Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Fort Clinch State Park: Fort, Shared Use, and Willow Pond Trails (Blog Hike #728)

Trails: Fort, Shared Use, and Willow Pond Trails
Hike Location: Fort Clinch State Park
Geographic Location: Amelia Island, FL (30.70349, -81.45316)
Length: 6.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A long rolling loop featuring Civil War-era Fort Clinch.

Directions to the trailhead: In northeast Florida, take I-95 to SR 200 (exit 373).  Exit and go east on SR 200.  Drive SR 200 east 16 miles to the town of Fernandina Beach and turn right on Atlantic Avenue; there is a traffic light and a sign for the state park here.  Drive Atlantic Ave. east 2 miles to the signed state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the entrance fee at the gatehouse, and drive to the large paved parking lot for the fort at the main park road’s end.

The hike: Occupying a strategic location that guards the entrance to the Cumberland Sound and the St. Mary’s River, the north end of Amelia Island has been the site of military fortifications for centuries.  Spain erected the first fort here in 1736, and various powers built various fortifications here over the next 100 years.  Construction of the present-day brick masonry structure began in 1847 as part of the United States’ Third System of coastal defenses.  The fort is named for General Duncan Lamont Clinch, an American military leader during the First and Second Seminole Wars.
The only live action Fort Clinch saw came in 1861, when Confederate troops captured the fort only to abandon it a year later.  The fort then became the center of Union operations in the area for the remainder of the war, including a command center for the Union maneuver that ended at Olustee some 50 miles to the southwest.  After the Civil War, the fort was placed in caretaker status in 1869, and during the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to restore the fort.  In 1935, the State of Florida purchased 256 acres that included the restored fort, and Fort Clinch State Park opened to the public in 1938 as one of Florida’s first state parks.
Today 1427-acre Fort Clinch State Park not only preserves the restored fort but also offers beach access on the Atlantic Ocean, 2 developed campgrounds with a total of 63 campsites, and more than 6 miles of hiking trails.  I came here with the intention of doing a short hike near the fort in the morning before heading to another hiking destination for the afternoon, but the hiking here was so good I chose to spend the entire day here.  Thus, this hike makes use of the park’s entire trail system, and it features some short but steep ups and down over sand dunes.
Fort entrance
Start your hike with a self-guided walking tour of the fort, which requires a separate small entrance fee payable at the Visitor Center.  You have to walk through the museum to get to the fort.  The museum contains some interesting artifacts from soldiers that served here and information about the fort’s construction.
On the other side of the museum, walk up the sandy dirt path, over the wooden bridge, and through the brick tunnel to reach the fort’s parade ground.  I chose to tour the fort clockwise, so I turned left and walked past the prison and around the barracks.  The prison has all the charm you would expect from a prison, and it contains some interesting shackles, balls, and chains.
Enlisted men's barracks
Pentagon-shaped Fort Clinch has 5 bastions, and you should explore at least one of them.  The bastions house some interesting cannons, and intricate winding stairways take you to the top of the bastions for nice views of the fort’s walls.  The fort walls are not accessible from the bastions, but some other steps and ramps lead to the top of the walls.  You can circumnavigate the fort atop the walls, and more cannons and nice ocean views can be found on the walls.
Stairway in a bastion

Hiking along the fort wall
After completing your tour of the fort, exit through the Visitor Center and walk across the parking lot to find the signed start of the Shared Use Trail.  The Shared Use Trail is a single-track 5.4 mile loop that parallels either side of the main park road almost all of the way out to the gatehouse.  True to its name, the Shared Use Trail is open to both hikers and mountain bikers.  Although hikers can travel the loop either direction, park regulations require mountain bikers to ride the loop clockwise.  Thus, starting on the loop’s west arm to the right of the park road allows you to hike facing mountain bikers, thus reducing the chance of collisions.  If mountain bikers approach, just step to the side and let them pass.
Start of Shared Use Trail
The west arm of the Shared Use Trail heads south through dense forest that features American and yaupon holly, saw palmettos, and several large gnarled live oaks.  For the most part the trail surface is sandy dirt, but on some steeper areas some concrete pavers have been laid down to improve traction.  The Shared Use Trail never strays more than 50 yards from the park road, so occasional road noise will be present throughout.
0.7 miles into the hike (or 0.2 miles from the start of the Shared Use Trail), you cross the paved Amelia River Campground access road and reenter the forest on the other side.  At 1.2 miles, you reach a small parking area and signed trailhead for the Willow Pond Nature Trail, which exits right.  The Willow Pond Nature Trail consists of two loops, the short Willow Loop and the slightly longer Magnolia Loop.  The Magnolia Loop is only 0.5 miles long, so you may as well turn right and add on the nature trail.
Start of Willow Pond Nature Trail
Where the nature trail splits, turn right to follow the Magnolia Loop, as directed by a sign.  The northern arm of the Magnolia Loop runs atop a line of ancient sand dunes that marked the Atlantic Ocean’s west boundary many years ago.  Where the Willow Loop, signed as the high water route, exits left, continue straight to stay on the Magnolia Loop provided water levels in Willow Pond make it passable.
Soon the trail curves left and descends slightly to reach Willow Pond.  Although Willow Pond is man-made, the freshwater pond has a very natural appearance.  Signs warn of alligators, but the only interesting wildlife I saw was an egret.  Lots of saw palmetto live along the pond.
Willow Pond
After a brief walk right beside the pond, the trail climbs slightly to return you to the nature trail parking area and trailhead.  Turn right to continue your journey around the Shared Use Trail.  Note that if you are getting tired or running out of daylight, the east arm of the Shared Use Trail can be accessed across the park road from the nature trail parking area.  This option would reduce the hike to only 2.4 miles.
Continuing the full loop, the trail meanders south and crosses the sandy group campground access road at 2.2 miles.  Distance markers appear at one mile increments on the Shared Use Trail, but the existence of 6 mile markers on a 5.4 mile loop indicates that the placement of the markers is not particularly precise.  I saw many deer in the southern part of the park.  Some views across grassy Egans Creek Marsh also start to open up to the right as you continue further south.  Unlike freshwater Willow Pond you passed earlier, Egans Creek contains brackish water.
Egans Creek
At 3.6 miles, you reach the southern end of the loop.  Cross the park road and pick up the eastern arm of the Shared Use Trail on the other side.  The trail zig-zags while climbing another old sand dune, and some of the steepest grades of the hike are found in this area.
Bare sand dune
Just past 4 miles, you need to walk two short segments on the park road where some bare sand dunes come right up to the road on the right.  Signs warn hikers not to climb the fragile dunes.  Back on single-track trail in the woods, the trail climbs high above a flowing stream that appears downhill to the right.  More gnarled live oak trees live on this low ridge.
Gnarled live oaks
South Beacon lighthouse ruins
            At 5.2 miles, you cross the paved beach access road at a marked crosswalk.  0.4 miles later, you reach what remains of the Amelia Island Lighthouse’s South Beacon.  The lighthouse dates to the 1800’s, but today only a foundation and part of a brick structure remain.  An interpretive sign describes Amelia Island’s lighthouse history.  Another 0.9 miles of fairly level hiking on single-track trail returns you to the fort parking lot to complete the hike.

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