First in a series of stories and photo essays about parks and trails in Florida's major cities.
Tallahassee – We say this about Florida (actually, we Floridians have a lot of things to say about our state, but for our current purposes, let's begin here): The more north you go in Florida, the more South you are.
So, if you find yourself in Tallahassee, our fine state capital, a place so designated because it sits almost squarely in the center of Florida's northern flank, we have a suggestion.
Perhaps you're here on business or to engage in legislative matters or to visit Florida State University, Florida A&M University or Tallahassee Community College. Perhaps you're just passing through.
Regardless, we humbly offer that you owe it to yourself to take a break, to clear your head with a walk or a bike ride, to explore one or more of our many wooded sanctuaries, our green, lush, multi-birded oases.
Tallahassee loves its woods and wetlands and wildlife, treasures its pastures and flood plains, will throw itself in front of anyone or anything that threatens its canopy roads. We safeguard these resources, preserve the remnants of the area's once-thriving plantation acreage, for ourselves and for you and because it is the right thing to do.
Shade. Serenity. Solitude. And an introduction to our Southern heritage.
These are not bad things and – best of all – each of the six suggestions that follow requires no more than an eight-mile drive from downtown and the state Capitol, a passage that often will carry you under the braided limbs of our canopied roads.
So, grab a bottle of water (if summer has arrived, grab two bottles) and come along with us. You won't be sorry.
Miccosukee Canopy Road Greenway
Nowhere is our devotion to our history, our determination to preserve our natural resources better demonstrated than along the Miccosukee Canopy Road Greenway, a six-mile, 500-acre corridor that offers a pleasant sampling of the Red Hills region of northern Florida. Lushly shaded red-clay and gravel trails that largely follow an ancient Native American trade route. Magnolia, dogwood and moss-bedecked live oak, many of these trees 100 or more years old, survivors of serial timber harvests. The chorale orchestrations of mockingbirds, woodpeckers, cardinals.
This retreat was preserved largely from what was known as the Welaunee Plantation, itself assembled in the early 1900s from smaller cotton plantations and family farms. Employed for quail hunting and cattle grazing, the slice-of-pie shaped Welaunee Plantation was and remains bordered by Centerville and Miccosukee roads. Both are canopied and worth traversing on their own merits.
If you're in the market for a near-urban, utterly natural sanctuary, this is a lovely place to start.
Details: Only five miles from the Capitol. Unrestricted 24/7 access. Find your way to the intersection of Capital Circle NE and Miccosukee Road, then head east along Miccosukee. Parking can be found at trail heads along Miccosukee, 1.4 miles east of Fleischmann Road, and on Fleischmann Road, just north of Miccosukee. Portable toilets at some entry points.
Goodwood Museum and Gardens
A thorough glimpse of North Florida plantation life awaits you at a close-to-downtown Tallahassee landmark blessed with a wonderfully enticing name: Goodwood.
Care to see a plantation mansion first assembled in the 1830s? A pre-Civil War kitchen, thoughtfully – lest fire erupt – established in a building apart from the mansion and guesthouse? A water tower added in 1912 to replenish the newly built swimming pool? The Rough House, a place so named because rowdy guests often were... invited... to spend the night there rather than in the main house? An aviary that once sheltered macaws, monkeys and peacocks (no, not at the same time)?
It's all at the Goodwood Museum and Gardens, plus more. Built on one of the highest points within Tallahassee, Goodwood is surrounded by towering oaks and other native flora. Several signs directly address an issue that occurs to some visitors: “Do the grounds look unkempt?” The answer: “Sure ‘nuff, and we like it that way.” The lush and overgrown appearance of the gardens accurately reflects the gardening practices used at Goodwood by earlier owners.
Now run by a foundation for the benefit of the people of Tallahassee and their visitors, Goodwood offers tours on an as-needed basis, at a cost of $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for children between three and 12 years old. But visitors may conduct their own cost-free tours, and a plentiful array of informative signage is present.
For a special treat, arrive between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday and join the locals for lunch at Fanny's Garden Café, a charming spot that has taken over the plantation's Rough House.
Details: Only 2.5 miles from the Capitol at 1600 Miccosukee Road, about one-half mile east of North Magnolia Drive (and adjacent to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital). Open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (It's closed on Sunday.) Parking is free.
Pssst. Let's keep this one to ourselves.
Truly a hidden treasure, Governor's Park is a 200-acre tract bordered by a major shopping center and a strip shopping center, intersected by several major roads and a busy rail line – and it is a complete delight.
A passive and unmarked park that remains largely unknown even to most Tallahassee residents, this is a fine place to fly a kite in a wide, hilly meadow. Or to begin a gentle hike or mountain bike cruise along narrow Fern Trail, which can take you through the woods about three miles east to Tom Brown Park (and past an abandoned mansion said by local kids to be haunted). Or to stand – carefully, and we mean carefully – just this side of the CSX railroad tracks, as freight trains rumble around tight curves on their meandering, horn-blaring east-west path through town.
The few in the know consider this one of Tallahassee's best kept secrets. It's just a terrific place to unwind.
Details: Less than three miles from the Capitol. Unrestricted 24/7 access. Take Blair Stone Road south from Mahan Drive and look for an unmarked right turn just before the bridge. Follow that turn, continuing along the dirt road as it rolls under Blair Stone. Park at the dead end. The pasture is straight ahead. The Fern Trail can be reached on the other side of the railroad tracks to your right. The tracks can be dangerous (trains approach quickly from around the bend) and, technically speaking, anyone who crosses the tracks is trespassing on railroad property. Just so you know.
Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park/Miller Landing Road
If sun-dappled trails through old-growth woods are your desire, drive up to Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park and take your choice of nearly a dozen routes, all of them lovely and peaceful, utterly natural and evocatively labeled.
Oak Hammock Loop. Creek Forest Trail. Swamp Forest Loop. Coon Bottom Loop. Butterfly Trail. Bluebird Trail. Seriously, how can you resist this?
What we have here are 670 acres, most of them managed for passive recreation, acquired in 1992 from the Phipps family by the city of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District. Once part of the Ayavalla Plantation, the park serves primarily as protected watershed for adjacent Lake Jackson. (You may think this is not working very well, given that Lake Jackson is largely water-challenged, but that has more to do with a water-gobbling sinkhole – located right under the lake – than with any flaw in the overall management plan.)
Most of the trails are designated as multi-use for hikers, joggers, people riding mountain bikes and horses. All take you through woods spiced with 85 species of butterflies and countless varieties of birds. In particular, stay alert for bluebirds, which have been increasingly rare in these parts but whose recovery is encouraged along Bluebird Trail, which features 30 special bluebird boxes installed – yes, by a one-time Eagle Scout – along a well-marked route.
Details: Only 7.5 miles from the Capitol. Unrestricted 24/7 access. From the Capitol, find your way to straight-as-an-arrow and largely canopied Meridian Road and head north, beyond the I-10 underpass, turning left on the likewise canopied Miller Landing Road. Entrances to the park are to your left. Or take Miller Landing Road to the dead end – and enjoy a terrific view of Lake Jackson, straight ahead.
Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park
Okay, so maybe you feel like having a picnic. We have just the spot. Pick up a tuna sandwich, a soft drink, maybe a little dessert, and head up to the 1,184-acre Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park.
Here you will find spectacular ornamental gardens originally planted in 1923 for New York financier Alfred Barmore Maclay and his wife, Louise. The land they bought that year has a rich history – home to Native Americans, part of a land grant to the Marquis de Lafayette, site of a community of African-American tenant farmers and plantation workers.
Acquired by the state of Florida in 1994, the park now features – in addition to the gardens – scenic picnic areas overlooking Lake Hall, a gazebo, a reflection pool, eight miles of trails and a profound sense of tranquility.
If you want to be alone with your thoughts or if you need to collect your thoughts, this is the place for you.
Details: Only 6.5 miles from the Capitol. Take Monroe Street north for about a mile and veer right along Thomasville Road. Take Thomasville north, beyond I-10, to Maclay Road. Turn left on Maclay and look for the park entrance. Open year-round from 8 a.m. to sunset; access to the gardens is restricted to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Maclay mansion is available for viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, January through April, a period that also marks high-blooming season for the gardens. Admission: $4 for a vehicle carrying one person, $6 for a vehicle carrying two to eight people.
Tom Brown Park/Lafayette Heritage Trail Park
Perhaps you prefer a more conventional park experience, a place with picnic tables, wooden benches, strolling paths that circumnavigate tree-shaded ponds – a place offering somewhat less solitude and the comfort of being around, but not crowded by, other people.
If so, Tom Brown Park and the adjacent Lafayette Heritage Trail Park fill the bill nicely. Here you'll find hundreds of acres of multi-purpose recreation and relaxation: picnic areas, playgrounds, athletic fields, fishing holes, a dog park and even a Frisbee golf course, where you can try your hand at spinning discs into strategically placed baskets. But fret not, you'll also find miles of canopied, somewhat secluded trails, including the eastern end of the Fern Trail that begins three miles away in Governor's Park and largely parallels the CSX railroad tracks.
Details: Only five miles from the Capitol. Head straight out on Apalachee Parkway and continue 3.5 miles to a left on Capital Circle. Proceed one mile north on Capital Circle to a right on Conner Boulevard and then a quick left on Easterwood Drive. Open sunrise to sunset. Rest rooms and water fountains are present.
Martin Merzer, formerly The Miami Herald's senior writer, recently retired after a 35-year career at the newspaper and at The Associated Press. He now lives in Tallahassee.