Georgia: Seminole State Park and the Gopher Tortoise Trail
Seminole State Park is located in the far southwest corner of Georgia. Nestled in a cove on 37,000 acre Lake Seminole, the 600-acre park offers excellent boating and fishing. The Park is home to the Gopher Tortoise Trail, a 2.2-mile hiking trail through one of the largest long leave pine forests in the state park system. Named for Georgia's state reptile, the Gopher Tortoise Trail offers a quiet hike with good wildlife viewing opportunities. The shy tortoise lives in sand burrows along the trail, and herds of deer gather in the forest on the park's border. We saw eagles, hawks, herons, along with many animal tracks on either side of the trail indicating other smaller creatures in the area. The lake warns of gators but we did not spy any!
The campground offers 46 sites with quite a few bordering the lake shore. The interior sites are on a slight rise and a view of the lake is available from most of the campsites. The lakeside sites seemed level, but those just one tier back were quite uneven. The bathhouse was well maintained and convenient and the hosts were helpful with information, firewood, and advice. The Park also offers 14 cottages for rent all along the edge of the lake.
Things To Do
Boating - Lake Seminole is a popular spot with both Georgians and Floridians since it is so close to the Florida border. Many boats use the lake for fishing and we noted quite a few with skiers in tow. Kayaking the quiet coves is pleasant, though the area does host alligators. You can rent kayaks and canoes from the Park office.
Fishing - The park has its own fishing dock so if you don't have a boat, it is an easy walk from any of the campsites or cottages to find a spot to fish. You can catch largemouth bass, black crappie, or redear sunfish in Lake Seminole.
Hiking - The 2.2 mile Gopher Tortoise trail is an easy hike for almost anyone. There are multiple side trails that lead to the pioneer and group campgrounds, but the main trail is pretty easy to follow and ends up at the south end of the campground.
Shopping and Restaurants - Donalson is the closest town and offers a few local eateries and a grocery store. Tallahassee is about a one hour drive south for major shopping and restaurants.
Hit The Reset Button - Hiking is always a great activity for bringing down the stress levels (as is kayaking), but Seminole has a special feature that offers a truly peaceful atmosphere. At the north end of the campground is a trail and bridge leading over a cove covered in lily pads. The pavilion there is a perfect place to read, and reading is a good way to take a step back from daily life. It doesn't matter if your choice of genre is fiction, autobiography, or non-fiction, reading can transport you into another state of mind. When you "return", you are changed by the experience. Pick up a good book for this weekend!
Don't Forget To Bring
- Inflatable Kayak. Lake Seminole is huge, but the cove in the Park is calm and an easy paddle. Watch out for the gators!
- Camera (or cell phone camera) The lake and forest are lovely and you just might catch a herd of deer on the trail!
- Trekking Poles. Although the Gopher Tortoise Trail is flat, there are rocks and debris. I like using my trekking poles on most trails just to help with the footing.
Our experience at Seminole
We like to create itineraries with a theme and, for this trip, chose to visit all four corners of Georgia. We found a state park in each area that included hiking and kayaking. Beginning our trip in the extreme southwest corner of the state, Seminole State Park was the first stop on our trip.
We hit the road right after breakfast at a local restaurant (this has become a trip tradition), then headed south for the first of six Georgia State Parks on this trip. Once off of I-75, we passed through small towns, expansive farms and endless fields before finally landing at Seminole State Park in Donalson just after lunch.
It has a small RV area crowded around one edge of Lake Seminole and, with a first come first served policy, it meant getting there early on a Friday was important to get a spot on the lake. By the time we got there, many of the best sites were already occupied but we found good site overlooking the lake on a small rise.
Leveling the RV was a bit of a challenge on the rocky terrain, but we got it right on the second try. Then it was a pretty typical set up: chairs out, grab a bottled water and settle in to enjoy the view. We looked over the activities available and decided on a morning hike with the possibility of kayaking in the afternoon. That is until we saw several signs posted about the alligators in the lake! Hmm. There were several people boating and a couple of kayaks in the water and there is actually a swimming beach, so how aggressive could these gators be? I guess we will find out tomorrow! We ended the day sitting outside, playing the uke and enjoying the warm breeze until the moon rose. A full moon. It was a beautiful sight through the tall pines.
We got up early, in fact, I could see the gradual dawn through the skylight. We left the shade up on the side window so that we could see the lake from the bed, and we watched as streaks of pink and purple announced the sunrise. Geese seemed to all come at once. Perhaps a stopover on their trek north. They honked noisily as they landed, joining the songbirds in a chorus for early morning.
We watched as the lake came to life with a skiff motoring out for morning fishing and several returning from their night fishing vigil.
Since it was cool and sunny we decided it was a great morning for a walk. We had seen a sign for the Gopher-Tortoise Trail, a 2-mile hiking trail, we thought would be perfect. Off we went in search of the trailhead and, after a few minutes, we found it. The trail is pretty well traveled and, though the sandy soil was littered with pine straw, it was clear of brush. As we walked deeper into the woods we realized there were no apparent trail markers, at least none we recognized, and it triggered a memory of our first hiking adventure in North Georgia.
On that first hike, which we now refer to as our "Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman" hike, we were the first in on the trail that spring. It didn't take long before we had difficulty following the trail in the tangle where it had been overtaken with fallen trees and winter's debris. A couple of hours later we realized we were lost. Everywhere we looked was a view of endless trees. We clambered up a steep hill to get a better view and found a road, which we followed to the highway leading back to camp. We had traveled several miles in a semi-circle. We were woefully unprepared for a hike. We thought it would be a simple walk down a well-marked path so we went in street clothes and light jackets. No water, no map, no compass.
That was what we thought about this morning as we ambled along the trail thinking it was just another morning walk. We had no water, no map, nor compass -again. Although this time, at least, we had a well-worn trail.
There were many side trails that begged exploration but, steadfast on our mission to not get lost, we stuck to the main trail. As we came up a small rise, we startled a herd of deer and they scrambled off into the deep woods. We saw undisturbed parts of the lake, filled with water lily pads and great black tree stumps. Birds chirped overhead and the first buds of wildflowers dotted the trail. About an hour in, we noticed many sets of paw prints and thought they might be raccoon or fox. We laughed at ourselves making such guesses. Not exactly outdoor experts either of us! But it was the large piles of scat that convinced Jim we should turn around and head back the way we came. And we did, retracing our steps to find ourselves safely back in camp.
A beautiful morning, and we got back to camp in time for lunch. When we checked the map (yes, we actually had one and didn't take it along) we had walked almost a full circle and would have probably reached camp in another fifteen or twenty minutes had we continued. But, because we did not have a map, we were not quite certain we were following the right trail and recalling our past hiking indiscretions, we opted for the prudent course!
All in all, it was a good hike and, after we had rested up, we went back out to the trail. This time starting at the other end of the trail which joins the campground north of the RV area. We walked a short distance down the trail and crossed a wooden bridge and observation platform over a lily pond, then started down the main trail to see where we had turned around. It was not as close as we had thought. We hiked on for another fifteen minutes before deciding we had done enough walking for this day! Back we went down the trail and over the bridge back to the campsite.
A good day's hiking, even if we weren't quite prepared and even if we didn't make the full loop in one attempt. I still wonder if we were on the main trail on our first hike. It seemed like we walked a lot further than two miles! It was a profitable adventure though. We really do like to walk /hike as we visit new places and this little trip reminded us that we need to keep a hiking backpack prepared so that we can just grab it and go.
NOTE: The endangered Gopher Tortoise, Georgia's state reptile, likes this area of sandy, pine barrens and is often sighted in this park. We did not see any but like the thought of having the chance to see one.