Florida Trail: Thompson House Trailhead to Cathedral of Palms and Shepherd Spring, St. Marks, Florida
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Florida. Nearly 50 miles of the Florida Trail pass through the refuge, which has a mixture of wetlands, pine flatwoods, palm hammocks, creeks, and even springs and salt water views. Shepherd Spring is one of the major points of interest in St. Marks NWR, and the nearby Cathedral of Palms - a large patch of old growth cabbage palm forest - is a very unique sight. This hike on the Florida Trail visits both of these features using the long way through a variety of ecosystems east of Wakulla Beach Road. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 31st, 2016. My plan was to hike the Florida Trail from the Thompson House Trailhead near US 98 to Shepherd Spring, passing through the Cathedral of Palms. My return route would include much of the same trail, but to make a difference, I would use two high water routes on my way back.
With a size of over 200,000 acres, Tate's Hell State Forest is one of Florida's largest state forests. Its only official hiking trail is the High Bluff Coastal Trail, which traverses pine flatwoods and ancient sand dunes near the Forgotten Coast. In fact, one of the sand dunes is tall enough to provide an elevated view toward the southern end of the forest, where the Gulf of Mexico is just a thin blue sliver. In addition, black bears are common in Tate's Hell State Forest and neighboring Apalachicola National Forest, and on this hike, it is possible to spot this elusive creature or find evidence of its activity. This hike occurred on Monday, December 26th, 2016. My plan was to hike the High Bluff Coastal Loop in a clockwise direction. Along the way, I would take a short side trail to an elevated view of the surrounding terrain and the Gulf of Mexico in the distance.
The Cimarron segment of the Florida Trail runs through the northern edge of the Eglin Air Force Base, in the vicinity of the Yellow River. While at the moment, this trail segment is not part of the official route of the Florida Trail - due to the lack of a bridge across the Yellow River - it is still maintained by the Florida Trail Association and often hiked. The Cimarron Trail passes through several miles of pine flatwoods and other upland ecosystems before dropping down into a Yellow River floodplain swamp, where there are multiple views of the river, a variety of sloughs to see, and a potential swamp slog depending on recent rainfall. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 24th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Cimarron Trail out and back from Highway 85 to the terminus of the trail at the Yellow River.
Prospect Bluff, located on the east side of the Apalachicola River deep in present-day Apalachicola National Forest, is the site of two forts, including Fort Gadsden, which had remained there until 1821, when Florida became a US territory. At the time, no highways or railroads existed, so the fort was located in a strategic spot at a high point near the Apalachicola River, which used to be the main transportation route for the area. Traces of the old fort can still be seen today on this short hike, and the Fort Gadsden Interpretive Area has detailed information regarding the history of this site. This hike occurred on Saturday, August 20th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Fort Gadsden Nature Trail counter-clockwise. This trail is also known as the Wiregrass-Genetian Trail, named for a rare wildflower that can be seen in the woods near Prospect Bluff.
Florida Trail: Scott Road to Devil's Hole Recreation Area (Econfina Creek Segment) and Trap Pond Spur Trail, Panama City, Florida
Traverse dozens of ravines, view fast streams and tumbling cascades, visit bluffs with excellent views of a a creek gorge - sounds like a perfect hike for your mountain vacation, right? Oh wait! It's right in Florida. The Econfina Creek segment of the Florida Trail is as unique as a hike could get in Florida, and you would barely be able to tell that you're in Florida, if the palmetto wasn't there. This spectacular section of the FT first descends into the Econfina Creek valley, passing some rapids on the creek, before following this waterway for many miles with a number of scenic sights along the way. This hike occurred on Friday, August 19th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Florida Trail out and back from Scott Road to Devil's Hole Recreation Area. Along the way, I would also hike the side trail to Trap Pond.
St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve: Deal Tract Trails (Old Pine Bay Trail and Hammock Spur Trail), Port St. Joe, Florida
St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve is a 5000-acre preserve near St. Joseph Bay that was created to protect the bay's water quality and conserve the natural shoreline habitats. The main tract of the preserve lies just east of County Road 30A, providing numerous hiking possibilities in the sand dune system there along many forest roads. A separate small tract of the preserve, known as the Deal Tract, is located on St. Joseph Peninsula near Cape San Blas. This preserve is home to two short hiking trails that lead through several island ecosystems and to great views of St. Joseph Bay. This hike occurred on Saturday, August 13th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Old Pine Bay Trail out and back to the main St. Joseph Bay observation area. On my return trip, I would also hike the Hammock Spur Trail out and back. I returned on Saturday, December 30th, 2017, discovering several changes to the trail.
Manatee Springs State Park: Manatee Springs and Manatee Springs Run Boardwalk to Suwannee River, Chiefland, Florida
Out of all of the different aspects of nature in Florida, the springs are perhaps the best-known. There are dozens of large springs in northern Florida, some of which pump out millions of gallons of water per day. A lot of the biggest springs are the focal points of state parks, and a large amount of people find them suitable for various recreational uses, including swimming in the crystal clear waters or kayaking the outflow streams that flow away from the springs. Manatee Springs is one such example. This spring is a first-magnitude spring with an output of about 100 million gallons of water per day! While Manatee Springs are certainly the primary point of interest in Manatee Springs State Park, an extensive trail system also meanders through other portions of this large park, although unfortunately, on this day, I did not have the opportunity to check it out. This hike occurred on Sunday, July 31st, 2016. My plan was to visit Manatee Springs, before hiking the boardwalk along Manatee Springs Run to its mouth at the Suwannee River. I would return the same way.
Hillsborough River State Park is one of the most popular outdoor recreation destinations in the Tampa Bay area, and for good reason. This state park, which is home to one of the southernmost sets of rapids in Florida - a set of Class II rapids on the Hillsborough River - as well as a suspension bridge that dates back to the CCC days. For the hiker, the park has several trails. The Rapids Trail provides an easy access to the Hillsborough River Rapids, a unique sight this far south in such a flat landscape. The Baynard Trail provides a quick excursion on the north side of the river, and the more remote Florida Trail Loop, which was built by the Florida Trail Association, is your best for a more remote hike that explores a wild and lush swampy area north of the Hillsborough River. The loop trail then circles back along the river, with numerous superb views of this urban yet wild waterway. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 27th, 2016. My plan was to hike the north side of the Rapids Trail to the Baynard Trail, then hike the Baynard Trail, before completing the Florida Trail Loop counter-clockwise. I would finish by returning along the south side of the Rapids Trail. An unexpected closure of the suspension bridge forced me to abandon my plan of hiking the Baynard Trail, but I fulfilled the rest of my plan.
Jonathan Dickinson State Park: Kitching Creek Trail, Ocean-to-Lake Trail (Kitching Creek to White Trail), and White Trail to Camp Murphy Ruins, Jupiter, Florida
Coming in at 11,500 acres, Jonathan Dickinson State Park is one of the largest state parks in Florida, and it is complete with an extensive trail system of over twenty miles. The park has a variety of habitats, ranging from scrubby sand dunes on the east end, with Hobe Mountain being the highest, to pine flatwoods dotted by cypress domes that occupy much of the park, to wetter hammocks along Kitching Creek and the Loxahatchee River in the park's western and southern regions. This hike occurred on Saturday, July 23rd, 2016. My plan was to hike the Kitching Creek Loop and the the Ocean-to-Lake Trail to the White Loop, completing the White Loop as well. Unfortunately, major changes in the trail system brought me into ultimate confusion and forced me to greatly alter my plans. I ended up hiking only part of the Kitching Creek Loop and White Loop, and I also accidentally hiked a portion of the Ocean-to-Lake Trail westward. Additionally, I ended the hike with a several-mile roadwalk due to exhaustion and time shortage.
South Florida is best known for its sugar cane farms, swamps such as the Everglades, cities like Miami and Naples, and Lake Okeechobee. One of the more secret special places is a relatively little-known "hill" called Hobe Mountain - an ancient sand dune near Jupiter Island that rises to a height of 84 feet above sea level. In this mostly flat land, Hobe Mountain is a unique location, which has an observation tower that is most easily accessed using a short boardwalk in Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Jonathan Dickinson State Park itself is a mecca for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, as it has over two dozen miles of hiking trails, in addition to many other recreational opportunities. On this day, I first hiked the short trail to Hobe Mountain, before embarking on a much longer hike through the park. This hike occurred on Saturday, July 23rd, 2016. My plan was to hike the boardwalk out and back to Hobe Mountain and its observation tower.
The Florida scrub is an endangered habitat that is found mainly on sand ridges throughout the state. It is relatively common to encounter a scrub in central Florida along the Lake Wales Ridge, as well as in coastal areas of eastern Florida and the state's panhandle. However, Balm-Boyette Scrub is one of a few rare scrubs in west Florida and around the Tampa area, which makes it more special than some of the scrubs on the Lake Wales Ridge. Two preserves adjacent to each other facilitate hiking access into the scrub. The main hiking trail also passes past several creeks, all of which are tributaries of the Alafia River. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 20th, 2016. My plan was to hike clockwise the loop trail that passes through both Triple Creek Preserve and Balm-Boyette Scrub Preserve.
Catfish Creek State Park is in an area of Florida called the Lake Wales Ridge: a long elevated strip of land in central Florida with elevation peaking at 312 feet on Sugarloaf Mountain. Originally, the ridge was a series of "sand islands" over a million years ago, when most of the rest of Florida was actually underwater. Much of the Lake Wales Ridge has unaltered, conserved scrub habitat, which is essential for the areas dozens of endangered plants and animals, such as the sand skink, gopher tortoise, and scrub jay. On this hike, you'll scramble up to some of the region's highest hills, with their dazzling bright sand, as well as drop down into shady depressions where lakes abound. Additionally, you'll visit the site of an old sod farm and get to see some of the remaining structures - if they're still there by the time you're reading this. This hike occurred on Saturday, July 16th, 2016. My plan was to begin hiking the long loop counter-clockwise, before taking the medium loop connector across to the other side of the loop. From there, I would begin hiking the long loop in the clockwise direction, but not for long - I would then hike out and back the side trail to the sod farm ruins. After this, I would hike the long loop to the medium loop connector, and after hiking the connector for a second time, I would hike the remaining section of the long loop.
Cedar Point Environmental Park is one of two preserves that are operated by the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, with the other one being the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Park south of Punta Gorda. Cedar Point Environmental Park protects 130 acres of land along Lemon Bay. The park's namesake is Cedar Point, a small promontory that stretches out into Lemon Bay, separating the bay from Oyster Creek. On this hike, you will first be treated to a couple views of Oyster Creek just east of its mouth, before seeing Lemon Bay itself from Cedar Point. Much of the hike is in pine flatwoods or palm hammocks, but for the tiny size of this parcel of land, the feeling of remoteness is greater than one would expect. This hike occurred on Wedneday, July 13th, 2016. My plan was to make an outer loop across the entire Cedar Point Environmental Park's extremely confusing trail system. I would make a side trip to Cedar Point along the way.
The chief attraction of Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is the namesake Okaloacoochee Slough: a long, pristine north-south slough that is one of the areas of southwest Florida, outside of the Everglades, still in its pre-Columbian state. Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest is also one of the few places in Florida where you can spot the elusive Florida panther. There are several hiking trails in the forest, but on this day, my plan was to simply hike the short nature trail. This trail ends at a boardwalk that provides a great panorama of the slough, where you can spot alligators in the water and deer splashing through the wetlands. This hike occurred on Saturday, July 9th, 2016. My plan was to hike the short nature trail to the end of the boardwalk and back.
In many cases, a long hike through a swamp is a challenging hike that is not for the light-hearted. But the twelve-mile balloon loop through Bird Rookery Swamp is a mostly dry hike along old logging tramways that leads into the heart of the wild swamp without the hiker expending a lot of effort. On this hike, you will make a large loop through this remote corner of the Corkscrew Swamp Land and Water Trust, where alligators abound in great numbers, and hawks look down upon you from the dry canopy above the water. This hike occurred on Saturday, July 9th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Bird Rookery Swamp balloon loop counter-clockwise from the trailhead on Shady Hollow Boulevard.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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