Thursday, February 23, 2017

Biking Florida's Munson Hills Mountain Bike Loops

The Munson Hills Off-Road Bicycle Trail offers a scenic and challenging ride through some of the most varied terrain in the Apalachicola National Forest of Florida's panhandle, the largest of Florida's three national forests at 571,088 acres. This rare environment represents sand dunes from a shoreline formed here a million years ago. The sandhills form a foundation for a towering longleaf pine forest sporadically intermixed with sinkhole ponds and wetlands. The bike trail often dips down into the sandhills through hammock ecosystems of oak, cherry, sassafras and other hardwoods, but the climbs are gentle. The local white "Sugar Sand" is encountered frequently, but the few deeper sand areas are short in length, so if you keep your eyes open and your pedals turning, you'll be fine.

Updated in 2017: The Twilight Trail still has numerous sections with loose "sugar" sand, but the Munson Hills loop has had extensive work done on it, namely the addition of red clay to harden the areas with loose sand. This loop has also had dozens of moguls added, probably to bury roots that had broken through the surface, but also to add more excitement to the ride and allow the speedy riders to "catch some air" as they fly off the peaks of the moguls. (It was fun, even for this 71 year old.)

You can park in the Tallahassee - St. Marks State Trail parking area located just south of Tallahassee, Florida. Take Monroe Street/Woodville Highway/State Route 363 south of the town, and then just south of Capital Circle (US Highway 319) is the large parking lot. Several years ago, a new trail was built from this lot through the woods to the Munson Hill Loop. The new trail is marked as "Paper Cup" Trail and is depicted in the map below as the uppermost trail near the top right. The Munson Hills Loop is the upper loop, and the Twilight Loop is the lower loop. The West and East Connector Loops allow a huge loop of about 15 miles.

In several places you'll find a kiosk with a map showing the 2 loops and their short-cut and connector trails seen below.  The Twilight Loop is a bottom trail here. I suggest you use your phone camera to get this photo and then you can refer to the photo as you bike.





The Munson Hills Loop and is advertised as a challenging 9.0 miles in length. If you take the cutoff, the ride is 4.5 miles long. The lower loop is called the Twilight Loop and is 9.5 miles long and my report is found here.

The lovely longleaf pine forest stretches before you and offers long, beautiful views as seen here...



... and the denser hardwood sections offer occasional variety of scenery...



There are numerous places where the trail provides minimal clearance between trees, so good balance and steering skill are prerequisites. If you are squeamish, slow down or walk the bike through tight spots. It might be a long walk back to your vehicle.





The loops and cutoff trails are well marked with signs...



... and all connector trails have white blazes on the trees, while the loop trails sport blue blazes. A double blaze warns of a turn.




The trail is scenic and is labeled as "challenging," probably due to the sand areas and the multiple ascents to high areas (though this is Florida, so we're not talking huge elevation gains!)

My final day in Florida in 2017, I was once again in the Tallahassee area so I again biked the loops. The scenery had changed, though, due to a huge prescribed burn the previous day, some of which was still smoldering as seen below...


Fire is an important component of these slash pine forests, so I wasn't annoyed by the "new" look, realizing the health of the ecosystem was the goal. Unfortunately, some of the sign posts on the loops were also charred and in some cases unreadable.


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