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.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park (Blog Hike #455)

Trails: Lake Shore, Walk-in-the-Pines, and Yucca Trace Trails
Hike Location: Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park
Geographic Location: west of Cordele, GA
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2013
Overview: A quick jaunt along Lake Blackshear followed by a longer journey through pine forest.

Directions to the trailhead: In south-central Georgia, take I-75 to US 280 (exit 101).  Exit and go west on US 280.  Drive US 280 west 10 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Cross a railroad track and an inlet of Lake Blackshear on the park entrance road, then turn left immediately after crossing Lake Blackshear to begin a rough dirt road.  The trailhead for the Lake Shore Trail, where this hike begins, is at a cul de sac at the end of this short dirt road.

The hike: Located just 10 miles west of busy I-75, Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park was established in 1931 as a memorial to all veterans of the United States Armed Forces.  Consequently, an outdoor ordinance exhibit featuring military machinery from the Revolutionary War through the Gulf War stands at the center of the park beside the Visitor Center and Museum.  If you are at all interested in military history, it is well worth a few minutes to walk the blacktop path through the collection of aircraft, tanks, armored personnel vehicles, cannons, and other items on display there.
In addition to the outdoor museum, the park boasts a fine complement of recreation options.  The park’s centerpiece is the Lake Blackshear Resort and Golf Club, which features several boat ramps and a fine 18 hole golf course that you drove by on your way in.  Lodging facilities include 77 tent and trailer campsites and 10 cottages.  Other facilities include two pioneer campgrounds, 4 picnic shelters, and a disc golf course.  The facilities and location combine to make this park one of the most popular state parks in Georgia.
For hikers, the park offers three trails totaling 3.5 miles.  The 0.5 mile one-way Lake Shore Trail explores the bald cypress forest along Lake Blackshear.  The 1 mile Yucca Trace Trail takes visitors through the sandy pine forest away from the lake, as does the 1.5 mile Walk in the Pines Trail, which connects the other two trails and forms its own loop in the process.  This hike uses parts of all three trails to form a longer loop that explores all major points of interest in the park.
Trailhead: Lake Shore Trail
The Lake Shore Trail begins at the rear of the cul de sac at a sign that says “nature trail” and a red carsonite post.  Walk through a gap in the wooden fence and head east on the wide dirt trail.  Lake Blackshear lies just through the trees to the left, and a drier wetland area lies to the right.  Interpretive signs tell about the trees and animals that live in this lakeside forest.
At only 0.1 miles, you arrive at a short side trail exiting right that leads to a wooden overlook of the wetland area.  A sign tells of alligators that live in the wetland, but I did not see any such creatures on my visit.  I did however see a snowy egret perched on a cypress knee beside Lake Blackshear a little further down the trail.  Back on the main trail, the trail continues east as the bald cypress forest beside the lake appears on the left.  Some interpretive signs tell about the cypress forest, which is covered by thick layers of Spanish moss.
Bald cypress forest along Lake Blackshear
At 0.2 miles, the trail curves sharply right to parallel some railroad tracks.  This set of railroad tracks is used by the S.A.M. Shortline Excursion Train, a scenic railroad that takes passengers from Cordele to Plains, crossing Lake Blackshear in the process.  After paralleling the railroad for a short distance, the trail continues to curve right as it passes through some older pine forest.
0.3 miles into the hike, the trail curves sharply left where an unmarked two-track path exits right to a maintenance area.  The wide sandy trail now heads south into younger pine forest with a dense, grassy understory.  At 0.4 miles, the Lake Shore Trail ends at an intersection with the Walk in the Pines Trail, which goes softly left and right to form its loop.  Angle left here to begin hiking the Walk in the Pines Trail clockwise.
Beginning the Walk in the Pines Trail
The Spanish moss-draped bald cypress and live oak trees are left behind in favor of tall, sparse loblolly pines with a dense understory of wiregrass.  The wide sandy two-track trail heads southeast with the S.A.M. railroad track merely feet through the trees to your left.  Near 0.5 miles, you cross the dirt access road for the pioneer camping area, which is located across the railroad tracks to your left.
At 0.7 miles, the trail curves right where an old road continues straight.  Some yucca plants join the understory in the dry, sandy soil.  0.9 miles into the hike, you cross a dirt park maintenance road.  Look for the yellow carsonite posts that mark the trail so that you do not confuse the trail and the road.
Crossing the dirt park maintenance road
At 1.2 miles, you arrive at a bench and a T-intersection.  The trail going right continues the Walk in the Pines Trail, and you could take it to form a short loop through the eastern half of the park.  To see the entire park, turn left at this intersection.  Quickly you cross the main park road.  This road is another opportunity to short-cut the hike: the trailhead is down the road to the right.
On the west side of the main park road, pick up the Yucca Trace Trail where it enters the forest at a pair of blue carsonite posts.  The forest in this part of the park is different from what you have seen so far.  Persimmon and other deciduous trees now crowd the trail, and some interpretive signs help you identify the various trees.
Hiking the Yucca Trace Trail
Nearly 2 miles into the hike, a spur trail to the campground exits left.  Continue forward on the nearly arrow-straight Yucca Trace Trail.  At 2.4 miles, the Yucca Trace Trail ends at a small parking area by the campground road.  The trailhead for a fitness trail and the first tee of the disc golf course are also served by this parking area. 
Outdoor ordinance exhibit
To get back to your car, a 0.6 mile road walk will be required.  Turn right here and at the next intersection, then turn left at the arch-like Georgia Veterans Memorial.  Pass the ordinance exhibit (this would be a great opportunity to tour it) and the Visitor Center on the left to arrive back at the lakeside parking area, thus completing the hike.