Stroll or ride on Capital City to the Sea Trails
November 12th, 2015 by Red Hills
by Doug Alderson. Published in Tallahassee Democrat 11/5/15
The only problem with the GF & A Trail, often called the Gopher, Frog and Alligator Trail through the Apalachicola National Forest, is that it is too short. Largely following the abandoned bed of the Georgia, Florida and Alabama (GF&A) Railroad, the paved trail winds through scenic piney woods, over small hills, and just when you’re getting in the groove, it ends after only 2.4 miles. But until more trail is built as part of the Capital City to the Sea Trails system, you can extend your trip on paved back roads in the region or, if you have a hybrid or mountain bike, on unpaved Forest Service roads.
Beginning at Trout Pond off Springhill Road, this is probably the most remote of the paved multi-use trails in our region since it traverses the national forest, and it might be the only one where you can see bear scat in the trail, or possibly bears! The trail traverses the historic mill town of Helen, now only a memory. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp once existed on the edge of town. Men who participated in this Depression-era work program built roads and bridges and planted thousands of trees. A sign provides an historical overview.
The 12-mile Ochlocknee Bay Trail, which runs from Mashes Sands to Sopchoppy, is another existing paved trail in the system. About two miles of the trail just west of U.S. 98 is incomplete, but this scenic trail is worth a visit. Near the Mashes Sands Trailhead, there are expansive views of the coast and marshlands. Along Surf Road to Sopchoppy, the trail traverses part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge with its pine forests and ponds. If riding a hybrid or mountain bike, several unpaved roads through the refuge offer exciting side trips. Plus, one can take a break in Sopchoppy for pizza and beverages.
The Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, Florida’s first “Rails to Trails” project and an important spine for the Capital City to the Sea Trails system, has long been popular with riders and walkers, offering a largely canopied ride from Tallahassee to the coast. More than 140,000 people use the 12-foot wide paved path each year for health, relaxation and access to tasty food. “This town [St. Marks] is not along any major highway, so it is a destination. You have to want to come here,” said Stanley West, owner of the Riverside Café on the shores of the St. Marks River. “It used to be at the end of a railroad, and now we’re at the end of a bike trail. Trail users make up 15 to 20 percent of my business. The trail’s been good for the whole community.”
Currently, efforts are underway to create the Coastal Trail along U.S. 98 to bridge the distance from the Tallahassee-St. Marks Trail to the Ochlocknee Bay Trail. Construction may begin in late 2016 or early 2017. Once the Coastal Trail is complete, it would mean 57 miles of connected trail, the longest completed stretch thus far in the state. Plus, the now defunct Oaks Restaurant and Shopping Center site near the Ochlockonee Bay Bridge has been purchased by the Florida Department of Transportation and will be converted into a trailhead by Wakulla County.
“We plan to have 40 to 50 more miles of trail in the next five years,” says project manager Jon Sewell of Kimley-Horn and Associates. “A system like this will not only be a national draw, but an international draw.” The trail system is being spearheaded by the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency and much of the funding comes from federal and state transportation dollars.
The entire planned network of trails will take several years to finish, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the completed segments.
Doug Alderson, author of several award-winning outdoor books, is the assistant bureau chief of the Office of Greenways and Trails, part of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks. Exploring the Red Hills shares stories about the ecological, cultural and historical wonders of the Red Hills Region of southwest Georgia and north Florida. Learn more at redhillsregion.org.