It was a delight this year – Peggy Grantham’s last as hike leader – to join the Panhandle Trace and get to know the far northern reaches of the Florida Trail. It’s been 11 years since I hiked through Blackwater River State Forest and while some things remain the same, others certainly have changed.
I ended up hiding in the back of the group photo because I’d run off to answer the call of nature. Little did I know that the photo gets used on a t-shirt!
Blackwater River State Forest is at its finest in spring, when wildflowers bloom along streams and in bogs, and the wiregrass creates a soft haze across the landscape.
We started out with a convoy of volunteers shuttling us to the Alabama border to reach the trail terminus – not an easy place to get to in a passenger car. The first few days – involving the Wiregrass Trail and the Jackson Trail – spanned landscapes of epic proportions for Florida, longleaf pine flatwoods that seemed to go on forever.
Prescribed burning is a norm in this habitat to keep the understory from closing in. However, it seems to be a bit overdone. One of the section leaders told me that sections are burned every other year. I wish the forest had taken our group into account when they burned part of the Jackson Trail 48 hours before we were to walk through it. An adjacent landowner set his fields afire and ended up accidentally burning up part of the Florida Trail and burning down one of the few trail shelters on the FT.
I’ll go into more details on the sections in a later blog post. My favorite portion, the walk along Juniper Creek, was as interesting as ever, although the pitcher plant bogs had suffered from drought and recent burning.
New to us were the Hutton Unit and Yellow River Ravines sections, both with their own special charm. Hutton included some very hilly landscapes, and it seemed that we were the only group that day to find the extensive pitcher plant bog that was just a few feet from the trail.
The Yellow River Ravines section is simply amazing. It is physically demanding and beautiful, lush with wildflowers in spring, and worth taking your time along so you don’t miss the little things – here, John and I were the only ones who saw the pitcher plants, up to three feet tall, growing along the edges of Burnt Grocery Creek. After we caught up to the others, we pointed out the wildflowers we were seeing.
After each day’s hike – as if hiking wasn’t enough – we rambled around the campground or went in search of secret pitcher plant spots throughout the region. There were plenty of places with amazing blooms (yet another blog post in the works!)
Although we’d planned to hike all the way to Fort Pickens, we had to leave the hike early to head home and deal with an unexpected emergency. We’re hoping to get back with the group next year and see the rest!
Thanks to all of the volunteers of the Western Gate Chapter of the Florida Trail Association and especially hike leader Peggy Grantham for making this event happen.