I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I hadn't ridden the Munson Hills Off-Road Bike Trail in a couple of years, and was I ever surprised. Instead of finding stretches of difficult to traverse sugar sand, the U.S. Forest Service and its volunteer partners have put down layers of clay that have been angled for sharper turns and raised in places for fun jumps. There is also an adjoining trail loop, the Twilight Trail, that adds more than nine miles. Added to the long established Munson east and west loops, and there is a total of 21 miles of off-road bicycling fun in this section of the Apalachicola National Forest!
The Munson Hills and Twilight trails traverses a beautiful remnant stand of longleaf pine sandhills. Once an ancient shoreline of rolling sand dunes, this ecosystem has become rare and endangered due to development, farming and pine plantations, so it's a real treat to pass the tall wispy strands of wiregrass and shimmering long-needled pines. Of course, you have to stop riding to really take it in because the trail has so many tight turns through narrow gaps between trees that it requires your full attention. Several benches are available for convenient rest stops.
What is apparent along the trail, even at high speeds, are the large white bands around some of the larger pines. Upon closer examination, they are nest trees for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, the only native woodpecker that pecks a deep cavity in a living tree. You can see the sap flowing down from the cavity, sap that keeps out predators such as tree-climbing snakes. It can take more than a year for the birds to create a cavity, one reason wildlife biologists with the U.S. Forest Service sometimes help the birds along by inserting artificial cavities in longleaf pines. The Apalachicola National Forest has the largest concentration of these birds in the world, and birds from the forest have been helping to repopulate other areas. You can witness part of this ecological success story along the Munson Hills Trail.
Another fascinating creature found along the trail is the gopher tortoise. If you don't see the actual land tortoises, you'll spot their angled burrows and sand mounds. The burrows can provide homes for numerous species of small mammals and reptiles, including diamondback rattlesnakes, so use caution if approaching the burrows. Also, if you see a creature in a tree that looks like a cross between a huge gray squirrel and a capuchin monkey, that's another endangered animal-the Sherman's fox squirrel. Munson Hills has all kinds of surprises!
Access to the Munson Hills Trail is at the main trailhead of the paved Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail just south of Tallahassee along Woodville Highway. Sunny weekends can be busy and the trail is single-track, but the open piney woods makes it easy to spot other riders, allowing time to move aside. The trail is also used by runners and hikers.
For more about bike trails in the region, check out the Tallahassee Mountain Bike Association website.