Top Trail Picks in Florida, Georgia, and Missouri
As published in the January 2015 issue of TrailBlazer Magazine.
The start of most January’s generally finds me feverishly planning rides for the coming year. This collaboration between my much better half and myself has both of us huddled over our calendars trying to find blocks of time when we’re both able to escape the office and do what we love. That of course would be riding and camping with our horses. I’m sure that many of you enjoy the same scene at your house during this time of the year. This month we’ll again explore three areas across the U.S. that offer wonderful riding opportunities. Along the way we’ll also discuss a few trip planning suggestions to make your outings that much more enjoyable over the coming year.
Trailhead Coordinates: 27.47839, -81.53131
One of the first things that we have to consider any time we load the ponies for a ride is the length of the outing. Are you going out for a few hours or a multi-day trip? The length of time you’ll be out and about will determine everything from the amount of feed you’ll need to carry to scheduling vet visits. I’ve found that even when I’m planning a day ride it’s a good idea to carry enough water and hay to stay the night. Just in case.
One of oldest state parks in Florida, Highlands Hammock is conveniently located between Fort Myers and Orlando. The “hammock” that its name refers to is a portion of land that sits higher than the surrounding area. And that’s exactly what Hammock State Park is; a fertile oak forested area whose expansive tree canopy shades the tea colored swamps below. And for us equine oriented folks the park is very horse friendly, although primarily a day use area for now.
The 11 miles of horse and mule friendly trails that wind their way through remote areas make for a great way to observe these natural areas from horseback. The shared, day use, trails here tend towards flat and very sandy as they wander across the park’s 9,000 acres. Much the horse trail system is made up of fire lanes and double track paths which encourage sightings of the native Gopher Tortoises, Wild Turkeys, and Bobcats, who also enjoy these warm sunny habitats.
While I mentioned that Highlands Hammock is a day use area, that information is rapidly changing. A dedicated horse camp is being constructed in the park and is nearly completed with just a few access issues being resolved. The new camp is located at the other end of the park from the current day use parking area and has dedicated equestrian campsites, complete with stalls, potable water, and restrooms. It’s best to contact the park directly at 863-386-6094, before you start the trip.
With a new horse camp in the works Highlands Hammock will certainly become a very popular riding area for anyone in or visiting Florida. However, while the sandy trails mean that you can leave your horseshoes at home, don’t forget the Coggins test paperwork for each equine that you bring to the park. You’ll have to present these papers when you arrive at the park.
Trailhead Coordinates: 33.57267, -82.89595
Since we’ve mentioned Coggins test paperwork it’s a good time for everyone to remember that we need to know what our destination’s rules are. It’s best to do this before we load the trailer. The questions to ask include more than if Coggins tests are required. Is Weed Free Feed required? Are dogs welcome in camp or on the trail? Not knowing the rules ahead of time can create memories that can become unpleasant, expensive, and all around memorable in a very bad way.
North of Highland Hammock in Georgia the rules are similar so keep your Coggins papers up to date and ready when you pull into the splendid A.H. Stephens Park.
With a dedicated horse camp and twelve miles of trails A.H. Stephens is well known for its wonderful equestrian facilities. Those of us spending a night or nights with our horses and mules will enjoy the spacious and well-appointed equestrian campground. Twenty camp spots each with electrical and water connections round out the usual amenities such as picnic tables, fire pits, etc. Even better, horse campers at A.H. also have access to the main campground’s shower facilities. No need to settle for a cowboy shower here.
The trails at A.H. are well maintained and include a bit of everything that the Peach State has to offer a rider. If the flat sandy areas of southern Georgia are your thing you’ll find them here and begging to be taken at a good clip. And if the rockier, more challenging areas of northern Georgia call to you, you’ll find sections of that type of trail here as well. All told the twelve miles of horse friendly trails that circle, loop, and meander around Buncombe and Federal lakes will keep riders interested for as long as they wish.
If you’re so inclined the park, named after the Vice President of the Confederacy, is also well known for its confederate museum, which contains one of the largest collections of Civil War artifacts in the world. It’s a fascinating way to stretch your legs after a long day in the saddle.
Trailhead Coordinates: 38.21315, -93.50662
Another factor that can make or break a great trip is the weather. You can have a wonderful trail ride in almost any weather condition, as long as you’re prepared for it. I make it a point to always check the forecast before I load the trailer. It’s much easier to stay warm and dry if the rain slicker is where you need it; not hanging in the closet back home.
About thirteen hours northwest of the Peach State home of A.H. Stephens is the Berry Bend Equestrian Camp. Sitting on the shores of the Harry S. Truman Lake. With 30 miles of trails to explore and remarkably well equipped campground Berry Bend offers wonderful trail riding and camping opportunities regardless of the weather; as long as you’re prepared for it.
When I mentioned that Berry Bend is well equipped I meant it. With nearly a hundred horse sites available and many of those with electrical connections, Berry Bend is a class A facility that is only open to those of us with horses and mules.
The list of amenities includes flush toilets, showers, drinking water, laundry facilities and a dump station. The breakdown of campsite types is 24 sites with 30-amp electric hookups, along with 65 primitive sites without hookups.
These 30 miles of trails roam through the dense forest, rolling hills and rocky cliffs with wonderful views of the lake. Indeed the Berry Bend trails make up the most extensive trail system in the region. Two main trails head out from the camp area, one heading east that is fairly level. The west trail crosses steep ridges and valleys as you ride along its length. Numerous connector trails make loop rides possible in a wide variety of distances. Trail footing is on the very rocky side so some type of hoof protection is most likely in order unless you want to walk back to camp.
Before you load the trailer for Berry Bend here are a few additional items that you should consider. All horses must have proof a current Coggins test, and all out-of-state horses must have a recent official health certificate.
Now that we’ve explored 3 more wonderful horse, and mule, riding and camping areas and pondered a few of the many factors to consider when planning a ride it’s time to gather the calendars and start planning your 2015 rides! As always for the largest and best equine trail and camping directory visit www.TrailMeister.com.