Munson Hills Trail
By Gordon Cherr
Munson Hills- everyone knows how to get to the Rails To Trails trail head on south Monroe Street. Just in case you don't though, head south from the center of town on Monroe Street. Just past Capital Circle on the right you will see the main parking area for the Rails to Trail. The Munson Hills trail really begins here for me. Instead of running the pavement, there is a little-used bridle path to the right (west) of the asphalt. Take that instead (although the pavement parallels this all the way), and follow this for about 1.25 miles to the entrance of the "Munson Hills" bike trail. You can't miss it, there is a sign there, and a split rail fence, bench and water fountain. Just hang a right and you are there. There is a bathroom, on the left, further in.
Then, once on the trail, follow the blue paint slashes on the pine trees. The trail is a long loop, so you can go left or right once on the trail and come back out in the same place, no worries, mate. If you bear right, for example, follow this through quiet forests of loblolly and slash pine, and the more recently replanted longleaf pine. The trail is sandy and soft on your feet. Likely, the only thing you will hear is the breeze through the tops of the pine trees, the sound is very discernable and like nothing else you have ever heard. This is a piney upland area and I always see fox squirrel here, and sometimes if you are lucky and observant, a gopher tortoise noisily plowing his way through the underbrush. In the spring and summer there are bright green bryophyte ferns growing in great abundance here, painting a very striking picture in the ever-shifting shadows of the tall pine trees.
After 25-30 minutes of running (from the trailhead on south Monroe), you will come out to a "crossroads". There are two ways to go here: the first and shorter section is the "Pine Top Short Course". This is a section marked by white paint slashes on the trees, and covers maybe 2 miles (I'm guessing here). This short section winds up and down and around several small ponds/depressions and the trail is pretty much single file. While the trail is well worn here, you need to pay attention to the trail markers, because numerous roads and other trails will cross your route. This is a curvy, windy section, and I once ran headlong (literally) into a coyote coming the other way along the trail (I'm not certain who was more startled), but after a short moment of getting untangled from one another, we each headed our separate ways in peace. I was much richer spiritually for the experience. The coyote didn't say one way or another, but I suspect that she really didn't give a damn.
Anyway, this short section of trail comes out, eventually, at another "crossroads". If you bear left, you will be back on a section which takes you back to the bridle path, eventually. Follow the paint slashes, blue again. Recently someone was kind enough to put up a printed sign here, showing which was the correct trail to take to get back, but people tend to screw around with these things and if you don't know the trail, you might just want to run out here with those who do, until you learn the way. Unless you want the real "wilderness" experience of getting lost. The distance of the loop from your entry at the bridle path through the Pine Top Short Course and back to the bridle path is about 4.75 miles.
Previously I noted that there were two ways to go at the first "crossroads". The other, longer trail is the "Munson Hills" trail. The road sign is obvious here, and just continue to follow the blue paint slashes. You will continue on through the woods and you'll know that you're going the right way when you come out at a tall power line and a very wide sandy roadway. Actually, this is the only "dangerous" place, because during hunting season, some "people" like to sit in their trucks and pick off deer as they cross the road (the deer, that is). So, if you insist on running through the Apalachicola National Forest during hunting season, it is in your best interests to wear something very bright, like red shorts and an electric green top, and leave the Bullwinkle Moose antlers at home.
This section of trail is a loop that eventually crosses back under the power lines, further south. Keep on going and you'll come out at that second "crossroads" again. Now, you bear right and you're headed back to the bridle path. Instead of about 4.75 miles, this longer loop from bridle path to bridle path is about 7.25 miles. Again, it is easy to get lost here, and it is more enjoyable to run with a friend who knows his/her way until you learn the trails.
Overall, running in the Apalachicola National Forest is one of my favorite experiences. Shannon Sullivan is probably the local guru on the innumerable trails which we have access to in the forest, and he is always helpful and sharing. In fact, if you tell Shannon, he'll probably want to go run along with you, and you can't do any better than that. The forest runs are full of wildlife that should be observed, respected and quietly left alone. Please be watchful on the trails for both your footing (I can attest to the fact that it is a long walk out of there if you hurt yourself) and in warmer weather there usually are snakes laying around waiting for unwary prey. While most are harmless I have seen and jumped over pygmy rattlesnakes out here, and I've probably missed more than what I have seen.
There are no "facilities" in the forest. So, if you take a long run, you might therefore want to tote in your own water and whatever else (e.g. Gu), but if you pack it in, please pack it out. Finally, there was a very "unfortunate" event on the Rails to Trails trail several years ago, when a woman was sexually assaulted. If you have the least bit of trepidation, run with a friend or several of them. Besides, the more runners, the more enjoyable the run, right?
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