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At work yesterday Fleetwood Mac came on the radio, Gold Dust Woman, and I was immediately transported back to Ocala National Forest and our short stop at the 88 Store, where we picked up our maildrop, showered, and ate ice cream and drank sodas. Gold Dust Woman didn’t come on the radio but Gypsy did, but I think any time Steve Nicks’ voice comes on the radio I will think about Florida and backpacking.
Oddly enough when I went to pull up the photo on Flickr it said it was taken on January 31, 2011. How’s that for intuition?
Sunrise at Gulf Islands National Seashore, March 3, 2011….18 miles left until we finished.
Finished! We walked through Florida!
On top of Fort Pickens
How was this a year ago? It seems like closer than that. While the Appalachian Trail seems light years away now, I think the Florida Trail seems closer because of our closer relationship with Florida itself. While I am glad to be in Texas again, I sometimes wish I had done more exploring and had gotten to know Florida more intimately, exploring its other locales.
Despite the road walks, I do recommend hiking this trail. It’s a ‘quick’ trail, it’s flat and it offers up habitats that many people don’t get to see or appreciate. It is a different mindset and I’m hoping that with the book I am writing about our hike on the Florida Trail that I can sway more people to hike the trail. Not only that, I want the trail to become better. It has a vast amount of potential and it can only get better if people are out there appreciating it.
I hope we have more long distance trails for us in the future, even if we are a few decades older when that happens. Long distance trails are challenging in so many ways but worth it when all is said and done.
While there is a plethora of information out there about hiking the Appalachian Trail I realized there isn’t that much on the Florida Trail. Sure there’s the guidebook and other forums and some trail journals, but what about some of the logistics? You can ask a question on Whiteblaze about the AT and get an answer quickly. Heck, you don’t even have to ask the question, usually a quick search will bring you what you are looking for.
I was talking with my AT friend, Merf, who is contemplating doing the FT this coming winter and told her I’d write something up for her. But then I realized that I should do a post on it for everyone else.
What helped Chris and I to begin with on the FT was that we were already familiar with it since we’d lived in Florida for eight years. We’d done some sections and so we knew some of what to expect. We weren’t flying blind like the AT. The other good thing was we’d already done one long distance trail so we knew how to pack, how to plan and what exactly to do in the wild.
This little guide isn’t a be-all-and-end-all guide. It’s what we did and what I feel worked well for us. If you have any other particular questions feel free to drop me a line.
Before you go on your hike you will need to contact the Florida Trail Association. They will send you a thru-hiker pack with information on the hike, including forms that are required to be filled out for the Seminole Indian Reservation as well as the Eglin Air Force Base.
I also suggest buying the Florida Trail maps and guidebook. This isn’t like the AT where the guidebook is all you need, the maps are vital to figuring out some turns and road walk sections that might be inadequately blazed.
Before I begin there are three things you should get in your head and accept as part of the hike:
They are there and inevitable until the trail is moved off them. 2: Water Crossings:
The two more notorious sections, Big Cypress and Apalachicola, will involve wading in water from a few inches to knee deep in some areas. Some spots are short, some aren’t. Also, the trail can flood after a rain. More on that below. 3: Flat Land:
A lot of folks are used to hiking in mountains, so you will have to look at the views and vistas of Florida differently. There are some rolling sections in the north and panhandle, but nothing of consequence. Accept that Florida is flat and enjoy it for what it is, a nice piece of sub-tropical land that houses quite a few areas of unique habitat that you won’t find anywhere else.
Here’s what else you should know:
There are very few shelters along this trail, so few that I can count them on one hand. If you’ve done the AT and slept in shelters most of the time you’ll need to find another alternative for this trail. A hammock will work, but there are some stretches along levees and Lake Okeechobee where there are no trees to hang your hammock, so you might sleep on the ground with a tarp instead.
Or pack a tent.
Florida is humid and so condensation will plague your tent/shelter. We had to take ours out at lunch daily to dry out and if we forgot we’d have to set it up as soon as we got to camp and hope it was dry by the time we wanted to get in it. A three season tent will work fine.
As for camping locations, for the most part there are also very few designated campsites. Even if there is a designated campsite you may not want to stay at them due to where your mileage puts you, so stealthing is always an option. Except in the areas you traverse owned by the U.S. Military. Don’t risk it. Just camp where you are supposed to or get through the area that day to camp elsewhere. I’m talking about Eglin AFB and two other military bombing ranges.
There are also stretches on road walks that do not provide camping access. Unless you are hiking with support more than likely you will need to do some tricky stealthing. Or asking permission behind a store or the like. These aren’t 5 and 10 mile stretches, more like the 30+ mile stretches that will cause you to be in these types of situations. Some of them you might be able to maneuver around and get through in a day doing big miles, like we did between Blountstown and Econfina Creek, but others prove more difficult. Look at your map several days in advance to plan out where you might end up.
If you have a particular question on an area, feel free to email me for more direct information on where we camped….but I can’t verify that it is a safe or legal place to stay. That’s your decision and liability. If a property owner or police officer asks you to leave, do it.
Oh, and there are rarely privies. Dig a hole and follow leave no trace ethics.
Water to drink:
Water is for the most part plentiful. In the south you will find it in the cypress domes and sloughs as well as in canals and Lake Okeechobee. Anything in peninsular Florida will come in the form of a pond, small lake, river or canal. You will need to filter or treat this water. It will also be tannin colored, ie: looking like strong tea. It doesn’t taste bad and if it is in the hydration system of your pack you won’t know any better. I suggest using a filter for this water to get rid of some of the debris that might be in it. You could come across clear running tannin colored water and might use drops instead. We carried both a filter and drops and switched to using drops when we started hitting springs up north. Send an extra filter cartridge in a mail drop to switch out half way through. In general we did not have problems finding water to drink, however in a really dry year it could be trickier.
Water on the trail:
Winter is the ‘dry’ season for Florida. If you don’t know Florida seasons, there are two: wet and dry. What is good about the dry season is that in general you don’t have to wade in water like you would in the summer. I say “in general” because you will cross some wet sections, particularly if the dry season hasn’t fully hit yet. We had some water in Big Cypress when we went through, however we have also hiked that section when it was bone dry and water wasn’t even available in the cypress domes. If it happens to rain, low spots will become soggy so that is to be expected in some parts of the FT. For the most part you should stay fairly dry. The next ‘wet’ section would be in Apalachicola when crossing through the ti-ti sloughs. It is also possible to get wet after a rain event when crossing swollen creeks leading into the Suwanee River.
Getting food is a bit trickier here than on the AT. We planned all of our drops and resupply carefully, but I suppose one could wing it. It would be more difficult and require hitching, something we wanted to keep to a minimum. Hitching on the AT is one thing, when most people know about the trail and are used to thru-hikers. It’s another thing in Florida when the majority of the general population doesn’t know the trail exists. Below is our resupply list and why we chose them (we followed the eastern route around Orlando):
Big Cypress Seminole Reservation:
We had a friend drop food off to us at the Big Cypress RV Campground (also a good place to stay, shower and do laundry) but once there we realized that a quick call ahead would result in this being a good place to to mail a food drop. There are also a couple of gas stations on C.R. 833 to the south of where the FT goes, but they are off trail and probably not the best resupply, but an option nonetheless.
This is an easy jaunt into this tiny agricultural town. The grocery store in town has plenty of resupply options. Plus, a Burger King makes a great place for greasy calories.
Okeechobee/Okeetantie Recreation Area:
Here we called a trail angel to get a ride into Okeechobee, which otherwise if going in this direction around the lake is three extra mile to the east. The FTA will send out a trail angel list for people servicing particular areas when you get your thru-hiker packet. Give them a call ahead of time to see if they are willing to shuttle you into town for a resupply. We got a hold of trail angel Lori for this section and resupplied here. Unless you want to go off trail by hitching in the coming miles, a big resupply is needed here. There are no nearby, easily accessible towns for awhile.
We did not resuppply here but this middle of nowhere resort has a post office. Contact River Ranch or the post office on site for a possible mail drop. If absolutely needed there is a general store/sandwich shop that could provide food in a pinch. We saw a lot of canned goods though, so you might have trouble finding light weight options. This would be a good place to split up the distance if needed.
U.S. 441/Three Lakes WMA:
We resupplied here with a friend who dropped food off for us, however you could hitch into Keanansvile from here.
Because we’d planned our resupply with the book instead of looking at the maps too, we didn’t realize that the trail had been rerouted from downtown Chuluota and went around the town instead. Luckily we had enough food because we’d been doing bigger miles, but don’t count on this one if you are going by the guidebook.
Once you reach the Orlando metro area at Oveido there will be many options for resupply. The best, though, is a Publix grocery store in Lake Mary, just over the I-4 bridge to the north.
The 88 Store:
In the heart of Ocala National Forest, I highly recommend sending a mail drop to this convenience store/bar. It is probably the only place on the FT that has the sense of camaraderie and overall ‘trailness’ that you might find on the AT. They will definitely hold packages, just call in advance to double check about ownership etc, and there is a nice blue blaze off the FT to get to the store. You can also pay for a shower and get permission to camp behind the store if you imbibe a few too many beers when you arrive.
The trail goes right through this town and there are several restaurants and fast-food places to eat at here. There’s also a great grocery store and two-dollar stores for resupply.
We did a mail drop here and after going through this town I still recommend a drop. There is no longer a grocery store, and the outfitter that used to be in town is now several miles out of town. There are a few gas stations and a Dollar General for extras, but get a mail drop. This was also the one town where the postmaster told us he’d hold our box for only a certain amount of time before sending it back. So, be careful about when you have your family/friends at home send your box.
We got stuck here because while the trail angel list says folks will service this area, they are actually quite far away. The one person who might have been able to help us was doing a hike that weekend only about 10 miles behind us. So, we opted for hitching north to Shady Grove, a tiny, blinking light kind of town. Our resupply was the ‘general store’ aka: an overpriced gas station. But, we got what we needed and only had to make it a few days before the next resupply. We opted to hitch to Shady Grove despite Perry being a bigger town. We thought it might be more difficult to get out of Perry if we were deep inside the city at a Walmart.
This is a teeny-tiny fishing village of a town. We resupplied at the very small grocery store. There were some very old items on the shelves, too, but we managed to put together a resupply. If you are staying at one of the fishing cabins that will shuttle you across the St. Marks river (instead of hitching a boat) you might be able to do a drop there.
You could stop in Bristol and go off trail to the grocery store there or go off trail in Blountstown to the grocery store. Since we stayed at a motel in Blountstown we were able to get a shuttle to the laundromat and the Piggly Wiggly for resupply.
Again this was an oops on our part, not realizing the book and maps had changed. The map had shown a reroute through Pine Log State Forest to provide camping opportunities (though that doesn’t necessarily work if the miles don’t add up) so since we had sent a drop to the Ebro post office we did half the Pine Log SF and cut up S.R. 79 when the trail crossed it to hit the post office. Really this is the best thing to do in this section for a drop, though there are gas stations near the post office at S.R. 79 and S.R. 20.
The trail goes through town and there is a Walmart, Publix and plenty of places to eat. Easy resupply.
We chose to end our hike at Fort Pickens instead of at the Alabama border. If you choose to do the Alabama border route, pick up enough supplies in Crestview to get you to Alabama. Navarre:
We were going to resupply for the last stretch but since Chris’ dad was coming to pick us up we skipped this resupply. If needed there are several places in Navarre to get supplies.
There are plenty of other places to resupply, some further off trail than this. These are just what we optioned to do and feel like they worked best for us. A little further planning on the Perry thing might have made us carry a few extra days of food out of White Springs, but it all worked out. I think one of those hiker-to-town bandannas might work out for hitchhiking on the FT.
Road walks will be a fact of life on the FT. We didn’t realize how much there was until we started looking at the maps the closer we got to particular areas. Some of the road walks will be on quiet roads but others will have high speed traffic with no shoulder to walk on. Sometimes the grassy median will be sloped and it can be cumbersome to walk. It’s just a fact of life until the trail can be rerouted off the roads. Many of the road walks are due to private property and the lack of access to land in those areas.
If you are interested in particular areas to stealth camp on some of the roads, please email me and I can give you a decent idea of areas near the road. Some roads actually have a bit of a buffer areas with shrubbery that provide cover for your tent, others not so much.
In addition to the roads other areas like levees and forest roads are not taken into account of the total road walk mileage. In the south, levees will be common to walk on and are comprised of crushed limestone. Some areas like the Lake Butler Forest will have forest road detours around nasty logging areas where the trail is supposed to go through. I highly recommend taking the white blazed alternatives as the real trail sometimes follows logged areas over grown with blackberries and water filled troughs.
I do not recommend the western loop around Orlando as there is a greater percentage of road walking than on the eastern loop. But, it’s up to you and what you want to see.
While Florida winters are typically mild, it can get to near-freezing or freeze, especially the further north you go. Light winter clothing is recommended. It will typically warm up during the day and be pleasant, but the mornings and evenings can be chilly and on those freezing nights, long base layers will be wanted. As for rain, in general it doesn’t rain much, though when a front comes through storms can last a few hours or all day. Rain gear is a must.
Aside from typical gear (tent, cooking stove/utensils, sleeping gear, etc) you will definitely need two pairs of shoes. If you can make camp shoes double as water shoes, go for it. Since you might be walking in mud for several miles, such as the Big Cypress area, a good pair of shoes that can handle mud and water for long period of time will help.
Fuel can be harder to come by here. We followed USPS regulations and shipped the one cannister allowed via ground delivery to our drops. But if you are doing alcohol stove you should be able to find fuel at any gas station or grocery store. If you are interested in hitching more, then you could probably get to bigger towns with a Walmart or the like to get your fuel.
Hiking poles are also something of personal preference. You don’t need them to help propel you up a mountain but they still come in handy for trips and pushing overgrown brush off the trail. We like using them.
Life on the Florida Trail is vastly different than on the AT or busier long trails. With only 5-20 thru-hikers a year and not very many day hikers except in high use areas, expect to go days without seeing anyone. Most of your encounters will be with hunters or fisherman.
Since there is a lack of foot traffic there is also not the abundance of hostels or showering opportunities. Get used to be smellier than usual! We went two weeks, several times, without a shower. A surprisingly good place for a shower is the Avon Park Bombing Range at the Fort Kissimmee campground. There’s a solar shower that will be a great place to rinse off. Other good shower opportunities are at the 88 Store in Ocala National Forest and the Camel Lake campground at Apalachicola National Forest.
Cell phones for the most part work well. The one place I remember well that we didn’t have good access was in the middle of Big Cypress. There may be hit or miss places as you go but cell reception is decent.
Aside from a Bass Pro Shop in Fort Lauderdale, there aren’t really any good outfitters along the trail…well, I guess aside from Travel Country in Orlando. That would be your best bet in an emergency for getting something backpacking related. In White Springs we had a new tent sent to us overnight from Travel Country because ours started leaking. But, as for easily accessible outfitters, there aren’t any. Now, in Lake Butler there is a hunting outfitter that has hunting gear and bug repellent, but not real backpacking supplies. They are friendly so drop in and say hi and tell them about the trail.
You will be in Florida black bear territory most heavily in Ocala National Forest, but other areas in the panhandle and down in Big Cypress also host bears. Definitely hang your food when you can. We’ve actually had more trouble with ants than any other animal, so that is the best reason to hang your food! We saw several bears in Ocala.
Also keep in mind that, particularly in Big Cypress, Florida panthers roam the area. Sightings are rare but the may be out there! Consider yourself lucky to see one, but be sure to stay at a safe distance from them.
Bugs are minimal on the trail this time of year, but sometimes noseeums or mosquitoes might bug you. Carry a small bottle of bug spray for comfort if you are interested.
Go for a hike!
If you are looking to hike in the winter this is the trail for you! Get out and follow the orange blazes north and help make the Florida Trail a winter hiking destination that it should be. The more people are hiking it the better it will become. You can read all of our trail journals here
As we crossed over the bridge at Navarre, across Santa Rosa sound, to Santa Rosa island, we had to squish against the side railing of the bridge for bicyclists who couldn’t manage to get off and walk their bike and share the path and fisherman reluctant to move their poles. Where’s the common courtesy?! We picked our poles up off the grate that was beneath our feet and I pretended I couldn’t see below and notice the ocean. Somehow over the years I’ve developed a small fear of heights, nothing big, only if I think hard about it do I get a little nutty. I was glad to get off the bridge and onto Santa Rosa island.
The island is loaded with condos, a few restaurants and tourists of course. We appeared slightly out of place as we did in any city we walked through. After a quick restroom break at a gas station we kept walking our sidewalk hike through Santa Rosa island, through the condos and past the joggers and walkers and people with dogs. It was about 3.5-4 miles before we found the beach full-on.
We’d made it to Gulf Islands National Seashore! Here we’d be walking on the beach if we so chose or along the road and at some point we’d leave the beach and dip into the dunes for awhile. We knew we were choosing to stop our day at that cross over and for the sake of time that day we didn’t walk on the beach and chose the road instead.
I would have expected this to be a more crowded area but I suppose in February the beach isn’t a popular destination even in Florida. I would hate to see this at spring break! For the next while we’d be on the beach until we hit the town of Pensacola Beach and then back into primitive beach areas again.
It was slightly overcast which was nice and kept the sun from beating down on us as we walked west. The dunes were beautiful, but were wrecked by hurricane Ivan seven years ago, so traces of the destruction were seen everywhere. Pieces of asphalt were thrown into the dunes from the old road and where old worn oak trees once stood, many were now dead from the salt water inundation. I was excited be walking along this stretch, finally we were at the beach!
Along the way Chris’ dad drove by to see how we were and then went further back to find Speaker so he could give him his bag for the night. We were well ahead of Speaker but had already made plans to meet up at some point during the following day so we could finish together. Speaker had been planning to get a ride with us for a bit until he could be dropped off a convenient place to hitchhike back to the Alabama connector and wait for the group several days behind us.
There aren’t many convenient places to hide behind a dune or tree to take a tinkle but luckily there are a few parking lot areas with restrooms along the way. Some were closed and I had to dash across the street to find one that was open. Along the way we’d run into a few people asking what we were doing and then we’d give them the low-down on the FT. Some offered us rides, of course we could’ve used them at other times but this time we were squared away with a ride.
A little before 5pm we found the FT sign that signaled for us to cross the road and go into the dunes so we called Chris’ dad for him to pick us up.
You can see the pieces of asphalt in this photo.
Another gigantic chunk here. We headed off down the road in our first car ride since our stop in Blountstown. I was excited to be heading for a bed and a good dinner. That night we polished off large plates of Mexican food and retired to a luxurious bed. It’s funny, I kept thinking in my head that we were going to be getting up at 2a.m. to hike up 4,000K in three hours for a summit instead of hiking 18 miles along a beach for a noon-time arrival at Fort Pickens. I couldn’t get it out of my head, I kept thinking we were going to be having this spectacular finale and arrive at Katahdin in the morning! Hah!
We did get up at the crack of dawn, mostly to get a roll on the day and try to avoid some of the sun. We were at the drop off by 6am having gotten our McDonald’s for breakfast and having got some for Speaker as well.
It was a beautiful morning for a walk on the beach, but the wind was howling and I’d left my warm hat in the hotel and had to rig up a bandanna for my ears. We’d been dropped off and had taken these photos when shortly after we saw Speaker trekking down the beach. He’d stopped shorter than he’d thought and had gotten up earlier in order to meet us at the dune switchover. We gave him his breakfast which he quickly ate and we headed for the dune walk.
White poles mark the path through the dunes. Sometimes they can be difficult to follow.
We weaved up and around dunes and though I thought it might be tough to walk, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I envisioned.
We were walking for those condos. They look closer than they actually are!
Along the way we found an area of pines on the bay side of the dunes and eventually the path wound through that. We saw two other people out there exploring and also found a Leave No Trace campsite run by Escambia county. I was surprised to see this and a little sad we didn’t know about it because it would’ve been really cool to sleep in the dunes.
Eventually we reemerged onto the sidewalk just east of Pensacola beach. We planned to stop at a gas station for a last soda stop and rest when we got into town. We passed a school located on the beach—how cool would it be to teach/go to school there? The playground had a view of the ocean! Eventually we came to the heart of the beach town and stopped at a gas station where we relaxed for a bit on the parking curb. Inside I got a last guilt free soda and cookie and after talking to one of the other patrons inside the store about the FT he came out and talked for us for a bit about the trail. Then another person came out and started talking to us about the FT and said he’d considered it until he heard about the roadwalks, which we confirmed and then we found out that he was also an Aggie! Chris and I both wore our Aggie rings so we were easy to identify in that way.
Back on the sidewalk jungle we kept our pace towards the west, aiming for Fort Pickens. Soon we left town once again and were back at GINS where we prepared for the beach walk after a last bathroom stop.
It was an awesome walk, too! I am so glad we were walking on the beach because it was beautiful! Portuguese man ‘o war were washed up everywhere. Oh, I should also note that throughout the whole beach walk we did see small remnants of the BP oil spill in the form of workers left to respond to any issues that might arise.
And a tar ball. Well, several tar balls, most about this big, but there nonetheless.
Speaker still trekking it with his homemade bamboo poles from the Suwanee area.
Isn’t this view cool? NOTHING blocking a view. No condos, NOTHING! I imagine this is what it looked like when the Spanish explorers landed in the area.
For the most part we chose to walk on the wetter sand, dodging waves as they came to shore.
And then we spotted our first sea turtle washup. This green didn’t appear to have any blunt trauma damage so perhaps it was oil spill related. No one was around but I had noted where we were in the dunes, near a particularly vegetated dune area, so we could tell someone once we got to Fort Pickens.
For size, so still a juvenile.
We jumped back onto the road so we wouldn’t miss the turns that were coming up once we arrived at Fort Pickens. When we finally started seeing buildings we thought we’d have to pay but it turns out we must’ve bypased the pay station back on the road when we’d initially walked on the beach.
Some of the bunkers that were around the area, built into the dunes. We crossed the road here and went to follow some trails through the park on the back side of the island. Another stop at a restroom before we carried on our way. Here we followed a closed access dirt road and then some small trails through scrub vegetation and along a few salt marshes. We crossed through a campground with full of large RVs and got a few weird looks as we walked through. Another couple of bunkers were passed and then all of a sudden it seemed we were at the end of the line.
There was a large parking lot and a sign and that was it. The end of the Florida Trail. No awesome sign delineating how far it was to Loop Road, no spectacular view, just a parking lot and Fort Pickens itself to the south of the lot. It would’ve been much more awesome to end at the tip of the beach or on Fort Pickens itself.
It looks kinda strange to see you’ve walked the entire length of Florida!
Chris’ dad and step-mom arrived shortly after and brought us our sandwiches from Subway where we sat in the breezeway near the giftshop eating our lunch. We stopped into the giftshop for a bit to check out what was there, got a piece of paper stamped with the Florida Trail and Fort Pickens on it for a souvenir. Then we decided to check out the fort itself.
Definitely not as creepy at the fort at St. Augustine!
And that was it. We’d finished the Florida Trail to a rather boring ‘summit’. I couldn’t imagine finishing at Loop Road, either, being dumped onto a hardly used road in the middle of Big Cypress.
We all piled in the car and headed for the hotel where we said goodbye to Speaker and hoped we’d see him again one day. He was planning on hiking for at least another month to piddle around at Trail Days in Damascus and then head to work before starting another adventure later on this year.
I feel like at the end of the AT we had some time to decompress and understand the hike, staying in Maine for a few days and taking it all in. Here it just seemed to end and there wasn’t really anyone to bounce off the whole affect of the trail, fellow hikers and such. It was just over.
That night we went and got a good seafood dinner on the beach and a few touristy trinkets. We took Ridley and Panther to the beach for photographs since we’d forgotten to it when we were there the first time.
My hair was really long. I chopped it off shortly after getting home.
Ahh, enjoying coffee after a long hiatus!
I will probably do a final thoughts post on the FT in a few days with some of the suggestions I sent to the FTA and our overall thoughts on the trail. It was definitely a different experience than the AT!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading our long distance hiking adventures!
After leaving the more congested area around Crestview we set off on a mostly quiet walk along U.S. 90. Sure there were large semi trucks driving passed but the shoulder was wide enough for us to follow and jump off when needed. The sky went from looking to clear up to getting dark again as clouds passed over continuously throughout the afternoon. Shortly outside of town, before crossing the Yellow River, we stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break and I asked the cashier if she knew of any camping areas nearby after she questioned what we were doing. After I told her about the Florida Trail and the road walk section she told me of a state park that was probably going to be out of our way. I thanked her anyway and we carried on.
We kept walking knowing that we should stop somewhere around 2pm and get everything set up before the rain came through. Chris and I would peer through woods that we thought might be sufficient for stealthing only to decide it was too close to a house or it wasn’t thick enough for camouflaging us. A few times we’d pass a power line right of way but decide against it at the last minute. Finally we saw a thick strip of trees along the road right of way and then a railroad track with more trees behind it. We scooted across the road and decided to check it out. Sure enough we found a little area to set up camp. It was definitely on private property and we saw that there was fire lane on the other side with a hunt stand but the likelihood of it being used was small. The mound that the railroad track was on hid our tent from the highway and despite a few trains coming through we had a cozy little spot.
Our stealth spot for the night. We ate a few snacks and settled in to take a nap, though the air was stifling with humidity. The rain did come through and I was thankful that we were tucked in our tent for the storm. I read through a book I’d picked up at Publix that afternoon and it felt good to read a book straight through like that. I hadn’t done that in quite awhile. After an early dinner of our Publix sandwiches (they beat Subway any day!) we turned in for the night.
The next morning we walked back to the U.S. 90 for the rest of our roadwalk. We weren’t sure how far up Speaker had gotten the night before or if he’d taken up Gatorade Gordon and gone back to Crestview for the night. The town of Holt was coming up within a few hours for an early morning gas station stop and when we arrived we relaxed at the first, smaller station for sugary breakfast foods that I wouldn’t normally touch. Nothing like a good strudel or muffin laden with fat and sugar to get the hike going faster!
By the time we left the sun was poking out more and it was looking to be a great day. We were planning around 20 or 24 miles that day, I don’t remember, I think it was supposed to be a semi-easy day for us. After we left Holt we passed a unique wood carving in front of a ranch but nothing else was eventful. I just imagined living in some of the farm houses along the way.
A few days prior we’d concocted a plan with Speaker to have a hot dog cook out on one of our last nights on the trail. Since we would be passing several gas stations that day it was going to be perfect for being able to pick up the necessary items for our cookout. We would be reentering Eglin again on the west side of the Yellow River that afternoon and staying at a ‘real’ campsite, so a cookout would be appropriate.
We were also coming up on the Alabama Connector trail, an alternate ending for the Florida Trail that goes to the Alabama border. Folks doing the Eastern Continental Trail take this route up to Alabama and hit the Alabama Hiking Trail and Pinhoti Trail to connect with the AT. Speaker had spent a few days trying to convince us to switch our end point and go to Alabama instead, mostly because it was all forest walking and supposed to be beautiful. We managed to convince him to stay with us to Fort Pickens, though later he did go hike the connector trail with some of the other group in Chuck Norris’ crew.
Once we arrived at the split for the connector we saw the first gas station we were going to scout for hot dog stuff. Right before we got to the gas station, maybe 100 yards, we noticed a sign with a double blaze heading south, a distinct difference in the map and guidebook. The map noted a blue blaze that direction with partial trail so we thought perhaps it was open now. However, we were hesitant. Speaker was sitting at the picnic table outside of the gas station and we threw out packs down and noticed he was concerned about the same trail issues we were. Inside we grabbed some pizza and drinks and went back to sit at the table with Speaker who’d been there for awhile waiting for us to catch up.
After pondering the potential new trail access we decided to call the FTA office and cut to the chase. Turns out it was indeed new trail that was open, would take us off some road, though we did have to walk some road through country neighborhoods, but would put us back in the woods for awhile. And it would add another 6-8 miles for the day. I wasn’t looking forward to a longer day but off we went and crossed I-10 for the very last time. (We crossed it four times.)
The new trail followed a creek for a lot of the way but the trail was brand spankin’ new and not very well done yet. There were needless weaves where trail should be straight, and though it wasn’t the maintainers fault, the trail wass not worn at all and the blazes were hard to follow without some sort of worn trail. The first part of this section was relatively nice but then it seemed to get worse with branches not trimmed and where most maintainers would cut a log the local trail crews routed you to climb over or under downed logs. We also encountered a reroute, already, along the new trail due to logging. I am not a fan of putting trail through logging areas. It completely destroys the whole point of being in nature and makes for crummy trail.
The trail kept weaving and since we had no real idea where we were or where we might come out we had to take a guess. Eventually we were dumped out on a dirt road behind some farm homes where we then followed mostly quiet country roads with homes on it for several miles. Some of the streets had new homes being built, the same cookie-cutter style alternated every so often. Time seemed to keep dragging and we were wondering when the road junction at S.R. 87 and the last gas station stop we were supposed to hit for our hot dogs. It was also quite hot and a cold drink was sounding nicer. At some point Speaker, who’d been with us for awhile, fell behind and we hadn’t seen him in several hours.
Finally we saw the road and were delighted to see the gas station with its abundance of hiker food! Hot dogs were there as were the buns and we stocked up on small packets of condiments. We’d enjoyed our sodas and ice cream for about an hour when Speaker finally showed up looking pretty ragged. We told him we were going to head on down the road to get to the campsite before it got dark. We still had several miles to get back into Eglin.
Down the road we went and I was sick of non-maintained trail that when the trail went to parallel the road along a right of way I decided stay on the road while Chris took the trail. I attempted it for a minute but when I found the trail covered with vines I gave up and moved to the road. We crossed the Yellow River once again, this time a longer bridge over the tannin colored water with beautiful cypress lining the river. It would have made a great paddling area!
On the south side of the bridge we walked down to a parking lot and under the bridge to the west side of the road and then off along another power line right of way before reentering Eglin. At the sign in station we picked up our permits yet again and noticed there was a stack of permits at least two years old! For having such a strict policy I was dismayed that none of the permits had been picked up in so long!
We walked up and over sand hills and through beautiful pine areas before finally reaching the blue blaze for Buck Pond. The guidebook warns that this has potential for being busy as it is accessible by car but we found no one there but a guy bicycling round and round the lake. Not sure what other trail he was following but part of it was on the FT.
Chris and I set up camp on the western end of the pond and got a fire going for our hot dogs. Ridley and Panther are here enjoying the fire.
Roasting the dogs!
I think the turtle and kitty want some hot dogs, too.
Our campsite. You could tell this area was heavily used from the random litter and how some of the trees had been hacked at for fire wood.
Finally Speaker arrived, a bit weary.
Enjoying one last fire and a final camping night on the FT. We’d be spending the next night in a hotel room when Chris’ dad picked us up along the beach walk.
The next morning we were up and going early like usual, trying to get to Navarre to meet Chris’ dad for lunch. The rest of the hiking in Eglin continued to be beautiful and we routed around a blue blaze to walk along a deep bluff that offered up gorgeous views that wouldn’t appear to be Florida. The trail cut across S.R. 87 once again and into what seemed to be a more littered area. We were still in Eglin but we found a ditched boat and random household trash.
We also found remnants from Florida’s turpentine days, these old clay pots. We’d seen them off and on throughout the Panhandle section but decided to finally get a photo of them before we left the pines for good.
Then we finally exited Eglin on the south side for the final time. Chris called his dad and told him we’d be about an hour and found out his dad was already near Navarre. More road walking lay ahead of us, pretty much for the rest of the trip unless we walked on the beach later on. Back along U.S. 87 we saw Chris’ dad pass us and found a parking lot for him to stop off and say hi to us for a few minutes. Speaker dumped his pack while I took a few things out of mine and we told his dad we’d meet him and Diane, his wife, further up in Navarre at a restaurant. We’d initially picked a bbq joint but they thought it was closed, however we ended up finding it as we walked by so Chris called his dad and had him drive back down the road to meet us there instead.
After lunch Speaker had to hit the library to check on some potential job offers and we decided to split for the rest of the afternoon since we were planning to get a hotel and he was going to be stealthing somewhere along the beach.
We followed the road to the main area of Navarre and headed for the beach and Gulf of Mexico.
After leaving our stealth/trespassing campsite for the night, the morning was dawning as if it was going to rain. It was spitting when we got up that morning, we ate our breakfast in a hurry, took down camp and hit the road, literally. We had a couple of miles left before we entered the woods again at the Nokuse Plantation. Immediately back in the woods we started following a stream for quite a way. It was a beautiful little creek and we noticed that the clear running water was going to be the trend for the rest of the hike.
The rain continued as we weaved around the creek and then emerged onto an upland pine plantation. Luckily these pine plantations were not reminiscent of the ones outside of Lake Butler, these were much better managed and despite being planted they were beautiful. It was still cloudy and threatening to rain harder but mostly it just spit with a few harder episodes.
Since we’d left camp early I’d started thinking in my head that maybe we could just make it to the campsite at 20 miles for lunch instead of taking a lingering lunch. We were becoming power hikers at this point and were able to do 3mph or more on a regular basis, particularly on good trail and roads. We took our first mid-morning snack in a burned pine area where I mentioned the idea to Chris. He seemed game so we kept on hiking to avoid the rain. He’d been thinking that maybe we’d set the tent up at the first campsite and take a nap in case it rained but the idea of being done by lunch was enticing.
We’d walk along pine plantations, then dip into a ti-ti slough and beautiful, well maintained and planed creek areas. This area was a real treat to walk in.
Around the time we entered Lafayette Creek Wildlife Management Area the skies began to clear. We stopped at the first campsite for a break and relaxed. This would have been a great campsite and we were intrigued by the unique benchwork that had been done at the site. A creek was nearby for water.
A couple more miles revealed a sign that gave us the option of avoiding Lafayette Creek itself in times of high water. However this was an exposed and sun filled area so I can imagine it would be pretty daunting on a hot day. Luckily we weren’t in any high water danger so we followed some two track roads before weaving down the hills to the creek. Yep, we were getting into more bluffs in this area and if you look on Google Earth you can really see them in this area. The walk along Lafayette Creek was awesome and beautiful! We didn’t take many photos but let me paint a picture….
As you descend from the pine slopes into the ti-ti lined creek the air cools off from the spring fed creek water. The water is mostly clear, appearing to be free of germs and taunting you to dip you hands in to take a sip. The sandy bottom looks like a refreshing place to sit while the mellow current cools your body, as you watch old leaf litter float downstream. Most of the creek is shadowed with pockets of sun throughout and you know if you dipped in for a bit the water would wash the hiker grime right off.
We stopped along the way, hopping across little side channels that flowed into the main creek, carefully watching for stumps and flat places to walk and the occasional snake. Eventually we turned away from the creek and followed a different north/south creek (Lafayette was east/west) north for awhile before we came up from the creek and crossed the powerlines we’d bypassed earlier in the morning. By this time we were getting hungry but knew we’d be rewarded with the rest of the afternoon off if we kept on going. We knew that we had to follow a branch of another creek east for a bit before finding our campsite and when we started going east on what we thought was the right branch we got disappointed when we crossed that creek and found no campsite. We pulled the map out to look at it, verifying we were on the right track and not passing up the campsite and decided we had to go a bit further. Sure enough we found the right branch as we came up the bluff and started walking on the edge of the trees where we could see across previously farmed fields. We were glad not to be walking in the open sun!
You can see the branch here and the creek channels and bluff compared to the open ag fields.
Finally we reached the Steephead campsite and we were there somewhere between noon and 1pm. 20 miles done and we had the afternoon to relax. We started joking about 20 mile nearo’s (near zero day) and how silly it seemed, but we’d done it.
I took the afternoon to read in the tent, doze a bit and relax.
Chris went down to the spring/creek just below the campsite to rinse some clothes and get water for the evening and next morning.
Beautifully clear, right?
Somewhere around 4pm or so Speaker showed up. We told him we’d been here for several hours and he said he’d taken a few extended breaks back along Lafayette Creek. We continued to relax around the campsite when all of a sudden a few hikers showed up! What? Other hikers? This was an incredibly rare thing on the Florida Trail except in high use areas like Ocala National Forest. They hikers were from the local FTA chapter, out for a weekend hike of the Lafayette area. Several other hikers came in throughout the next few hours.
It’s a bit strange, on the AT I wouldn’t have been so peeved at sharing a campsite with others as having people around is a normal thing but on the FT I’d become accustomed to having sites to ourselves that I didn’t want to share with anyone else. It was nice, though, to talk with the chapter and try to tell them about the plight of FT thru-hikers. Which I don’t think they got. We tried to discuss the whole trespassing/stealth camping concept and even dropped mention that we were coming up on a stretch that offered us no camping alternatives at all and I felt like we got blank stares. It was a bit disheartening.
Hanging out with the folks from the chapter. We had nice discussions about different ways to cook food…
These guys said they had the best maintained section of trail and I would agree almost 100%. Well labeled, well maintained, just a great chapter. Frankly the rest of the FTA chapters should look to these guys!
The next morning we got up early and left before everyone from the other group was even awake. We had our breakfast and quietly slipped away from the campsite. The other group had warned us that we’d be leaving the creek area and following the trail through some of those fields and we were glad we were going through them in the morning hours instead of the afternoon sun. After a few miles we crossed U.S. 331 where we followed the trail under power lines and then a few detours onto the road as we paralleled Eglin Airforce Base.
I’m really bummed we didn’t take more photos in Eglin because I think it happened to be one of the best sections of trail. I don’t know what we were thinking by not taking photos! We entered the AFB at the appropriate location where we had to sign in and get our recreational permits. FT thru hikers are exempt from paying a fee for a permit but we do have to have an authorized letter from the FTA saying we are thru-hiking in case someone asks. Regular folks can also get recreational permits from the AFB for a pretty meager fee so hiking and hunting (during particular times) is open to the public in certain areas. If you are in this area I highly recommend getting a permit because Eglin is a super cool place to hike.
We entered Eglin and since we have to stay at certain campsites because of AFB regulations we’d decided it was going to be a longer day of around 25 miles. Since we’d done the 20 the day before by lunch we decided to do it again and hit up the second campsite in for lunch. The group the night before had told us about a bridge they built with a downed cypress, how they’d stabilized it, put a wire across to hold on and made the cypress into a foot bridge across an otherwise ford worthy creek. Before we reached that bridge though we had to ford a few creeks and they were cold!
Coming out of some of the ravines we had a few steep-for-Florida climbs of only maybe 100-200′ or so, but apparently the local crews thought they warranted switchbacks! Switchbacks in Florida??? LOL! Straight up would’ve been fine but the switchbacks made me reminiscent about the AT.
We crossed a road with a small parking area full of cars, most with FTA stickers and were reminded that the group at Steephead had said another outing was taking place in Eglin with a short day hike. This is where we got excited about potential trail magic, or just really hoping that day hikers would take pity on thru hikers and give us a soda. Or hot dog. Or chips. Can you tell we were thinking about food? It was a couple of miles to the campsite we were planning to get to for lunch and about half way there we started passing the hikers. One by one they went on and some asked if we were thru hiking but most just said hi and passed right on by! Bummer! Apparently thru hiking is not well known on the FT. Our stomachs were saddened by the thought of eating regular old hiker food for lunch.
Lunch was at a very pretty campsite where we spread out, ate and then lounged about in the pine needle laden ground, between patches of shade and sun. We’d done the 20 or 21 for lunch but still had four or five to our final campsite for the day. I was getting spoiled by these fast mornings and wishing for a lingering afternoon again. After deciding we’d lingered enough we mosied on down the trail through a few more ravines and switchbacked trail.
Another stalling late-afternoon stop at a spring/creek left us wishing we could call it a day. We filled up on water because the campsite we were heading to wasn’t supposed to have water, however when we got there we found a blue blaze leading down the bluffs to what was probably a creek. However, it reminded us of several .3 and .4 hikes downhill on the AT to get water and was thus avoided. The walk between the creek and the campsite was nice, through pine forest that was relatively young but not overgrown. We could hear the distant drone of I-10 and were worried we’d hear it at the campsite, which luckily didn’t happen.
The next morning dawned foggy and misty. Hopefully we wouldn’t rain. Speaker left before us and we’d planned that day to be a 20 miles by lunch kind of day yet again. We were also stuck with staying at a particular campsite. We’d tossed around the idea of stealthing but if we’d been anywhere else with stay-at-campsites-only rules we’d of probably ignored them, however we decided not to mess around with the U.S. military. I doubt the area would’ve been patrolled but you just never know when some random military operation might go on and they would randomly close the area.
The morning was mostly quiet as we hiked through the fog and up and down ravines. We passed a few runners at one point but that was it. Speaker was somewhere up ahead, likely not far but you can never tell when hiking on the trail. We crossed S.R. 285 where the night before we’d tossed out the idea of walking about half a mile or so up to a gas station with supposed hamburgers and food and decided against it. A 20 mile nearo was enticing again.
Eventually we caught up with Speaker who was taking a break on the side of the trail. We decided to keep going only to stop a few hundred yards further when we found a place to sit. Chris is fond of finding a log to sit on while I can easily make do with sitting on the ground. Speaker than leap frogged us and eventually we caught up to him again as we plodded through the slowly dissipating clouds and fog.
We came to a large creek where we knew camp was close, filled up on water and rinse some of the grime off our bodies despite the chill of the water. Oh, it felt good! Had it been a bit warmer a swim would have been perfect. The Walton pond campsite was down road and right on the pond. Originally we thought we’d take a dip in the pond but it was scuzzy and not enticing at all and then we became too lazy to walk back to the creek. It was early but after lunch we set up camp.
We’d called Gatorade Gordon to find out where he might be and if he could potentially shuttle us around during the next roadwalk stretch. We would have to roadwalk up through Crestview and around the Yellow River since the river does not have a bridge across it yet. This wouldn’t be a regular old foot bridge because there is river traffic on it apparently and would require more than a simple bridge built by volunteers. Apparently the local trail crews do maintain a trail all the way to the river, on both sides, but the FT does not follow that trail because of the lack of bridge. Anyway, Gordon said he was waiting for Sparky, the hiker he was supporting, to get through Eglin and Sparky would be passing us sometime that afternoon. They would be staying in Crestview the following night and so it didn’t seem like the coordination would work well for us.
We lounged around the campsite for the afternoon, I laid on the pine needle strewn ground taking on and off naps, read some books and just relaxed. This was what I wanted to be out hiking and doing—hike some and then relax a lot! Of course this could potentially get boring if we did it all the time.
Dinner was being wrapped up with Sparky arrived. He’d been having a tough day, feeling a little dehydrated and felt like the miles were tough. Sometimes the mental part of hiking can be the most challenging part. We’d never met Sparky, though Speaker had at some of the hiker parties earlier on, so we got to talk to him a little about his hiking adventures. He left camp as dusk was settling in, hoping to night hike to the next campsite or stealth somewhere in between.
The next morning we got up early (that’s the headlamps in the photo) and in the dark because we knew it was supposed to rain sometime in the afternoon. We wanted to get through Crestview and somewhere on the roadwalk and get set up before it rained. Chris had been talking to his dad and having him look up the weather so we had a good idea of when the storms would be rolling in.
We hiked with our headlamps for maybe a hour before it was light enough to walk. It was quiet throughout the rest of Eglin and though Sparky had told us to wake up him if we’d stumbled across him on the trail, we never saw him.
We passed the Pearl Creek campsite and kept hiking, knowing that S.R. 85 wasn’t too far away. When we arrived at the road we deposited our Eglin permits into the box so they knew we’d exited the area and found Gatorade Gordon waiting for us. Sparky had told him we were looking forward to hitting up McDonald’s for breakfast and so Gordon offered to let us slack pack our way up the road to the Mickey D’s. Gordon offered us some sodas for a pre-slack sugar rush and off we went down the road with only our poles. Ahhh, freeeeedoooom!
We made it to the McDonalds in under an hour and found Gordon waiting for us. It was the morning after the Oscar’s so the news was displaying clips from the event on the t.v. screens. We talked to Gordon for awhile, about how he helps other hikers and how he didn’t think he’d be doing it for many more years and possibly this would be his last year. His health was deteriorating. I wish we’d gotten to talk to him more but we had to hike on, get a resupply, an early lunch and get on our way before the rain came through. We told Speaker we’d see him up the trail somewhere and coordinate somewhere later on.
Our resupply was at the Publix in Crestview where we tried to be as speedy as possible getting our food for the last stretch of the trail and some sandwiches from the deli for dinner. The rest of the walk through Crestview was easy, the trail follows a road through the old downtown and we stopped at the Tropical Palm Restaurant for an early lunch before heading out of town.
On U.S. 90 we left town and heard the familiar honk of Gordon as he passed us driving west towards Sparky who was ahead of us.
Preparing for our first 30 mile day, we got up well before dawn to start hiking in the dark. We’d informed the motel managers that we’d leave the key in the room since we were leaving so early. It was pitch black when we left the hotel, our headlamps on full blast. This was our first night hiking adventures since summiting Katahdin back in August. We followed S.R. 20 for a mile or so before trying to locate a bike path that went through the north end of Blountstown, through neighborhoods.
The sky was starting to lighten as we made it to the edge of town and we finally extinguished our headlamps. We were attempting to make it halfway to a gas station/grocery store for an early lunch. The main road out of town was fairly busy with morning commuters and a few school buses picking up rural kids. The sky was cloudy for some of the day and seemed to threaten some sprinkles, which we did feel for a short minute or two later on in the morning. All along the road walk I kept looking for places that would be good stealth sites but it was quite lacking. After the busy road we mostly followed quiet farm roads that were mostly pleasant to walk on. We would rarely have to ditch to the side of the road but it was funny to see several cars pass us several times throughout the day. Some of them must’ve thought we’d gone incredibly slow.
Road walking makes you take notice of trash and debris on the side of the road. By far the most drank beer in the countryside was Natural brand and the most smoked cigs were 305s. Not sure why these are the choice of Florida country folk, but this was by far the most common type of litter we saw.
At about 10:30, maybe a little earlier than that we arrived at Shelton’s Store on the northwest corner of the intersection of SR 73 and CR 274. It was definitely a country store, the bathrooms on the outside of the building and vintage gas pumps out front. The inside looked to be lost in the 70s with items that might have been that old lining the shelves, particularly beauty products and car reapair parts. The food items were sketchy looking hot dogs and microwaveable burgers. I went for the burger because at least it was frozen for awhile.
We sat outside for a good hour eating our food and drinking soda before deciding to get the next 15 miles out of the way. At one point an antique looking fire engine roared passed heading for a fire that we saw smoking a few miles behind us. Maybe an hour later they came back, this time driving normally.
Our afternoon break was next to a ditch by someones house. The owner, a man, drove up shortly after we sat down and chatted with us for a second. Moseying down the road we came to a road crossing at SR 167, crossed it and followed a dirt road before getting to US 231, a four lane divided highway. At the intersection was a shop, I can’t remember if it was auto repair or something else, but the workers noticed us and chatted with us for a second having seen us road walking several times throughout the day.
We crossed the highway easily and found ourselves down a another dirt road where there were signs for several churches where we thought we might try to refill our water but found the churches were quite a ways off the trail. We passed trailers and rowdy dogs tied to chains, homes you didn’t want to linger by. Finally we found the Econfina Creek WMA where we decided to make camp right inside the gate. Speaker had thought we’d really done 31 miles since we’d started outside of Blountstown that day.
In the parking lot, initially empty when we arrived, we found an unopened bottle of water. Score! Now it wouldn’t be too bad and we’d have extra water for dinner instead of using what we’d need for the morning too. Speaker had taken a longer break at the ditch and caught up to us about thirty minutes after we’d been there. Shortly after we’d arrived a car showed up and idled in the parking lot for awhile. Then another car arrived and the person, I think a woman, got in the car of the, I assume man, and they sat there for awhile. A long while. Like an hour. Not sure what was going down but I didn’t want to know. They eventually drove down the dirt road where we could still hear the car idling but at least were out of sight of us. Eventually, after we’d already gotten in the tent they drove off. Speaker had decided to head to a supposed campsite down by the creek for the night, wanting to put in a few more miles to top off his all time mileage. We probably could’ve done it but I was just feeling done from the day. The road had put a blister on one of my feet, the first in awhile.
The next morning we made it down to the creek and it was a beautiful hike. The trail meandered along the creek, crossing beautiful spring fed tributaries into the creek and made me think of the AT a lot. We got to the first major bridge where we found Speaker still sleeping in his hammock. We stopped for a second to chat and told him where we were planning to make it for the night, somewhere near a gas station down S.R. 20. He was going back and forth as to where he wanted to stop for the night and after we left him that morning we didn’t see him again until the following day.
So many beautiful spots abounded along the creek. We came across a small waterfall, our first on the trail, where we could have gone across on a homemade zipline. We opted not to use the zipline but got a few photos of the waterfall. Had it been warmer this would have made a great swimming hole.
This section of trail was great, mostly worth the ridiculous roadwalking. We found several drive up type campsites that would have been great spots for a backpacking campsite as well, complete with trash cans at the sites. Most of the morning was spent just meandering along this creek and at one point we came out of the creek to the top of the bluffs and into a clear cut area. It was hot up there and we were glad when we finally ducked back into the woods.
Along the way we came across something that I very nearly stepped on. It was a baby turtle! Of course we stopped and took a lot of photos of this cute friend. We’d been on the top of a hill so we decided to help the fellow out and carried it with us until we got closer to the creek, giving it a bit more of a chance in life. We never got back to the main creek but found a side creek that had some steep ups and downs that really made me think we were on the AT. Taking a short break on some tree root type steps we let the little turtle hang out near the water for its chance for freedom. We’d check every few minutes to see if it was still there and it was until finally we checked and it had swam away! So long little buddy!
Up at the top of the bluff we entered a few open pine areas and I was disappointed we’d be leaving the creek until we ended up going back down into another spring/creek. Again, so much was reminiscent of the AT. This was not the Florida we knew! This was a whole ‘nother trail!
We took lunch in the middle of a planted pine forest where the pine needles created a great cushion for napping. We were just short of the Little Porter Pond campsite but had no idea. We’d finally left the creek areas and started climbing up onto large, old sandhills in planted pine and scrub areas. At one point, almost out of the WMA, I looked back over where we’d hike to see hills! Hills, people, in Florida! This wasn’t like the hills of Ocala, this was much more terrain than we’d seen so far.
Back on SR 20 we continued our road walk west, seriously hoping for the promised gas station at SR 77 and SR 20. The book had said that we might get permission to stay behind the gas station but when we arrived and asked the cashiers they promptly said no and looked at us like we had two heads. We instead filled up on chicken tenders and thick cut french fries, soda and bought a gallon of water to refill our water. We’d scouted some potential stealth areas along the way, all on private property but with potential to duck far enough in to not be seen. After the gas station we walked about a quarter mile before we saw a thick pine plantation where we waited for the traffic to quiet down before ducking into the woods. We walked in quite a ways and set up our tent where we made a second dinner and got ready for bed. Our stealth rules were to not use our headlamps unless it was on red and to be very, very quiet.
I got a little nervous because at one point I thought I heard a dog relatively close but decided that I was being a little paranoid. I mean, we were tresspassing, but what else were we going to do? This is my biggest point of contention with the Florida Trail, the lack of camping anywhere in roadwalks. The campsite turned out to be a nice place to stay and luckily I had my ear plugs to drown out the nearby road traffic.
The night went well and we were up and gone relatively quickly in order to bypass getting caught by an angry landowner. Off we went for more of our roadwalk. At this point we weren’t sure if Speaker was nearby or ahead of us as there was no way of really following footprints on the road.
The book explained that the trail had once gone through a private pasture but had asked the FTA to remove the trail from their property, instead making it a roadwalk. We’d failed to look carefully at the map and the book to see where the trail been rerouted so whereas the book said the trail followed the road through Ebro, where we had a maildrop, the map reflected the trail entering the Pine Log State Forest. We’d planned to do the east section of Pine Log despite it being a bit out of the way, and then roadwalk up S.R. 79 to Ebro to pick up our maildrop.
Several miles before the turn off to Pine Log we took a break by the side of the road. About ten seconds after getting back on the road a white van passed us and honked, slowed down and then turned around. It was Gatorade Gordan. We’d heard about him from Speaker and Chuck Norris. He was an older man who frequently helped support hikers on various long trails throughout the U.S. He was supporting a hiker that was half a day behind us now, having taken a few days off to nurse his feet. He’d been ahead of us for a long time and we never thought we’d see either one of them.
Gordan pulled over and we introduced ourselves and he gave us a soda and we talked to him for a few minutes, explaining how we needed to get to Ebro for a maildrop and where we were intending to get to for the night. He was incredibly nice, but he has health problems and lives out of his van. This guy is incredibly sweet and bends over backwards for hikers and deserves to be repaid in kindness and in money. We set off, not sure if we would see Gordan again in the future.
Down the road we saw him pull over to show us where the trail got off the road and onto a power line right of way before crossing into the Pine Log State Forest. I was a bit nervous how the forest would go, if it would slow us down or not but it turned out to be a great place to hike. Local Boy Scout groups had done great trail maintenance, creating bog boards and keeping the trail clear. It’s too bad we didn’t get to see the other side of the forest, but the east side was quite nice.
We came up to S.R. 79 where a great pedestrian bridge for the trail had been built. The road was still under construction so we had the east side of the road to ourselves as we walked north to the post office.
At the post office Chris picked up the box and the woman running the office had said she was getting worried for us since the ETA on the box was for several days prior to when we’d actually arrived. Oops! I’d forgotten to tell my mom what date to put on when I told her to ship it. It was our last maildrop on the trail. We sat in the parking lot sorting everything out, dumping things we had too much of and carrying a few extra things than needed. It was not fun having a heavy pack again!
We’d just left the post office and was heading back towards the S.R. 20 intersection when we saw Speaker walking towards us. He’d stayed on the roadwalk instead of following the trail into the forest and had stayed the night before back in the woods of Econfina Creek, so he’d had even more of a roadwalk that morning than us. He was looking for the library, which we said we didn’t see, so we went to the intersection and found a Subway at the gas station and had a sandwich for lunch.
We were making good time for the morning and had decided to walk past where we’d thought to stay for the night, somewhere near Bruce, potentially behind the cafe. We left the Subway and crossed the Choctawhatchee River where on the bridge we heard a high pitched sound and found bats tucked into a hole in the side of the bridge. Pretty cool! I wish I’d gotten photos of them!
Since we were ahead of schedule we took an extended break on the side of the road and then another longer break with dinner at the Ebro Cafe. The Ebro Cafe is a very small mom and pop restaurant with red and white checked table cloths. The locals inside asked us about our hike and of course had all sorts of questions. After eating and refilling our water Chris and Speaker checked out the gas station/grocery across the street for ice cream and other goodies and then we went on our way down the road. The trail splits from S.R. 20 and up S.R. 81 where we were searching for a place to camp for the night. We kept passing places that just looked not so great and weren’t as far as we wanted to go for the night.
Eventually we saw a man come out of the woods on an ATV from the east, cross the road and go to a house across the street. After we’d passed this man’s land, a fence, we found a few paths leading into the woods on the east and decided to make that our campsite for the night. It was probably the more nervewracking sites we chose because after we’d set up a truck drove past down the dirt road on the other side of the fence, luckily not spotting us.
The next morning we got out as quick as possible despite the threat of rain and a small bit of rain before we got out of the tent. We ate quickly and got the heck out of there before the guy made his morning round of his property. The last thing we wanted was him to alert whoever owned the property we were on that we were there!
Apalachicola National Forest is a wonderful little place in the panhandle of Florida that has a very unique ecosystem. Carnivorous plants can be found and vast ti-ti sloughs stretch across the area. The day had started off drizzly and cloudy at St. Marks NWR but by the time we’d entered ANF it was clear and beautiful. We knew that there was potential for being wet in this entire section, particularly in Bradwell Bay, a well known swamp that the trail goes through. Chris and I had been arguing about doing it or not and during the afternoon we played phone tag with the ANF office trying to find out the water levels.
The difference in water from Big Cypress where we did get into some water is that that area does tend to dry up in the winter and that the panhandle and south Florida have very different climates in winter. While that is the dry season in south Florida, winter can be another wet season in the panhandle. Plus, it didn’t help that the guidebook said that extreme care should be taken in the swamp as it could be ‘as deep as a tall man’s chest’. Hello, a tall man’s chest is over my head! So, when we called the office and they said it was closed we wondered if they meant the whole area or just the wet area. Apparently they’d just burned and finally at the campsite that night the park ranger had left a message informing us to stay out of the entire area. Score for me! Chris had wanted to follow the FT until the blue blaze off the Monkey Creek came up but I didn’t see the reason to bother hiking all of that out of the way instead of following forest roads around to the west side of Bradwell Bay. Speaker had already decided that was what he was doing and the phone call about it being closed sealed the deal that we’d do the same, too.
The night before skirting Bradwell Bay we stayed at the Sopchoppy River, near a dirt road and bridge where the river goes by. It was a perfect little campsite and only one or two people drove by that night. The following morning we did our best to piece together a way to follow the forest roads to get back to the Florida Trail. Part of the legend covered the roads on the map so we had to figure out based on the direction the roads turned. Speaker left before we did and so we followed his arrows in the dirt. Soon enough we’d caught up to him.
We saw several pines with these weird growths patterns on them.
Down the forest roads
At the corner of the Bradwell Bay area. We did see along the roads that there were signs posted for future burns, but it sure would be nice if burns were noted at main entrances or more than once along the trail.
When we arrived at the other end of Bradwell Bay we saw a sign posted on that end that the area was closed and not far down the trail we saw water. I was glad we’d bypassed that area. I was glad until later on I found out it didn’t matter all that much. We entered the forest again on the FT and followed rutted out trail from pigs and it was overgrown as well. Then we entered a ti-ti slough where we tried to hop from mound to mound or find logs to bounce around on but many times our shoes dipped into the water along the way. We emerged to the other side wishing for bog boards. A forest road with a wide field at the end was our lunch spot for the day and as we dried out in the sun I noticed small objects moving a few hundred yards down the road. We finally decided they were pigs and more than likely piglets.
We approached them slowly but finally we got close enough for them to notice we were there and they all quickly dropped down to the ground and eventually scurried off to mom.
Nabbed from Speaker’s Flickr photos…We ended up back in the woods again and this time battling water again, finally tying our boots to our packs and opting for our water shoes. The water was quite chilly and numbing to the feet and I wanted to get out as quick as possible. Soon we ended up at Forest Road 329, a paved forest road that was for the most part very quiet. A little less than a mile and back in the woods we followed the trail up and down bluffs before finally paralleling the Ochlocknee River, a very slow moving river. The sky had become ashy from another fire to the west, hazing the sun out of the strong heat we’d been feeling earlier in the day. We’d been hoping to dry our boots out when we arrived at the Porter Lake campground.
We reached Porter Lake campground after only about 14 miles for the day, 14 slow miles and we felt pretty exhausted. Certainly not the 20+ we’d been used to and all that water made it worse. Speaker had slowed down and was behind us when we arrived at the Porter Lake campground. I wasn’t sure what I thought to expect when we arrived but we found several trailers and cars at the campground. Great. Chris and I stood near the entrance of the campground when a tall man in his early 70s with big, white beard beckoned for us to come over to the water pump where he was standing. So we walked up to him and and he offered for us to stay at his site with the other folks with him. He’d been familiar with the AT and at first said he’d hiked most of the CDT and PCT but as the evening wore on it seemed more like small sections and bumming around rather than any attempt at thru-hiking or sectioning. It also seemed that he’d bummed around Uncle Johnny’s hostel on the AT for many months, possibly several times over the years.
At the campsite was a guy in his 20s and a girl who seemed to be maybe late teens early 20s. The girl had met the older guy online (yes, this is strange) and since he just goes around the country staying at various campsites living simply at various Rainbow People events and other old hippie type things. The girl had dropped out of college and was just working at fast food or something like that and she found this guy and off they went. Definitely kind of strange but they didn’t share tents so maybe it wasn’t anything *too weird*. Anyway, they’d gone to the Rainbow gathering in Ocala National Forest and met the other guy in his 20s and he had a car so it was their ticket to move to another area. They’d been at the ANF for several weeks and were planning on staying there for awhile. They had a cooler and would go to town every few days for food or internet at the library and they cooked on the fire. They made cabbage and sausage that night and offered to share with us hungry hikers. They had very good stories to tell, stories of carnies who’d been at Porter Lake and seemed to hiding from the law, abruptly leaving one day and giving some moldy stuffed animals to them, which ended up being burned in the fire that night. The group of three would wash their clothes or hair out of a bucket, the only thing at the campsite was a composting privy and the water pump.
The bad thing about the campsite was the plethora of hunters and a group of rude hunters that made noise late in the evening, well after 9pm and well before dawn, turning their generators on to cook food and talking like no one was sleeping. It was quite annoying, especially to be wakened earlier than expected.
Speaker stayed behind that morning, lingering over a breakfast of pancakes he’d tried to cook up over the fire. He’d found the batter at the general store in St. Marks and had been debating how to cook them for awhile. Here he was able to borrow a pan from the three we stayed with (I have the names of these folks written in my journal back at home, they do have names!). Chris and I left to get a jump on the day and see where we would end up. We didn’t know what kind of water we’d be in again.
Most of the morning was dry with a few stream crossing. We passed hunters in stands, trying to walk quickly and quietly out of their way. At FR 107 we got confused for awhile finding no turning blazes and no well marked blazes on the road either. The only possible blazes could have been at wooden markers along culverts but the culverts had been recently replaced. Eventually we decided we were on the right road and kept walking westward until finally we saw a blaze.
The white bands on the trees are to mark red cockaded woodpecker nesting cavities in pine trees. We didn’t see any of the birds, though.
The trail left the forest road and got back into the woods again, this time we spent the afternoon going a few hundred yards between wet ti-ti sloughs. Some of the sloughs had bog boards that were in disarray and the trail had overgrown a few old bridges and new trail had been rerouted instead of fixing the bridges. Eventually I gave up taking my shoes on and off and finally left my water shoes on the rest of the day.
Speaker hadn’t caught up to us that evening as we approached Vilas campsite for the night. Vilas is a ghost town and the remnants are seen at the campsite in the form of clay pots from turpentine collection and the bricks from the roads.
Ridley at the Vilas campsite.
Chris went back to the last titi slough to get water for dinner and the next morning and I heard him talking to someone on the way back. Speaker had caught up to us. The campsite was quite nice and quiet, though we found an old jacket that someone had intentionally left at the campsite. The guys decided to burn it and built a small fire pit with the bricks. As the jacket burned out crawled a couple scorpions! Ack! I didn’t like that thought of having scorpions around the campsite.
The following morning we crossed SR 65 and found the area directly across the street had been burned the day before and was still smoldering in places. Signs along the road notified work crews of proper turn around areas. We entered back into the woods and found tape across the entrance but no sign saying we couldn’t go in so off we went. Very inconsistent with how they notify areas of being burned. Most of the area we walked through wasn’t burned and we followed along the edge for the most part. I was a little annoyed at these little weave like jumps the trail would do, just to follow the perimeter of the ti-ti only to get right back on the road it had left. I just looked at the aerial and it is really ridiculous.
Later that morning we encountered the longest set of boardwalks through Shuler Bay and we were very thankful for the bog boards—no wading! I just don’t understand the inconsistency in bog boards through the area. Why some areas are more important than others!
We’d been planning on booking it to Camel Lake campground for a much needed shower and rest for the afternoon. We arrived just before lunch and spent about three hours showering and lounging. Chris and I had been there a few years prior for a long weekend so we knew what to expect. The campground was very quiet and we only really talked to one person across from where we’d set up for the afternoon. We strung a line across to dry out the clothes we’d rinsed out in the shower. It’d been pushing two weeks at least since we’d left White Springs and our last shower so a rinse no matter how chilly was perfect. I laid out on the ground on the pine needles drifting in and out of sleep, relishing the afternoon.
Eventually we decided it was time to move on, following trail that Chris and I had done when we’d camped up here. We’d done a large loop, following the FT and then a blue blaze to the east, reconnecting with the FT to the south. As we’d come up to Camel Lake I’d remembered some of the trail and would try to estimate where we were. I did the same for the north section until it was time to split and take new trail. It stayed dry for a good while until we ended up in titi sloughs again, inching along the edge of the trail trying to skim the water or walking on top of bunching grasses. We found one area that couldn’t be skimmed and off our shoes went. Then we found one slough that had a fresh bridge built over it and we were again astounded as to why bridges weren’t built before. I understand that it is all volunteer efforts and funding for the most part, but geez, this is a known wet area and you’d think some bog boards would be placed.
More water kept following when we’d least expect it and we realized we made a good decision to keep hiking as close to the road as possible to camp for the night. If we’d camped further out the next morning we’d of had to wade through. When we got to the road we contemplated trying to hitch up the road to get dinner and Speaker sat by the road for an hour to no avail, finally giving up and setting up camp on the blue blaze trail that leads to the parking area and trail head for this section.
Overnight we’d left our fly off the tent like we’d done the previous night but this time the dew from the trees started dripping sometime early in the morning so Chris and I got up to put the fly on. We had a road walk the next morning to get into Bristol and Blountstown, the start of a 40+ mile road walk. We followed CR 12 through rural communities as large trucks and morning commuters whizzed past us. It was foggy but an hour or two later the fog cleared and the sun came out. As we got closer to Bristol we found the store we had planned to hitch to the night before and found it closed. Good thing we didn’t try! It’d been closed for quite awhile, too, as the gas prices were still rather cheap.
Once in Bristol we started talking about the food we wanted to eat in town as we made a beeline for the library. The Bristol library was very friendly and easy to use, no i.d. required! After we had our fill of internet we made our way to Apalachee Restaurant, a down home cooking buffet. Mmmmm! We picked a booth in the back hoping to keep our stench away and to avoid weird conversations but someone sat in the booth in front of us an the inevitable questioning happened. Everyone was always friendly about it, despite some of the curious looks. The buffet was great, typical buffet food, but I really liked the cobbler.
With full bellies we continued on our way down S.R. 20 where we were looking forward to getting an extra hour in the day as we crossed the Apalachicola River.
We said goodbye to the Eastern Time Zone and entered the Central Time Zone! WOOHOO! The river was pretty cool, the bridge across it much longer than expected, and we found some rather large cypress trees that were pushing 500+ years old or more, somehow bypassing the logging days.
The Airport Motel, our destination for the night, came closer than expected. We knew it was on the outskirts of town but it seemed a bit further outside of town than we thought. The hotel was mostly deserted and the Indian-American owners were very friendly and when we asked for a ride into town for a resupply they were obliging since they had an errand in town, too. We got showered up and ready for the trip to town for laundry and resupply.
At the laundromat the soap dispenser was stuck thus requiring Speaker to bum some soap from a lady doing her laundry. She looked a little strangely at us at first but ended up kindly handing the bottle over. We shopped at the Piggly Wiggly for the first time, just next door to the laundromat and the Chinese restaurant, our dinner of choice. I’d of loved to have walked around Blountstown but the other motel in town was closed and so we had no choice.
After a well rested night we got ready for our first 30 mile day!
After resupplying in Shady Grove we got back on the trail through more private logging areas. This time we mostly followed well drained logging roads so there was no water involved—mostly! We had a few miles stretch between U.S. 221 before we crossed over U.S. 19. This was more of a major artery into Perry than the other road had been so hitching would have decent here. We took a short break to dry out our tent in the afternoon sun. We had continuous problems with dew on the tent and had to constantly take time in the morning or afternoon breaks to let it dry.
We entered an area managed by the Suwannee River Water Management District and the Econfina River runs through this area. Along the way we’d missed a blue blaze high water route that we’d already decided we’d thought to take but instead we ended up wading some chilly water on forest roads. So, we got wet and took our boots off several times. At this point we’d decided to just go barefoot instead of taking our packs off to switch shoes. This photo is nabbed from Speaker’s photos.
At the Econfina River bridge, which we got to quicker than anticipated, it was such a lovely evening.
Yes, that is the color of the water we drank! Love that tannin! It doesn’t taste bad, just looks like tea.
We found a clearing a bit past the bridge to camp for the night. It was near the dirt road but we thought there wouldn’t be traffic, however at nearly dusk a truck crammed full of what looked like weekend hunters drove by. We waved and they drove on.
The skies the next morning were beautiful as we continued to follow more forest roads through the WMA and through private pine plantations. We’d peer over into some cypress domes and be thankful we weren’t wading. We crossed CR 14 and noticed an SUV parked at the trail head and a short time later we met a woman and three dogs coming from the other direction. Normally we are used to people stopping and asking what we are doing but this woman must’ve been nervous about three smelly people and kept her head down as she went past.
Before we knew it we’d finally ditched the forest roads and found real trail. It was not well trod, but before we knew it we were at the Aucilla River! It was beautiful!
We spread out at what we thought was the designated campsite (to learn it was really another .1/.2 down the trail) for lunch, drying things out and relaxing in the warm February sun. A local came to see us while we were eating and said he had been working on some of the trail maintenance in the area. He didn’t stay long, normally trail maintainers linger but this one didn’t. It’s nice to talk to the local folks sometimes, get a perspective on the area.
This area is said to look prehistoric, and it does. It’s mystical and so beautiful. Every little bend we’d come to we’d ooh and ahh and despite having some crappy trail in recent days this made up for it some.
I’ve got lots of videos!
Some kayaks would be pretty sweet down this river!
Tired of orange blazes yet?
We did see one boat on the river, though I never figured out where they put in. Eventually at one end of the river the river goes underground, so it must’ve been from up river. There are access roads paralleling the river in a few areas so we did run into a few others, including a photographer at the next video.
The Aucilla seems to be moving slowly but here it is moving quite quickly!
So many little places to pull off and sit, to relax and take it all in.
Further up the trail and looking back at the rapids.
I’m doing my “You want to stop? I’m gonna lean on my poles and look like a flamingo so I can rest my feet a minute” pose.
I look like I’m about to break into a run here!
After another break at one of the designated campsites we finally found where the river goes into the ground.
And it wasn’t what we expected. I was expecting some sort of waterfall into a pit, not a sluggish river appearing to just stop.
At the end is a pile of logs and branches interspersed with pieces of trash.
And that’s it. Slightly cool but also slightly disappointing.
Next up we got to follow the river as it flowed underground via the Aucilla sinks. A few day hikers were around, some were trying to scavenge for artifacts, looking but not finding any (and illegal). An ancient tribe was found under the river, the site of many of the artifacts that may be found.
We were also supposed to see a whirlpool but was again disappointed to find nothing was whirling. Guess the water has to be higher?
Loved this little crevice!
Not far after the crevice we ran into one of the weirder situations on the trail. Luckily Speaker was in front of me and he stopped short quickly. Ahead were two men who had been hiking nude! They saw us and turned quickly but I saw enough to know what was going on. We eased up giving them time to cover themselves and we passed the first one with a quick hello, trying to smother laughter and curiosity and the second was hiding behind a tree trying to put some shorts on. Strange people in the woods!
The next morning we were looking forward to a stop at JR’s Aucilla River Store along a roadwalk we had later in the morning. We were up early, looking forward to getting some food for a snack or early lunch before hitting St. Marks NWR.
The sinks were particularly beautiful in the morning.
After leaving the Aucilla River a dirt road busy with construction and local traffic from a nearby phosphate mine we managed to make it to the narrow U.S. 98. A prison work crew was setting up to start picking up trash along the road as 18 wheelers hurtled by. We’d alternate from walking along the white line to jumping to the grass. We noticed that the netting they lay out to control erosion while grass is seeding after road projects was not particularly doing its job as there was very little grass continuing to grow in new.
Finally we reached the store, a quiet gas station with signs out front protesting the proposal of having Nestle Water come in and bottle in the nearby rivers and springs. Inside we bought burgers to heat in the microwave and sodas for our mid-morning snack and sat outside the front door while eating them. It’s a cozy place, JR’s, friendly to hikers and if you need you can camp behind their store with permission.
Back down the road we went, another few miles before we would have to get back into the woods at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. We had about half a mile of nice trail along a well manicured road before entering the woods and finding it very, very wet. We did our best to try to avoid the wet path before giving up and switching our shoes. The water was cold! My feet would ache with the cold as we tiptoed through the water, sometimes I wondered if it was better to go fast or to go achingly slow and ease through. We’d get to a small island of cabbage palms to dry out for a minute, warm up, and then move on to the next bit of water. Eventually we found a deeper cypress dome but luckily it had bog boards running throughout it. We wondered why there weren’t more of them along the way! Finally we reached an old railroad tram where we put our socks on our frigid feet and back on the hiking boots went.
At a clearing with a junction of another tram/levee we took lunch. On our way in a sign made mention that we would need to pay and check in with the rangers if we were through-hiking the refuge. Apparently only thru-hikers are allowed to utilize the back country campsites. We’d considered just ignoring it and stealthing but decided at the last minute to go ahead and call in. We let them know we would come the next morning to the ranger station to pay our very meager fee, a few dollars a person, to stay at two sites in the refuge. Good thing we did because we did hear a truck drive by the Ring-Levee campsite that night shortly after we’d gone to bed.
After lunch we continued along the levee watching the vegetation slowly change from freshwater wetland plants to incorporating salt water plants, particularly after crossing the Pinhook River and campsite.
About two miles later the real FT ditches into a cabbage palm swamp while a blue blaze continues along the levee. The real trail parallels the levee the entire way, weaving along. With the cold water in the morning we’d decided we’d had enough of being wet and decided to blue blaze this section. Since we did that it cut a mile or two off our day which allowed us to linger at a few stops along the way.
Finally we were able to see the ocean, wayyyy in the distance! The guidebook says that you can see both coasts, the west coast and the north coast, which is sorta true, but it is a little bit far fetched if you ask me. I was expecting a lookout tour but we had to peer across the marsh from the levee. As we got closer to the ring levee campsite we were finally able to see waves in the distance, at least a mile away. Speaker had been smart and refilled his water closer to the freshwater marshes and the book had warned us that we should try to get water at the campsite during low tide to avoid getting brackish water. We got some pretty brackish water that evening, making everything a little too salty at dinner.
Speaker trying to get a better photo from his bamboo poles.
The campsite was gorgeous, despite the very annoying noseeums. Yes, those little flakes in the photo are all of those little bastards! DIEEEEEE! I gave up and went to the tent to read while the following went on.
Morning was almost as beautiful…
In the Stony Bayou pool we were rewarded with lots of wildlife, including migratory birds but also a couple of friendly otters. This one was playing with his breakfast!
Instead of following the trail and then taking a blue blaze to the park office we road walked instead. The office staff was friendly but it seemed like such a hassle not to be able to pay over the phone or by the internet. Instead it says you can mail your money and reservation or you’ve gotta detour to walk in. A big hassle! I guess there are not enough people thru-hiking the refuge in order to elicit a money drop box at the entrances.
We followed the blue blaze back out to the FT, following an old levee towards the Port Leon campsite. Poor blazing in this section had us doubting ourselves, wondering if we’d missed a turn. We decided to continue with what we thought was the right trail and finally found a blaze. Need some blazing in here folks!
A few turns and back into the woods and onto a small logging levee as we made our way north to the St. Marks river.
When we got there we found this sign. We’d been anticipating it for a few weeks, joking about how we had to hail a boat to cross a river! We’d called a ferry service run by a local fishing motel but it was a ridiculous fee, $25 for a 200′ boat ride. We decided to try our luck hitching a boat ride; the book said it would be relatively easy.
Only about five minutes were spent on shore when a small boat came by that we lucked into flagging down. He’d helped a few hikers across before so he knew the drill.
We’d been planning on a resupply at Bo Lynn’s grocery which we found to be only a bit bigger than the general store/gas station at Shady Grove. This was the first time PopTarts made it onto our breakfast list. We’d bypassed them on the AT and I’d always eschewed them because they didn’t seem to provide enough energy for me in the morning but it was either that or more granola bars and I was sick of those. PopTarts were the better option at this point. It’s amazing what you can put together from the weirdest resupply points. There had to have been spices and some items that had bee on the shelf since the 90s. Yes. Ick. The more popular items you could tell were restocked more regularly but some of the others—not so much! The older women running the store was incredibly nice and quite tolerant of hikers buying up her supplies of mac, ramen and other hiker foods.
Across the street we filled up on burgers and sodas for lunch.
After filling our bellies we followed the St. Marks bike path through the west side of town. This is a well manicured bike path that had a decent amount of traffic and privies every half mile or so. Chris is a big fan of benches at campsites so we’d joke that he could sit at every bench along the bike path if he so chose.
Back at U.S. 98 we thought we’d have to roadwalk but instead found it paralleled the road in the woods, though it seemed to be a recent addition and in some parts was poorly maintained and barely a path at all. We crossed the Wakulla River, a crystal clear spring fed river, you could see the bottom from above the bridge at U.S. 98. Fishermen were dotting the shoreline and we peered in looking for manatees. No such luck!
Right after the river we returned to St. Marks where we took a short break in the middle of the trail to dry our tent again. This side of the refuge was beautiful, lots of wonderful cabbage palms and palmetto thickets.
Finally we came to the Cathedral, an area of ethereal cabbage palms. It was pretty surreal seeing a thicket of them, some with charred from previous fires.
Then we came to Shepherd Spring where the book warns that the locals say a large alligator resides. If it had been hot out it might’ve been tempting to jump in for a swim. Good thing we didn’t because we did see a small gator!
You can see the gator in this photo near the stump in the water.
Our campsite was set in a pine and palmetto thicket, though sunset was blocked by a few too many trees. It was a quiet setting and very enjoyable.
The following morning was foggy and seemed to threaten rain, though it never did. We weaved through the forest and into a few wet areas, sometimes avoiding them, other times going straight through them. A few areas had some poorly built bridges with ridiculously high steps that involved pulling ourselves up to get onto the bridge. Then there would be a stretch of bog boards to stay dry and then a big area without them and then a random bog board again! During our mid morning break we heard an ATV that seemed like it was on the trail and then as we listened it seemed to be going off trail. We waited a few minutes to see what would happen but we never actually saw it. Curious.
I’m looking at the Google Earth map of this section and I’m realizing how turned around I was that day. Fog always makes me a little loopy, not seeing the sun and knowing which way is which. Ask Chris about the Grayson Highlands on the AT and how I thought we’d backtracked on the same trail we’d come at one point! Anyway, the sun finally start poking out as we had lunch on top of a pine covered sandhill. A couple hiking out from a nearby road passed us as we ate.
After lunch we were quickly at C.R. 30 and before I knew it we were crossing U.S. 319 and headed for Apalachicola National Forest.