Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Loop Trail

Trail Introduction

The 1.8 mile loop trail begins at the information kiosk. Access to it is a very short (like 100 foot) walk west of the parking lot. The kiosk contains a trail map, park information and rules. If you follow the sidewalk to the right of the kiosk, it will take you to the Spring to Spring Trail (SST). The trail starts at the edge of the parking lot and basically loops around the perimeter of the park. Despite going around the perimeter, trail designers did a great job of disguising this fact. The only reminders you are near the park’s boundary will be the sound of auto traffic along the east side, houses in an adjacent subdivision on the north side and an occasional train on the west side (the south side borders woods). You will see two types of trail markers along the trail (its marked going both directions) One tells you distance along the trail. The other sign gives you the south entrance parking and restrooms.

The loop trail offers two distinct advantages (other than its distance) over the SST. One is that you will continually pass your car, the water fountain and restrooms each time you complete the loop. The other is that about half the trail is under oak canopy…so it stays much cooler than the Spring to Spring Trail. Other positives of this trail include nature trails (aka equestrian trails) that offer emergency shortcuts back to the parking lot. A disadvantage of this trail is that it gets much more use than the SST, so expect large groups of people, rollerbladers, kids learning to ride bikes, lots of dogs (and associated poop), among other uses.

Which direction should you go? Most of the bikes I see tend to go counterclockwise while the runners, walkers and dog walkers tend to go clockwise. Running this trial hundreds of times, I'll offer my perception of how the trail "feels". I have found that going clockwise gives me a hill-climb type workout with quick ups and downs in succession at the beginning of the run, a transitions to a slow up for the next half mile, then it levels and a gentle down workout the rest of the way. Going counterclockwise feels like a steady, gentle up for most of the loop followed by a brief, downhill.

Trail Highlights

Parking Areas
Most people who use the loop trail use the south entrance (shown above) parking. There are plenty of spaces here and the only time parking is a problem is during Manatee Festival time and organized events. This parking area is also where you will find the bathrooms/water fountain conveniently located and it’s a great place for last minute gear checks, etc. 

The loop also goes by the equestrian parking area. Many of the “after hour” trail users start out from this point. There are also a fair number of people who park here and eat their lunch. I should also caution people that prostitution and associated illegal activities occur in this area near closing time (so use the other parking area if you run near closing time!).

Rest Stops
About every half mile you will find a park bench with a trash can (so please don’t throw your GU packs on the ground!). While there is a lot of ecology going on around the trail, this is really not a nature park. However, the County has attempted to appease the nature appreciation crowd by installing an interpretive station at one of the park bench rest stops. Please take some time to stop and read the interpretive sign, it will give you a greater appreciation for saw palmettos.

The trail runs through three distinct habitat types. The initial, rolling part of the trail goes through a hardwood hammock forest consisting primarily of a black cherry, laurel oak and pignut hickory trees.
 Depending upon the direction you are going, you will next enter a scrubby flatwood and “wet prairie” habitats. Well okay, it’s not really a wet prairie. It’s a grassy, low spot where trail runoff collects…though I rarely see standing water here. On a hot day, this is where you will feel the heat and it marks the beginning of the slow uphill grade for those running clockwise.

The remaining portion of the trail runs through scrubby flatwood habitat. This portion of the trail has the feel of going through a tunnel (without a forest canopy).

South Entrance Road Crossing
This is the one spot along the trail where you have to be careful, especially if you are on a bike. It’s a blind entrance, so the cars entering/leaving the park cannot see you until it is too late. So please, slow down here and look both ways before crossing the road, it just might save your life. For those entering in your car, I strongly recommend you treat this intersection as if it had a stop sign and check both ways before crossing the trail. If you need to get back to your car quickly, this is a great shortcut back to the parking area.

The AMTRAK Experience

Ok, the railroad overpass technically is not on the loop trail, but its right next to it. You have to pass under this overpass to get from the south parking lot to the Spring to Spring Trail. This is a busy railroad track, so make sure your kids don’t play on the tracks. One fun thing to do is when a train approaches, stand under the overpass. Just a few feet above your head the train will roar over you. The sound and vibration from the train passing overhead is an unforgettable experience.

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