Thursday, February 25, 2010

Juniper Prairie Wilderness

This past October, my friend, Kristen, and I hiked a portion of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest. It's called the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. I found a set of photos from somebody else hiking it on Google Earth and thought it looked like a nice intro to long distance hiking in Florida. Originally we thought it would be cool to hike in, camp overnight and hike out the next day but we're both too poor/cheap to invest in some camping gear at the moment.
I researched it and found a useful intro and map to the area on the Florida Trail Association's website. I'm horrible at getting up early so by the time we drove the 1.5 hours to Juniper Springs to park at the trailhead, it was probably around 9:30. The trail starts out in a scrub ecosystem with a lot of thick bushes. We were a little nervous at first because it was the start of hunting season and we don't own any "hunters orange" clothing. And by we, I really mean me because I am a worywart. So we put on our orange and blue Gators hats and wore bright clothing. Another possible danger in the back of my mind would be the encounter of a black bear. I doubted we would see any, but if we did, then what?!

The trail dips in elevation and enters a burnt out pine forest. Which is where we saw the above sign. It reads "THIS PORTION OF TRAIL PASSES THROUGH A WILDERNESS AREA. THEREFORE, IT IS MAINTAINED TO A LESSER STANDARD. VISITORS MUST ASSUME POSSIBLE RISKS SUCH AS FALLING TREES, LIMBS, LACK OF VEHICLE ACCESS, ANIMAL.." and then it cut off b/c the rest burned off in the fire. Woooonderful.

This area of the trail was actually the most beautiful because of the contrast between the darkened pine silhouettes against the bright blue sky.Also the vast expanse of saw palmetto made it possible to get a good shot of area.

A couple of streams crossed the trail and one of them had a log and rope to help you cross, I assume when the water is higher. After this, the habitat changes a bit into more trees and a couple of times it took us a few seconds to figure out which was trail b/c the area was so open. Luckily this trail was well maintained and we just followed the orange triangles.
Eventually we came to a pond. The map from the FTA's website was incredibly handy, but it only has one pond listed on it. We came to this pond maybe 40 minutes into our hike and according to the map Hidden Pond is supposed to be about 6 miles in from the trailhead. So we scratched our heads, looked at the  map some more and kept walking. After passing numerous ponds that looked exactly like this one, we met another hiker who assured us that we would know Hidden Pond when we saw it because it was significantly larger.

After asking "is this it?" to each other multiple times, we finally came upon Hidden Pond. We only know it was Hidden Pond because of the tents we saw set up across the way. We ran into another set of hikers asking us if this was Hidden Pond and when we confirmed it probably was, their faces showed the disappoint that I was feeling. The only difference between this pond and the probably 10 others we passed on the way here was a little pathway worn into the bank from so many people entering it. It was crystal clear (indicating a spring?), but you could only tell that because the erosion had also taken away the aquatic plants growing on the bottom. So who knows whether the other ponds were spring fed. I had read multiple websites that praised this trail for the amount of swimming opportunities. While it was clear water, the dark bottom of the rest of the pond made it hard to see through and I don't think you could pay me to go swimming in that. I am a Floridian to the core and have a healthy fear of alligators, so no thanks.

After eating some dried fruit and a water break, we headed back. I found out that a 12 mile hike is most definitely not a good beginner hike to do in one day and I will spare you the whining that ensued. Kristen is most definitely a true friend for not only putting up with my complaining but for encouraging me those last 4 miles. 8 miles round trip is going to be my limit until I build up some more leg muscle.

Muscle-less legs aside, this trail had beautiful scenery, was well maintained and I would consider coming back. My one real complaint was the lack of detail on the grab and go map from the FTAs website. If you park at the Juniper Springs trail head, the park rangers require you to sign in and out with them, which I appreciated. However they did not have any maps or information about the trail beyond a large Florida Trail map that you could buy for $3. Now we've already established I'm relatively thrifty, but $3 for a map that is essentially just a large ortho map of Florida with a line denoting the Florida Trail and with absolutely no detail about the trail I plan on hiking seems absurd to me.

What is the proverb? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? Park Service might want to invest in some free maps for the trail before they end up sending a search party for someone who isn't prepared.