One of the shortest nature trails at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Plum Orchard Nature Trail packs several interesting sights in its 0.7 miles, including a small pond that is good for birding, a boardwalk across a marsh, and a dense corridor of saw palmetto. This hike occurred on Friday, January 1st, 2016. My plan was to hike five nature trails at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on this day, as well as one of the primitive trails. The Plum Orchard Nature Trail was the first nature trail I hiked on this day. My plan was to hike the short loop clockwise.
R/T Length of Trail: 0.7 Miles
Duration of Hike: 0:20
Type of Hike: Lasso
Difficulty Rating: 1 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: Minimal
Pros: Birding opportunities
Trail Blaze Color(s): None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round
Fees: As of 1/1/16, the fees for entry to the St. Marks Unit of the St. Marks NWR are $5 per car or motorcycle, and $1 per bicycle or pedestrian. There is also an annual pass that costs $25. Please note that entry to all other units of the St. Marks Unit (Panacea, Wakulla, and Aucilla Units) is free.
Beginning Point: St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center
Directions: From Newport, FL: Take Lighthouse Road (County Road 59) southward from US Route 98 just east of the bridge over the St. Marks River. Please note that Lighthouse Road is a dead-end road that only serves the St. Marks Unit of St. Marks NWR. 3.3 miles from US 98, you will reach a fee booth upon entry into the St. Marks NWR. If there is no attendant here, continue straight. In another 0.3 miles, reach a fee station to the right of the road. Pay here. The visitor center and parking is just ahead. Park at the visitor center. The trail starts behind the visitor center (I will provide more details below).
A map and some other information regarding this hike can be viewed here.
On the first day of 2016, I came to St. Marks NWR for a day of hiking on a number of nature trails with a bonus of primitive trail. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but my expectations weren't very high for any of the trails. As it turns out, this destination, and in particular the Stoney Bayou Loop (primitive trail) is my favorite one in Florida. Each trail I hiked here was better than the previous one. It all started with the first nature trail on the entrance road, Lighthouse Road. This nature trail is known as Plum Orchard Pond Nature Trail. While this trail certainly was the least interesting out of all of them, it is still worth a stop, a few pictures, and perhaps the sight of a few birds at Plum Orchard Pond.
The most difficult part of this hike is trying to find the start of the nature trail. The trail is supposed to start "at the visitor center", or as some say, "behind the visitor center". But this doesn't really tell much, as there is no telling where the trail is when you look around yourself at the visitor center. To locate the start of the trail, walk down the parking lot, pass the environmental education building, and walk down a dirt track next to the building. Service vehicles probably use this driveway to transport materials to the visitor center. You will soon reach a butterfly garden. Continue straight, and reach a pond at the back of the environmental education building. This is Plum Orchard Pond. Also, it is my understanding that the Plum Orchard Nature Trail starts here, unless there is some other way to get to this point. At 0.2 miles from the parking, reach the start of the loop, with a broad path continuing straight along the pond, and a boardwalk heading off to the right. Continue straight. You continue to see views of the pond to your left - it is likely that you're going to see some birds at the pond. Soon, the trail leaves the pond and enters a long system of boardwalks across a set of marshes. Interpretive signs are spaced regularly throughout the trail. The next feature on the trail is an interesting corridor of saw palmetto at the end of one of the boardwalks. Here, the trail narrows to a path that squeezes between two sets of saw palmetto - they grow fairly tall here! After this, one final boardwalk takes you back to the start of the loop, which you reach at 0.5 miles. From here, it is another 0.2 miles back to the trailhead, for a total of 0.7 miles.
There is a number of other nature trails, as well as two primitive trails, located on Lighthouse Road. These are all good to add on to the day you hike this trail.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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