Dauset Trails Nature Center has been called “Middle Georgia’s hidden jewel,” and for good reason. Generations of school children have loved Dauset Trails because of its menagerie. Indeed, nowhere else in Middle Georgia can children engage so immediately with native wild animals, including a bear, a cougar, a bald eagle, river otters, owls, birds of prey, bobcats, and more.
Children also adore their interactions with the barnyard animals, especially the sociable pigs, grazing goats, and chattering chickens. They love feeding the fish and turtles in the small lake, and dare themselves to come face to face with the alligators and snakes in the reptile room.
Older visitors appreciate the beautifully maintained grounds at Dauset Trails. Neatly constructed wooden bridges, overlooks, and observation decks blend into the natural surroundings. The paved animal trail is inviting to strollers, wheelchairs, and wagons.
It is an unfortunate reality that we live in a region where outdoor recreation areas are often run-down, with bits and pieces of trash punctuating the neglect. In contrast, it’s quite refreshing to visit a park that is so lovingly cared for that visitors are inspired to care for it as well. Around the shaded picnic tables and along the wooded paths, there is no garbage to be found.
Dauset Trails was started by Jackson resident and Georgia Tech graduate Hampton Daughtry and his lifelong friend, David Settle, in 1977. Their goal was to provide a place where people of all ages could simply enjoy being outside and enjoy nature.
The nature center was established early on, accompanied by native animal displays. There was a strong emphasis on animal rehabilitation which continues through to today. All of the animals on the Animal Trail are either injured or orphaned, and an animal caretaker is responsible for feeding and caring for all of the animals.
The chapel was constructed next, followed by the lily pond, the trail systems, and the barnyard.
The Animal Trail, as they call it at Dauset Trails, has grown over the years to include the Wonder Room, where reptiles are housed, the wildlife observation deck overlooking bison, turkeys, and deer, and most recently, the paving of the animal trail to make it accessible to more visitors.
What many middle Georgians don’t know is that the nature center boasts 1400 acres of fields, woodlands, and waterways, including more than twenty miles of trails for hiking or mountain biking and ten miles of horseback riding trails, which are separate from the hiking and biking trails.
Many families also don’t know that Dauset Trails hosts a variety of special events throughout the year. From their Bluebirds and Bluegrass Festival, held on the Saturday immediately before Easter, to the Movies Under the Stars series, held on the big lawn in front of the Lotus Pond through the warmer months, these events are often geared toward families with young children.
In the mid-90’s, the barnyard was built. Modeled after a 19th century farm, the barnyard includes a barn, a chicken coop, a corn crib, assorted antique tools, and a wagon. Families go to visit the assorted farm animals, including chickens, pigs, goats, cows, a mule, and a donkey, without realizing that Dauset Trails is a working farm.
The caretakers consume the eggs from the chickens and raise the steer and hogs for food. They use the farm as a teaching tool to help people understand farm life and where our food comes from.
To enhance the educational experience, a working cane syrup mill, an evaporator cooking shed, and a kettle cooking shed were constructed a little over a decade ago. In the fall, the Dauset Trails staff, who are experienced in many aspects of turn of the century farm life, come out to make cane syrup at the mill, and the public are invited to attend this educational event. This year’s cane syrup making day is November 18, 2017.
About a decade ago, Dauset Trails added the Acorn Forge. The Acorn Forge is the barnyard’s blacksmithing shop. Like the barnyard and cane syrup mill, the forge is an operational replica of what a farm would have used in the 19th century. The Ocmulgee Blacksmithing Guild uses the Acorn Forge to demonstrate their craft. They build up the fire and show visitors how farm implements would have been forged.
In the summer of 2013, Dauset Trails completed construction on two new barnyard exhibits, Lamar’s Store and the tenant house. Lamar’s Store is an example of a mid-20th century country store, while the tenant house is based in the same time period, which are open during special events and historical experience days.
In recent years, Dauset Trails has started to host more and more races, including both cycling races and cross country runs. In October 2017, the trails hosted the Region 4 AAA Cross Country competition for area high school runners. In November 2017, they hosted the National Interscholastic Cycling Association Mountain Bike Race.
The trails are challenging, but they are loved by cyclists, runners, and hikers alike.
For middle Georgians who think of Dauset Trails as “the kindergarten field trip,” this fall is the perfect time to explore all they have to offer. Outdoor education and wildlife exploration is just the beginning!
Dauset Trails Nature Center is located at 360 Mt. Vernon Road in Jackson, Georgia. They are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while the hiking and biking trails are open until 10 p.m. Parking and admission are free. Dogs on leashes are allowed on the hiking and biking trails but not in the Nature Center area.
For more information about Dauset Trails, see their website at www.dausettrails.com.