Spring 2019 update: the park’s trails are closed due to damage from Hurricane Michael. See comments below.
On my first visit to the town, I hiked with the park’s namesake, Angus Gholson, who spent his life exploring the rugged ravines of the Apalachicola River in search of unusual plants. A classical botanist with an extensive herbarium, he had a deep appreciation for the rarity of the flora that grows in this most unusual part of Florida, where ravines drop steeply as tributaries cut their way down to the river’s level. He passed away in early 2014.
Leigh Brooks, who worked at neighboring Torreya and Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines, facilitated the hike. My focus was getting to know Angus and the flora that makes this area so special, so I didn’t take notes or a GPS track on the length of the network of trails we walked, and we didn’t get to them all. It took a return trip two years later to fill in the details of this small but intriguing trail system.
You’ll find something in bloom here all times of the year. The grand parade of wildflowers starts each February with trout-lily and trillium, and progresses to Indian-paint and fringed campion, an unusual flower seen frequently along these trails. A mile of trails connects Chattahoochee Spring at the top of the bluff with the county campground below, with more trails being flagged for the future.
Length: 1 mile network of trails
Lat-Lon: 30.697700, -84.849189
Fees / Permits: None
Bug factor: Low
Restroom: Yes, at trailhead
There are restrooms and picnic tables at the parking area. Trails begin in several places but the hike described (starting at the spring) is across the parking area from the restrooms.
Angus Gholson Nature Park (formerly Chattahoochee Nature Park) is tucked away in the residential area of Chattahoochee known as Torreya Heights. From US 90 in downtown Chattahoochee, take Morgan Avenue south. It goes down a steep hill and makes a long curve. Park Street is to your right along the curve, with a sign for the nature park. The entrance road, Park Street, is also a steep downhill.
For as long as Angus could remember, the Chattahoochee Spring was a gathering place for local residents. He learned to swim there more than eighty years ago, as many folks did, since a swimming pool was created to catch the outflow of the spring, which pours out of a steep hillside. Abandoned decades ago, the pool has a lot of algae in it, and trillium grow in bunches along the edge. Walk around the pool to where the trail follows the creek that flows out of the pool and heads downhill.
In the heart of torreya country, this park has a substantial number of young torreya trees. Few, if any, mature torreya trees still exist in Florida, due to a blight. But young torreyas sprout from the remains of the dead, looking like small Christmas trees amongst the hardwood forest. Yellow popular, sycamore, pignut hickory, and Southern magnolia trees form a canopy of deep shade as you walk down the trail. In early spring, look for the bright orange blaze of flame azalea, the red bursts of trillium, and the yellow of the trout-lily. In April, Indian-paint lines the upper slope of the footpath. Amble slowly, since there is much to see—it’s worth having a plant identification guide with you, and even better to walk with an expert.
As the slope flattens out, spruce pines tower overhead. The bluff forest has a very open understory, which enables you to see the rugged topographical relief in every direction. We heard, then saw, a barred owl well up in a hickory tree, and the burble of the creek is a constant companion. On my first visit, we walked downhill to the first trail junction, then took a right to head back uphill – a steep uphill, I might add – to create a short but extremely interesting loop which took about an hour at a “stop and examine everything” pace, with several off-trail diversions to see young torreya trees.
Keep heading downhill to the bridge, and cross it. Turn left at the trail junction and follow the trail as it parallels the waterway below. You’ll pass another trail on the right before the terrain drops into a spot where water flows across the trail at the base of a tall bluff oak. The terrain flattens out, and parallels an old fence. In early spring, there are many atamasco-lilies in bloom throughout this area. The trail winds through the forest, and emerges next to a retention pond by a road. You’re now in the county campground. Turn right and walk up the steeply sloping road to the next retention pond, up the hill. Turn right just before the pond and you’ll see an old, faded sign that says “Nature Trail.” Start following this footpath up the steep forested slope. It emerges at a power line. Cross the open area and head downslope a little to continue on the footpath, which crosses two small tributaries flowing over rocks that the trail traverses. This loop ends at the main trail, where a sign points to the “Campground” and “Parking Area.” Turn left to head back uphill.
Don’t cross the bridge this time, but follow the footpath along the ravine, where rock outcrops peek from the forest floor. Upslope, you’ll find another bridge to cross, this one with a view of a small cascade. Continue up this steep slope, which emerges at the back end of the grassy area behind the picnic shelter and restrooms.