Beautiful, yet deadly: perhaps that’s the allure that draws interest in one of Florida’s most uncommon and unusual flora: pitcher plants. In the Sarracenia family, there are six species found in the backwoods of Florida, with the highest concentration in the Western Panhandle. I spent this past weekend on a quest: where best to find and photograph pitcher plants near Pensacola? It’s peak bloom season, and from previous visits, I knew of the vistas to be savored at Garcon Point, near Bagdad, where a 1.7 mile loop trail created by the Western Gate chapter of the Florida Trail Association provides scenic views across prairies stretching to Blackwater Bay. I also knew Tarkiln Bayou to be the home of pitcher plant bogs, and I’d encountered them along the Florida Trail in Blackwater River State Forest. Still, there had to be more. A little online research turned up the new Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park just north of Garcon Point (recently converted from an aquatic preserve), and the Clear Creek Nature Trail at Whiting Field NAS north of Milton. Armed with directions, I began my quest.
The skies threatened rain as I pulled into the gravel lot at Tarkiln Bayou, where a sidewalk wandered off into the woods. Not what I expected: I’d thought forest roads led out to the bayou. A man stood looking at the kiosk, and asked a few questions about hiking. I asked him if he’d seen pitcher plants, and he said no, there were signs that said they were here, but he didn’t know what they were. Disappointed, I almost turned back, but took stock of the fellow and decided he probably had no clue what a pitcher plant was. Ah, intuition. It served me well. About five minutes down the path, I saw my first, a white-topped pitcher plant. Nothing more. The sidewalk became a boardwalk, and it started to pour. But here was the motherlode, a vast array of white-topped pitcher plants with rubbery red or orange blooms. In the rain, I stood and marveled. What a sight!
At Garcon Point, I already knew where to find the best blooms, so I did a beeline for the segment of trail that connects the southern and northern trailheads. Sure enough, the pitcher plants were showing their stuff despite the cloudy day. They grow in profusion along the blue-blazed trail. I doubled back and walked the full loop this time, enjoying the view out onto the open prairies, where more pitcher plants nodded in the stiff salty breeze.
Just up the road off SR 191 on the way to Bagdad, there are pitcher plants lining the roadside ditches, an amazing site. The first paved road on the right (heading north) leads to a parking area for the Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park. There are no trails here; you are free to wander the preserve and find pitcher plants along the edges of seeps and bogs. I found them along the road, growing thickly in the ditches, a glorious sight.
The skies opened and I thought I was done hiking for the day. I visited historic Bagdad and Milton, stopping in on friends and collecting information for another book I’m working on, North Florida: An Explorer’s Guide. Surprisingly, after dinner, the sun came back out. And since it was on the way to my overnight stay at Adventures Unlimited, I made a point of looking for the Clear Creek Nature Trail. I wasn’t sure if it was on the base or not, but the guard at the gate pointed me in the right direction: right outside the front gate. The trail starts from a kiosk at the far end of a park, and winds through upland forest for a half mile. It seemed like the typical upland trail, with lots of oaks and a lot of interpretive markers. And then I found the boardwalk.
Folks, I’ve never written about this trail before. Never laid eyes on it until this weekend. And I am stating here: it amazed me. It captivated me for hours. I laughed when I saw the suggested 2-hour time for a 1.5 mile loop up at the kiosk. But I spent nearly two hours there Saturday night, and went back again at daybreak Sunday morning for another two hours.
On the boardwalk, I’d felt like I’d stepped into an 18th century painting of a fairyland. Clear Creek is a crystal clear waterway with a sepia-toned bottom; fish float through it as if on wings. But the magic came from the pitcher plants. First clusters of them on hummocky islands, their blooms and trumpets reflected in the crystalline waters. Then armies of them swarming down the banks of this steep-sided ravine. Then constellations of them scattered throughout the bog grasses in every direction. I was mesmerized. Enchanted. I could stay there for days.
It’s not easy to photograph this kind of beauty. I tried. The creek is in a steep sided valley with forest on both sides; the sun casts long shadows. Here are a few of my efforts. Meanwhile, of all of the trails I’ve visited in Florida, I encourage you to seek this one out and treasure it. Trust me: you won’t believe it until you see it yourself.