starts to meander as it roughly follows the lake shore. The trees on the Lake Overstreet Loop tend to be larger and older than those on the Ravine Loop, with more than a few ancient live oaks. There is a lot of uphill and downhill on this stretch, sometimes steep but never long. For most of the next mile-and-a-half you'll be able to catch glimpses of Lake Overstreet on your right--less often in the summer when the undergrowth is thick. Just past the green-numbered two-mile post, a bench on the left side of the trail at 2.03 miles invites you to take a break and listen for owls and woodpeckers. At 2.16 miles and old hunting road, now used by trail bicycles, joins the trail from the left. The trail comes very close to the park boundary here, and you can see a house in the High Grove sub-division on your left. In fact, at 2.23 miles the trail runs next to a corner in the park's boundary fence.

Another trail goes off to the left at 2.65 miles, this one comes from a trailhead in High Grove. At 2.83 miles a bench awaits the weary at the top of a rise. Beyond and below this a short trail runs to the shore of the lake. There's a warning sign here about alligators, and another one about keeping your pets leashed. It was here that a pet owner didn't have their dog leashed, and it was eaten by an alligator. Beyond this, I won't vouch for the details; both the dog and the alligator have gotten larger over time. I expect to eventually hear that Betty White was daily leading full-grown saint bernards down to the lake to be devoured by a 'gator the size of a moving van.

Shortly past the green-numbered three-mile mark, the trail meets another old hunting road at 3.08 miles. Someone has done his best to block the old road to the left, which is good, because the trail goes to the right (follow the brown arrow). No up or down on this stretch, the trail is quite flat. On the left you should be able to make out a fence, this was the old boundary of Maclay Gardens State Park before the addition of the Lake Overstreet property. Somewhere on this stretch a stream (according to the Florida Geological Survey) or a canal (according to a newspaper article) connected Lake Hall and Lake Overstreet. This waterway has apparently vanished, and best of luck finding any sign of its location. I know I've looked.

At 3.35 miles the trail makes its closest approach to the old boundary fence, and you can see some of the park's administrative and residential buildings on the other side. This view gives you advance notice of the water fountain coming up at 3.39 miles. Tallahassee's Gulf Winds Track Club funded the drinking fountain, an appreciated addition to the trail. After the drinking fountain, the fence and the trail angle apart as the trail reaches the south end of Lake Overstreet.

At 3.51 miles you arrive at another intersection. The left fork would take you 0.25 miles to the parking lot of the Maclay Gardens trailhead, the one that goes with the brown-numbered mileposts that we've been ignoring. You'll take the right fork, which almost immediately crosses a bridge over the Lake Overstreet drain. During wet periods, water flows through here on its way to Lake Jackson. When Lake Overstreet is low, however, it's just a dry ditch. From the bridge you can see a clearing up ahead, this is the second crossing of the transmission line right-of-way. An alternate route to the Maclay Gardens trailhead is to the left, and Lake Overstreet is in a hidden low spot on the right. The right especially is a good direction to look for animals that appreciate the open, grassy land under the power lines. Beyond the power lines, the trail heads back under the trees and begins a long, steady ascent out of the Lake Overstreet basin and back to the Ravine Loop.

3.93 miles finds you back at the connector trail, having completed the Lake Overstreet Loop. Make sure that you go to the left, uphill onto the connector trail, and not downhill for a second time around the Overstreet Loop. Follow the signs leading you back to the Forestmeadows trailhead. You'll know you've gone the right way when you pass the green-numbered four-mile post. When you come to the Ravine Loop end of the connector trail, you'll have gone 4.11 miles and you'll need to take the right-hand fork.

Here is where you get to see how the Ravine Loop got its name. On your right is a deep ravine which drains into Gum Pond. At some places you'll be able to see all the way to the bottom, especially at times of year when the underbrush has died back. Signs warn, "SENSITIVE AREA STAY ON TRAIL." There's a bench on the right at 4.30 miles for anyone who wants to stop, rest, and enjoy a view of the ravine. The last glimpses of the ravine from the trail are around 4.51 miles. After that, the trail climbs a little and the tall hardwoods of the ravine area give way to the younger trees, signalling a return to the woods around the trailhead.

A bicycle trail crosses the trail at 4.62 miles, and another at 4.73 miles. The trail makes a bend to the left and brings you back to the Forestmeadows trailhead, 4.91 miles after you started.


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