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Color my trail

JACKSONVILLE — The 30 miles of trails that wind through Jacksonville's Forest Park look like a plate of spaghetti on the map, an imposing set of 25 different and intersecting trails hard to translate for someone simply looking for a 3-mile walk in the woods.

But here, there's actually a color for that. It happens to be powder blue.

Powder-blue diamonds at various trail junctions follow a loop trail from the park's entrance and through the dense woods before leading you back to your car exactly 3 miles later.

It's one of 20 such loop trails in Forest Park marked by various color-coded diamonds that are Clayton Gillette's gift to Jacksonville's hiking and trail-running world.

"As a hiker, it's important to me to know were the trail goes and how long it is," says Gillette, a retired Griffin Creek School teacher and Jacksonville native. "If they're doing the blue loop and they see a blue diamond, they know to go that way.

"So this way, when you actually put a foot on the trail and even if you're new here, you know where you'll be going," Gillette says.

Since the addition of the diamonds a little more than a year ago, thousands of people have taken in the loop trails that Gillette not only has walked and painstakenly measured with a meter wheel, but that he also helped build as a volunteer for Jacksonville's Parks Department.

Forest Park was a collection of city-owned lands that the Jacksonville City Council once considered selling but instead voted in 2004 to keep and develop as a park.

The lands contained a series of old trails, some of which Gillette recalls riding bicycles on as a kid, as well as roads and off-road vehicle trails.

Volunteers like Gillette, Tony Hess, Gary Sprague and T.J. Murphy have since worked to improve and maintain trails as well as build others to connect existing trails, none of which are longer than 2.6 miles and some as short as a half-mile.

"You can't go a quarter-mile without running into a junction," Gillette says.

That can make finding your way there and back difficult, if not unpredictable, he says.

"We didn't want people to just go out, turn around and come back," Gillette says.

Gillette and others noticed that popular annual 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer runs through the park used trail signs to denote the two different trails, with great success.

"If it works for runners, why can't it work for hikers and mountain bikers?" he asks.

He began hiking and painstakingly measuring various loops, taking detailed notes on exactly what trails he was on and what he could see while on them.

Volunteers then used the color-coded system to map out and mark those various loops, and Gillette's notes were boiled down to individual cards that contain details about the various loops' trails and vistas.

New loops, which include multiple trails, have sprung up, the latest being a 13-mile loop introduced earlier this year. 

Some of the loops piggyback on each other, with many of those stretches marked by two colors on a single diamond.

Trails are accessed at seven different parking areas along Jacksonville Reservoir Road off Highway 238 about a mile outside of town. Most access points sport kiosks with free maps and a set of individual cards for each of the loops accessed at that particular trail head.

On busy spring and fall weekends, more than 100 hikers and mountain bikers could be in the 1,100-acre park simultaneously, yet only encounter a few fellow trail-users, Gillette says.

"The idea is to move people through the park while allowing them to feel comfortable," Gillette says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Clayton Gillette walks past a red diamond marker denoting a loop that includes the Norling Trail in Forest Park near Jacksonville. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]