Thursday, December 10, 2015

Trail Review: Panama City Beach Conservation Park

As you may have gathered from previous posts, I grew up in Panama City, FL, my family still lives there and we visit fairly often. Since we usually visit over holidays or on weekends, I have to get one or more runs in while we are there. Short runs I tend to do in my parents' neighborhood, even though that often means a one mile loop over and over. Long runs can be difficult to plan there, it's more of a road bike town and the roads are not very runner friendly.

Florida forests

What do I mean by not runner friendly? Well neighborhood routes are often too short. Non-neighborhood routes are difficult in that many roads are narrow and have no sidewalks; roads with sidewalks have a lot of intersections and aren't in the best parts of town.

Previous long runs there, I've been able to piece something together. Downtown/Beach Drive/St. Andrews isn't too bad, I've gotten 9 miles out of that before, but it was a struggle. Since I'm training for a trail half, I've been trying to do at least half of my long runs on trails. Are there trails in Panama City? Not really. After checking, I did come up with several mountain bike trails that weren't too far. In the end though, I decided to go with one of the closest options, which was to check out the newish Panama City Beach Conservation Park.

I think this sign was husband's favorite park of the park

I had never been to this park before, but had wanted to check it out. It was built just a few years ago and contains a network of hiking and multi-use trails. If you know what you're looking for the park is fairly simple to find, down a road off of Panama City Beach Parkway (aka Backbeach). If you're not looking for it though, it's easy to not know it's even there. The road dead ends at an information center with a small parking area, clean restrooms, and a water fountain. Entrance to the park is free, but parking is limited. The information center was closed so I can't comment on what they have inside. Outside of the information center are large maps of the park along with information about the environment, animals, plants, and so forth.

Map provided by the park website
I wish I had the map we picked up at the park to show you, because the maps they have online are terrible (seriously, you can do better). There are several routes to choose from, all of which are wide, fire trail width, they are listed as dirt but it's really a combination of dirt, sand, and mulch. Since I needed 9 miles, I chose the orange trail which is 9.5 and traveled it counter-clockwise.

The trail started out with light tree coverage and was mostly dirt, as the trees thinned out the ground became more mulch covered and the trail narrowed for a stretch before widening back out. Around this point I realized I had left my GU in the car(!), so husband, who was riding a mountain bike alongside me went back for it. About 3 miles or so into the run, the trail  turns onto dirt roads, connecting to hunting ground (wear bright colors!) and I passed a group of hunters in pickups.

I usually like to have my GU around 4 miles, but husband still hadn't got back to me! I was also getting pretty thirsty and he had my water, I started to worry if he got lost. About this time I approached a section where the trail turned into deep beach sand and had to walk, this is also when I finally spotted husband behind me. The sand was impossible for the mountain bike and he had to walk it as well. Thankfully these sandy stretches weren't too long and then we were back to dirt. There was even shade for a little bit. And then we were done!

Here you can see one of the swampy areas
The trails at Panama City Beach Conservation Park are wide and flat, the surface is mainly dirt with some mulch and sand sections. The sand sections are deep and hard to travel through both on foot and on a mountain bike. There is tree coverage part of the way, but you're mostly in the sun, and I'm glad it was a cool morning when we were out there. The only available water and restrooms are at the information center, so bring your own water. The nature views are nice, with different types of vegetation and what you would expect from a Florida forest, there are also some swampy areas that reminded me of Louisiana. The trails were well marked with color coded arrows at 95% of the turns. While I did see a lot of deer tracks and some raccoon tracks, I was disappointed that the only actual animals I saw were birds.

Map of Gayle's Trails
I could see myself going to these trails again sometime, it made for a nice and easy trail run. There were a few other people out there, some families biking and walking together, and one other runner. They do have some picnic tables near the information center, so you could bring a lunch and make a day of it. The trails there are actual part of a larger system of trails "Gayle's Trails" (some paved) that is still being developed, so you could actually make a pretty good route for running or mountain biking out there.

Have you tried out any new trails lately?

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