Ancient magnolias, massive tulip poplars, and sinuous alluvial streams are all part of the delights of Phipps Park, the city of Tallahassee’s most expansive and wild urban park. With 670 acres along the shores of Lake Jackson, Phipps Park provides recreation for all, with separate hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trail systems. Part of the Florida Trail System, the Phipps Park Trail is made up of three stacked loops, each increasing in difficulty and length, showcasing trees of spectacular size and a carpet of trillium blooms each February.
Length: 6.1 miles (up to 7.4 miles available)
Lat-Long: 30.529129, -84.279231
Type: Stacked loops with two connectors
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: Yes, at ballfields near trailhead
There are several choices of trailheads at Phipps Park. Your best access for hiking is at the Meridian Youth Sports Complex, where the Red Bug Trail (mountain biking trail) trailhead is on the left soon after you enter the park. Park there and walk downhill to find the hiker’s trailhead, marked with orange blazes. This is a rather large complex with ball fields, a playground, picnic tables, trailheads for hiking and mountain biking, and a nearby crossing to the Lake Overstreet Trails, multi-use trails inside Maclay Gardens State Park.
From I-10 exit 203, go north on Thomasville Rd (SR 61 / US 319) for 0.9 mile to the traffic light for Maclay Road. Turn left and follow Maclay Road for 2.2 miles, passing the entrance to Maclay Gardens State Park and ending at a T intersection and traffic light with Meridian Road. Turn right and continue a half mile to the Meridian Youth Sports Complex on the left. Make a left and follow the one-way road around to the trailhead on the left.
Grab a map from the mailbox as you head downhill from the Meridian Trailhead, following the orange blazes through a lush hardwood forest. Crossing a boardwalk through the sweetgum forest, the trail comes to a junction with the Coon Bottom Loop Trail. This is the first of many well-marked intersections. Even without a map, the signage is extensive enough to lead you through the trail system. Turn right.
Right away, you see a blaze on a catfaced loblolly pine of rather immense stature. In late winter, the hillsides are lush with trillium. In late summer and fall, it’s extremely green. An unfortunate amount of coral ardesia – which has berries like wild coffee – grows under the heavy canopy. It’s an invasive species that loves these lush hillsides. The trail goes sharply downhill, with many crossings of other trails. You can see there’s an arm of a mountain biking trail running parallel to the hiking trail, but fortunately the trail systems are separate throughout Phipps Park, with hiking, biking, and equestrian loops. The trail keeps up a steady downhill beneath the oaks and pines, with southern magnolias adding spectacular beauty to the understory. An alluvial creek cuts through the red clay hills, and the trail descends to meet it. The canopy is extremely high, with oaks, hickory, and sweetgum towering over the creek bottom.
A glimpse of a grassy field up ahead means you’re passing another developed portion of the park. Crossing a bicycle trail, the trail drops down to a single plank balance-beam style bridge crossing Coon Bottom. The trail parallels a green space uphill and to the right, which is park of the Forest Meadows complex of soccer and baseball fields. You pass by an enormously old oak covered in a tangle of grapevines almost as thick as trees themselves. Yes, there’s poison ivy in the understory! Stick to the footpath. Occasionally you’ll see little orange markers–discs nailed to trees. If you see a blowdown or other trail damage, take note of the nearest numbered disc to help the trail maintainer find it. This is a very well defined path, so there’s little chance of losing it, other than accidentally following one of the other well defined biking or equestrian paths. Crossing a broad spot at Marker X, the trail rises uphill, the meadow, dappled in the sun, off to the right. At Marker Y there’s another broad bike path crossing. The trail starts to descend again, and appears to become a streambed on rainy days. Netted chain ferns cling to the steep slope.
Around a half mile, you come to a decision point–follow the Cotton Bottom Loop (shorter hike) vs. the Swamp Forest Loop (perimeter hike). Today’s a day for doing it all, so we turn right, crossing a forest road into a dense forest of old oaks and magnolias, a steep ascent with many roots across the trail. After you pass the connector to the Miller Landing Trailhead, turn left to continue on the Swamp Forest Loop. Bog bridges lead you over an ephemeral pond at the base of the hill. After Marker C, there is abrupt change in the character of the forest. You cross a gravel road and the canopy opens up tremendously. There are a variety of different oaks, tall loblolly pine and dogwood. You cross another gravel road at marker D and return to a more lush bottomland forest with hickory trees. Look off to your left and there’s an enormous oak down at the bottom of the valley. Climbing up through a deep rift in hardpan clay beneath the power line, you’d swear you were in Great Smoky Mountains, here inside the city limits of Tallahassee. As the trail makes a steep descent paralleling the powerline, it passes under enormous tulip poplars, not a common tree in Florida. The footpath levels out and then descends to the swamp bottom, where an ephemeral stream flows past on the left and a bench provides a perch to enjoy the view. I hope you brought your hiking poles, since the ups and downs continue like a roller coaster.
You pass an exit to Gate A and Miller Landing Road. The trail makes a sharp left turn here and continues following the valley on the opposite side. There’s a grand oak perched on the hillside to the left. Many pieces have fallen off over the years and it hangs with a spidery look to it with so many sub-branches. It’s quite a pretty sight, bathed in the morning sunlight. The trail crosses beneath the powerline again, with tickseed and daisies lending color to the hillside. Poison ivy is prevalent, so be sure you wear long pants. Looking down into the ravine, it’s awe-inspiring to see a landmark-sized oak. The trail works its way towards it, passing by it near 1.1 miles before crossing a stream and a dirt road at Marker E. Climbing up into a loblolly pine forest, you enter a wonderland of fall flowers–goldenrod and wild vanilla, tickseed, partridge pea, and milkweed. Dropping down through an oak hammock, you emerge into loblolly pine-topped clayhills, crossing a dirt road at Marker F. Soon beyond is a magnificent loblolly pine that would take several people holding hands to encircle its base; it rises well above the rest of the canopy.
You reach Marker G a few moments later. This is another major decision point, the junction of the Swamp Forest Loop and the Creek Forest Trail, a linear connector leading to the loop near Lake Jackson. Turn right. An ephemeral stream flows beneath a canopy of Southern magnolia. Leaving the creek, the trail ascends into a tangled jungle of forest, following what looks like an eroded ravine through a stand of devil’s walking-stick, the small trees with the unusual pattern of leaves. Dropping downhill again through a wonderland of ferns fed by the creek’s humidity, the trail continues beneath tall sweetgum and tulip poplars. This is where you find solitude in Tallahassee–far enough from the road and surrounding neighborhoods that all you can hear are the crickets, frogs, and warbling birds.
At 1.7 miles, there is a sign at a log cut in two to make a bench. The trail junction is for the Big Tree Cutoff, Markers G & H, which would greatly shorten your loop if you took it back to Coon Bottom. Pass by it and continue straight, ascending past another ephemeral stream. Spruce pines rise from the forest floor, and oyster fungi carpets fallen logs. A bench at 2 miles marks the beginning of the Oak Hammock Loop. Stay to the left to walk it clockwise–it’s a 2.5 mile loop out to views of Lake Jackson. Up a steep incline, a bench looks over a deep ravine. Keep climbing! Some of the roots provide natural stairs as you rise up to THE oak of the Oak Hammock Loop, an enormous, broad live oak with a bench in front of it. The trail crosses a gravel road and you see a large meadow off to the right. The orange blazes lead you down the gravel road oh so briefly and then into a stand of pines. Beneath the planted pines is a symphony of flora, including American beautyberry, tall yellow blossoms of cowpeas, and partridge pea. The pines are planted in rows the old traditional way, but the trail winds through them in an angle so as not to force geometry upon you. Looking off to the left, you can see a pond off in the distance. Trail markers jog to the right, and now you are headed down an angular corridor, a long, straight row of pines, their trunks rising like cones.
Exiting the pine plantation, the trail loses a little elevation beneath the mix of pine and oaks. Downy woodpeckers flit from tree to tree, and yellow sulfurs and golden fritillaries pollinate the flowers in the fall, when the mass migration of North American butterflies passes through this point. Making a little jog to the left, the trail continues on a distinct moderate downhill. Tiny purple blooms of hairy wicky grow around the mouth of an armadillo hole. Morning glory cascades over the understory shrubbery. The songbirds are especially full of joy in the morning as you descend past bright red and yellow mushrooms that look like stools for gnomes. The trail drops through a little ephemeral wash and starts climbing again, under tall oaks draped with Spanish moss. In quick succession, you cross a forest road at Marker J and an equestrian path at Marker K. You continue through a dense forest of oak and pine. It’s certainly a second or third-growth forest with the exception of a handful of landmark-sized oaks. From the size of most of the trees, the land, likely part of a plantation, was probably logged one final time before it became a city park.
Descending through the forest, you start to notice a gap in the trees and can see out onto the flood plain of Lake Jackson. It’s a curious lake, a classic estavelle in the language of karst geology–it drains itself completely through a sinkhole into the aquifer on a regular basis, perhaps every 15 to 25 years, and then fills back up naturally, all controlled by the level of water and water pressure in the aquifer beneath. It’s tough to see the water – or the surrounding marsh – through the trees unless you’re here in the dead of winter. Past Marker L there is an interpretative marker for devil’s walking-stick. The trail drops down near lake level, but it’s still hard to see it. However, you can hear the squawk and clatter of wading birds in the marsh. The trail drops through a steep basin around 3 miles, which is probably a creek at certain times of year, and then through an obvious creek bed which was dry when I crossed. Several ephemeral streams drain into Lake Jackson and none are bridged. It’s the story of this trail system– ups and downs, cross a stream and back up again.
At Marker M, an unexpected find–a mailbox with trail maps! Just in case you’re at this farthest point on the trail system and forgot to bring one. It’s a junction for several trails; the orange blazes lead you up into an old pine plantation and a young oak hammock before hanging to the edge of a slope beneath sweetgum, beech, and oak. It emerges into the meadow at Marker N at 3.6 miles, out into the open along the forest road, passing a bird box and some picnic tables. A double blaze points you to the left, passing gopher tortoise corrals as you thankfully reach the shade again. A side trail leads to a wildlife viewing platform, likely a good place to watch for deer and turkey. Past another gopher corral – used to condition gopher tortoises to a new home when they are moved here from construction sites – you cross a forest road at Marker O, at 4 miles.
The trail drops steadily downhill through a dense understory with a lot of fungi growing out of the fallen leaves and crumbling logs. Past Marker P, the trees get taller and older, including some massive hickories and blackjack oaks. Completing the Oak Hammock Loop when you reach Marker H, you’ve hiked 4.2 miles so far.
The Creek Forest Trail is a linear connector, so you’ve already walked this shady stretch, and once again you pass the Big Tree Cutoff (still a shortcut!) en route to the junction with the Swamp Forest Loop at 4.8 miles. Continue straight ahead to complete the second half of this trail. Dropping down, down, down towards a fern-lined creek bottom, the trail winds along hillsides that I’ve seen utterly carpeted in trillium blooms in February. No matter what time of year you visit, there’s always something to be seen, and the bench here gives a good indicator of where to look for trillium. You’re entering the heart of the old Southern magnolia forest now, where the trees are noteworthy in height and girth, one of the most splendid natural collections in Florida. Their fragrant blooms open around early June. Shaggy-barked bluff oak, along with the spruce pine seen earlier, provide botanical clues to the karst landscape – limerock bedrock dissolved by slightly acidic rainfall – that shapes the behavior of Lake Jackson.
The trail makes a sharp left and crosses a tiny ephemeral stream. There are ferns everywhere – ferns, glorious ferns! — leading up to Marker R, the junction with Big Tree Cutoff. A large interpretive sign explains the upland hardwood forest and all the wonderful things you find in it, including the massive trees that surround you. A little ways along is Linda’s Lagoon, a hidden pond beneath the large trees where frogs strike up a chorus until they hear your footfalls. Passing an interpretive marker about Alluival Streams at Marker S at 5.4 miles, you soon reach a balance beam of a bridge to continue on the outer portion of the Coon Bottom Loop. Turn right and cross the bridge to follow the creek upstream. As this picturesque stream cuts through the clay banks and slabs of limestone, you can hear a lot of burbles and ripples and tiny cascades in the rushing water. Meandering away from the stream, the trail passes an interpretative marker for a pignut hickory. Interpretive markers are common along this section since Coon Bottom is the shortest loop you can do from Meridian Road, making it popular for families. With the heavy rains of these past few years, erosion has taken its toll, cutting the alluvial stream deeper in places and cutting some of the cross trails into streams themselves. Dropping past the blue blazes of the bicycle trail and Marker T, the trail reaches the floodplain of Coon Bottom.
Hickory nuts are strewn across the forest floor and cypresses rise along the creek. Sunlight dapples across an open area with planted pines on the far slope. Past a tall American hornbeam, the trail reaches a rather large footbridge at 5.7 miles, built to withstand flooding. Jogging left, the trail almost kisses the bike trail before it caroms back over towards the creek. Sand spread throughout the understory belies the extent of the floodplain. On a curve along the waterway, a bench provides a lovely spot to sit and enjoy the leopard frogs singing and the water burbling past. Split rail fences define the course of the hiking and biking trails, since they stay so close together through this area. Beware of tripping as the roots in the footpath get thicker. Passing a sign that says “Creekside” (for the benefit of the folks on the Red Bug Biking Trail), you walk beneath a very tall tulip poplar and black cherry trees, notable for their rough striped bark. The trail turns slightly to the left and starts climbing uphill; through the trees, you can see the trailhead. Reaching the end of the loop at Marker V, turn right to exit to the Meridian Road Trailhead, ending this rugged hike after 6.1 miles.