Monday, January 13, 2014

General Coffee State Park: West River Swamp and Gopher Loop Trails (Blog Hike #456)

Trails: West River Swamp and Gopher Loop Trails
Hike Location: General Coffee State Park
Geographic Location: east of Douglas, GA
Length: 4.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2013
Overview: A lollipop loop featuring a river swamp and a sand hill.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Douglas, take SR 32 east 5.9 miles to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive 0.4 miles past the park entrance station and turn right on the access road for picnic shelters #1-4.  Park in the first parking area on the left.

The hike: Located in south-central Georgia four counties north of the Florida line, General Coffee State Park consists of 1511 acres of river swamp and sand hills.  The park and surrounding Coffee County are named for John E. Coffee, a general in the Georgia State Militia in the early 1800’s (not to be confused with his more famous cousin General John Coffee, a Tennessee state militia general during the War of 1812).  The Georgia general’s most famous accomplishment was the construction of Old Coffee Road, which ran from Jacksonville, GA to Tallahassee, FL.  Designed to carry munitions to Florida during the Creek War, General Coffee’s road no longer exists today, but you drove across its route if you drove to this park from I-75.
            General Coffee State Park was established in 1970 when Coffee County donated its county park to the state.  At that time, the park had only a small campground and day use area, but today the park has 50 campsites, 6 cottages, a lodge, and 7 picnic shelters.  The park also has 12 miles of horse trails and three hiker-only trails: the 1.4 mile one-way West River Swamp Trail, the 1.4 mile Gopher Loop, and the 0.75 mile one-way East River Swamp Trail.  This hike uses the first two of these hiker-only trails, the park’s two oldest trails, to form an interesting lollipop loop along a river swamp and over sand hills.
South trailhead: West River Swamp Trail
            Pick up the West River Swamp Trail as it leaves the north end of the picnic area at a large red trail sign and blue carsonite post.  The trail meanders north in a tight strip of land between the park road uphill to your left and Seventeen Mile River swamp downhill to your right.  Loblolly pines form the bulk of the forest near the river swamp, but some Spanish moss-draped live oaks also live here.  Clusters of palmettos live in the understory.
Palmetto cluster
            After crossing a wooden bridge over a wet area, you reach the edge of a parking area where the treadway becomes harder to discern.  Follow the blue paint blazes to stay on the trail.  At 0.4 miles, the East River Swamp Trail exits across a boardwalk to the right.  The boardwalk immediately crosses the river swamp, so a quick detour to the right will reward you with the park’s best swamp views before continuing on the West River Swamp Trail.
Boardwalk view of river swamp
            The West River Swamp Trail continues its northward course, sometimes right beside the river swamp and sometimes a few feet uphill.  The elevation difference between high and low points is only about 10 feet, so the going is quite easy except for a large number of exposed roots in the treadway.  At 1.2 miles, you pass a red carsonite post seemingly in the middle of nowhere as the park’s campground comes into view through the trees to the left.
Intersection with Gopher Loop
            1.4 miles into the hike, you reach the north end of the West River Swamp Trail at its intersection with the Gopher Loop, which goes straight and left.  This description will continue straight here and use the trail going left as the return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  Notice a brown metal sign that says “Nature Trail” with an arrow pointing straight and remember it for later reference.
            The trail heads northwest with the sand hill rising to your left and the river swamp out of sight to your right.  Green metal posts mark the Gopher Loop, but some green paint blazes appear as well.  At 1.6 miles, you cross a dirt park maintenance road just before the trail curves left to climb the sand hill.  This sand hill is no Brasstown Bald, but the trail gains 50 feet of elevation in the next 0.4 miles, a large elevation change for this part of the state.
            The Gopher Loop is named for the gopher tortoise, a common reptile that lives in sand hill burrows.  The top of the sand hill is much drier than the area beside the river swamp, and therefore the forest has shorter trees with less dense understory.  This area is also a longleaf pine restoration area.  Longleaf pines used to cover large areas of the southeast, but most of them were commercially harvested for their long, straight trunks.  This area is still in the early stages of restoration, as most of the longleaf pine trees here are only 10-15 feet tall.  Longleaf pines are highly resistant to fire, so controlled burns are conducted up here on a periodic basis to destroy the invasive species and allow the longleaf pines to thrive.  You may see black marks on the ground from a recent burn.
Hiking atop the sand hill
            At 2.1 miles, a spur trail to the primitive camping area exits to the right.  Another brown metal sign marks this junction.  The remainder of the Gopher Loop stays near the campground as it meanders its way over the sandy soil of the sand hill.  At 2.9 miles, you close the Gopher Loop.  Do not follow the arrow on the brown “Nature Trail” sign here, or else you will start a second trip around the Gopher Loop (as I almost did until I realized where I was).  Instead, turn right and retrace your steps 1.4 miles along the West River Swamp trail to complete the hike.
            Before leaving the park, there is one more place that is worth a visit.  Whereas this hike left the north side of the picnic area, directly south of the picnic area lies the park’s award-winning heritage farm.  The heritage farm exhibits agriculture history via cabins, a corn crib, a tobacco barn, and other structures.  The farm also has the requisite farm animals, and the farm’s ponds are known to attract wildlife.  The farm makes an interesting end to an excellent half-day of hiking.

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