Location: Juniper Prairie Wilderness, Ocala National Forest, Central Florida
Our boots sunk deep in the sugar white sand, making each step more laborious than we were used to. My calves had begun to burn right along with my pale skin. There was no shade to hide under, no trees to from which to seek relief. Florida is a state with more than 30,000 lakes, but around us was as hot and dry as a desert. I had grown up in North Central Florida, and knew just how unforgiving the heat could be, but the Southern winters had become much too warm for me to go hunting with Ruger 10/22. My years away in cold mountainous places had thickened my blood, giving me cause to strip off layers of outerwear and hastily shove them into my day pack. My Father took broad strides, and if I slowed for even a moment I would lose pace with him. Any digging around in my backpack had to be done at a trot.
Since my return we had been hiking together around my hometown, Ocala. Certain unspoken rules had developed, forming a family trail culture of our own. We moved briskly, and didn’t talk much. When we did speak it was generally light commentary on our surroundings, both of us acknowledging that part of what we were seeking on the trail was the silence of nature and the subsequent clarity of thought. With Florida being the 4th most populous state in the nation, traversing through wide open space was a form of sweet relief to us. No trail in the state delivers this relief like the Florida Trail.
The Florida Trail, running from the Big Cypress swamp in the south all the way up to the Gulf Islands Seashore in the panhandle, opens up over 1,136 miles of trail to residents. This footpath cuts a long and winding course up the center of the state, often twisting off in side routes and offering alternate loops. Bit by bit, my father and I had been working at sections of the trail over the last two years. It was easy starting out. The Florida trail cut quite close to our home, beelining a direct east-west path through our county on the Cross Florida Greenway. In an afternoon we could hop on the trail and complete a short 3-4 mile section, then be home by dinner time. Lately though, we were slowly driving further and further away to find trailheads as we trekked our way across the state. With each orange blazed tree we hiked past, our distance from home increased, requiring us to plan better for our hikes than we had previously. Rather than tossing a water bottle in a backpack and hitting the trail, we now packed lunches, hunted down Forest Service roads, and arranged transportation. Our hikes were increasing in length as well. Once out of the Greenway area, which was criss-crossed by city streets every few miles, we entered increasingly more desolate places, often doubling the length of our treks from one trailhead to the next.
My father paused on the trail to wipe his brow and looked back to me. I saw an opportunity, and dropped my small pack in a passive aggressive demand for a water break. It was late January, and already the few cool days that make up a Southern winter had left us. It was getting too warm to be outside on dry land. Despite our trail system, Floridians are not big hikers. While on the trail, even in beautiful weather, we rarely come across other foot traffic. Florida people are water oriented, and most recreation is centered around lakes, springs, rivers, and beaches. We do not have spanning mountain vistas or towering aspen cathedrals to inspire the soul. Instead we have swamp lands, oppressively thick underbrush, and pine scrub forests. To see the beauty in these places, it helps to have an eye for the details of the woods. The subtropical species of plants and animals that thrive in these areas are stunning in their resilience. Looking around, I thought in amazement about the early settlers of the area, and their reasons for choosing such a place.
The Ocala National Forest (often referred to as the heart of the Florida Trail) encompasses around 383,000 acres of land, and the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, sitting squarely in the middle of it, comprises 14,283 acres. My father and I were somewhere with in those bounds, but with neither one of us carrying a GPS we could never be quite sure where. One thing was certain, we were alone with good reason. In the Rocky Mountain West it is easy to understand why certain areas were never (and hopefully will never be) developed. The terrain is impassible or too difficult to carve out for city life, and so it is left alone. In the Juniper Prairie Wilderness life would have been much the same.
Just before entering the Wilderness area on the north end of the trail, a side trail spurs off into a strand of pines and scrub oak. Leading past the remains of an old homestead, hikers are given a glimpse of what life might have been like in old Florida, path, known as the Yearling Trail, winds it’s way around an old cattle operation. Slashing our way through waist high palmettos and cacti, we shook our heads wondering why on Earth anyone would settle here? So inspiring were these settlers lives, that author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings immortalized their tales in her classic novels, Cross Creek and The Yearling. Today, curious hikers can visit the old homestead, though what is left leaves much to the imagination. An old grave yard is maintained and there are markers for various spots along the trail that indicate where the homes were. The sprawling cattle operation took place throughout what is now the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, though few if any signs of it remain there.
The section of the Florida Trail we were determined to conquer ran south from an area called Pat’s Island just over 8 miles to the Juniper Springs Recreation area. Pat’s Island of course, was not an island at all, but rather a small rise in the landscape giving anyone on top of it a slight advantage with the view. We had planned ahead and parked a car in the recreation area lot so that we wouldn’t have to double back the way we came. Along the trail, the remnants of burnt out old pines and scrub oaks stood like blackened skeletons, reaching for the sky. The scrub habitat is by nature very dry, and thus especially susceptible to wildfires.
The majority of our trail was without any shade, the trees having burnt up long ago. In their place a sea of bristly palmettos rolled in like a tide, reaping the nutrients from the ashes.
Though our topographical map indicated many ponds along our route, we found most of them to be nothing more than shallow depressions covered in tall grass, or half empty mud pits for wild hogs to root in. These marshy areas in a different season, were most likely the ponds as indicated. In the dry month of January, it would be easy to miss them altogether.
Unmistakable though, was Hidden Pond, a welcome oasis in an otherwise desert like area. Approaching the pond, water could clearly be seen. When raised in the swamp lands, children grow up with what becomes a second nature cautiousness around the banks of any body of water. Venomous snakes like the Cottonmouth (aka Water Moccasin) along with alligators, were common place along banks of lakes and rivers. The fact that Hidden Pond was comprised of still murky water increased the likelihood of reptile inhabitants. We approached watchfully, but did not see any sign of trouble. For the first time a strand of scrub oaks stood tall enough for us to rest under, and we paused to enjoy the shade. If backpacking through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, the Hidden Pond area makes for a great place to set up camp. There is a clear site designated up on a hill overlooking the pond, not too close as to place you in the way of thirsty animals making their nightly rounds.
Dusting off granola crumbs and gathering ourselves, we continued on our short southernly migration. Various “ponds” had drawn the attention of Sandhill Cranes, which made for happy entertainment. Though the tracks on the sandy path of the trail indicated that we were on an animal superhighway, we rarely saw wildlife in person. Most common sightings were of birds, whether they be Turkey Vultures, owls, or Sandhill Cranes. Children are taught in grade school that birds all fly south for the winter. As a young girl, I was always confused by this. We talked about birds flying south, meaning they were going away. To me it looked like in the winter we had more birds than ever. This, of course, was a valid observation. Florida is that southernly destination that many species flock to. Stretches of the Florida Trail, especially those with any form of water, generally make for wonderful birding during the winter months. Species like the Sandhills Crane are both beautiful and engaging to watch in a natural setting.
Retreating from the sun, we cheerfully followed the trail into an area of longleaf pines. Peaking from behind these pines ahead of us lay the answer to our speculation. Stretched out for acres beyond the trees was an area of flowing tall grass land. It would have been a cattle herders’ delight. A disadvantage of flat land is that you have no opportunity to climb to a vantage point and gaze around. Features like this prairie can appear seemingly out of nowhere and surprise a hiker with the sudden change in landscape.
This prairie, and surely others like it out of our view, were why the settlers had established their cattle operation in this otherwise harsh wilderness. Vast expanses of delicious grass would have been ideal for their living. Hiking the trail down from the settlements near Pat’s Island, it was almost as if the history of the area was guiding us to these pastures along the trail, revealing in time the logic behind the settlers’ existence. I smiled at my father as we nodded in agreement over our discovery. This trail had a story and it was finally starting to make sense.
Hopping over dried up creek beds and shuffling past countless orange blazes, we neared the end of our journey. Like a pot of gold nestled at the end of a rainbow, the Juniper Springs Recreation area was a miraculously and almost unrecognizable site at the end of our dry trek. Though incredibly scorched in some areas, the geology of Florida is much like a soaked sponge. Just under the ground are tremendous networks of water, pumping up through cave systems and erupting quietly on the surface into serene swimming holes. Juniper Springs is one such place, attracting visitors for decades to cool off in it’s constantly 72 degree water.
Kicking off my boots, I soaked my feet in the cool water. If the settlers had known about the secluded prairies, surely they had known about this spring too. Perhaps after a hot day of doctoring cattle they’d rest and cool off here as well. I felt like I began to see the area through the eyes of the settlers, and thus began to truly understand the draw of such a place. The story of the pioneers of Florida was just one day hike, and one lesson, learned from 8 miles of the Florida Trail. With 1,128 more miles to go, there was no telling what secrets of the backcountry we would learn.
Guest post from Eric John – LifeUnderSky.com