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Explore Florida’s St. George Island on Apalachicola Bay

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Sea Oats Photo © Beverly Hill

 

In late October I visited Dr. Julian G Bruce St George Island State Park (talk about a mouthful!) along the Forgotten Coast located in the lower panhandle of Florida. This important barrier island provides protection for the Apalachicola Bay Aquatic Preserve and the nearby Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) and UNESCO World Biospher Reserve. In a word, it’s pretty special.

Interestingly, St. George Island is an exercise in balance. Half of the island is developed, with homes, condominiums, shops and businesses on the western end, and the eastern half of the island is home to a state park with 9 miles of pristine sand beach and 12 miles of estuarine shoreline. As one would expect, during the summer months, St. George Island is a haven for endangered sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.

Great Egrets Photo © Beverly Hill

My early fall trip coincided with the seasonal butterfly migration; Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Long-tailed Skippers, and other colorful butterflies dotted the flowering landscape. I chose the one-mile long East Slough Overlook trail that wound through the pine scrub to a slough flanked by Smooth Cordgrass and Black Needlerush. From the boardwalk I was able to observe a Great Blue Heron and several Great Egrets stalking their prey in the shallows. To my delight I also spotted some Southeastern Five-lined Skinks that quickly raced for cover upon my approach.

Gulf Fritillary Photo © Beverly HIll

I took my time taking in the sights from the boardwalk and adjoining sand trail before eventually returning to the parking area near the trailhead. I drove further into the park, stopping to take in the sights along the coastal dunes, including a defunct section of boardwalk that had been damaged by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. The surf was a bit rough on this day, so I decided against a walk on the beach, instead turning my attention back into the heart of the park.

Old boardwalk on St. George Island Photo © Beverly Hill

Next, I took a drive through the campground to check out the amenities available for camping and noted 60 campsites complete with electricity and water, two bathhouses and a playground. There are current plans in the works to expand the campground with an additional camping loop with up to 30 additional spots, as well as expanding the number of primitive hike-in campsites. Among other amenities, there are two natural kayak launch areas on the bay side, three covered picnic pavilions and 6 covered beach shelters, and restroom/shower areas.

Long-tailed Skipper Photo © Beverly Hill

To get to St. George Island State Park, turn onto FL 300 S from Hwy 98 in Eastpoint and follow it 4 miles across the bay. Once on St. George Island, turn left onto Big Bend Scenic Byway Coastal Trail/Gulf Beach Dr and drive 4.3 miles to the state park entrance. Other nearby parks include St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe and Ochlockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy. Check the Florida State Park webpage for entrance fees and closures.

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A Hike to Cherokee Sink near Wakulla Springs

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Cherokee Sink Trail

Cherokee Sink Trail

I learned of Cherokee Sink Hiking Trail while preparing for a return visit to Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee. My morning plans consisted of a river boat ride on the Wakulla River followed by a couple of hours of hiking before continuing south to Crystal River. Cherokee Sink fit the bill perfectly by being a short hike with a scenic destination.

Access to Cherokee Sink Trail is off of Hwy 61 about 1.3 miles southwest of the main entrance of Wakulla Springs State Park. We turned right at the small Cherokee Sink sign onto an unpaved road and drove a short distance to the parking area.

Cherokee Sink

Cherokee Sink

The trail itself was an easy trek over flat terrain down an old forest road lined by hardwood trees. Deer and other small animal tracks were abundant along the 1 mile trail. The weather was mild for late November, and I was glad for that, having hiked many a trail during hotter temperatures.

After about 20 minutes of peaceful walking we arrived at our destination, a large sinkhole lake about 250′ wide glistening in the afternoon sun. Three wooden boardwalks dotted the rocky perimeter to viewing platforms overlooking the lake, and we moved onto the closest one to take in the view of this amazing 80′ deep karst window into the Florida aquifer.

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Where most people might just see a swimming hole, Cherokee Sink is more than that. Florida is composed primarily of porous limestone, which over time becomes pockmarked with voids and passages, sometimes creating caverns. Cherokee Sink used to be one of these caverns until its roof collapsed into itself creating the sinkhole lake that exists today. The water that you see today is rainwater runoff that mixed with the water table far below.

Pond Apples?

Pond Apples?

We took the time to walk around most of the lake, and to my surprise I found what appeared to be ripe Pond Apples on the ground along the trail. Further along the trail we arrived at the site of the historic Causseaux Cemetery. The grave markers are long gone, but a sign tells about the family that lived there, including Stephen Causseaux, a Confederate Soldier.

After exploring the overlooks, we headed back to the parking area. Our brief visit to Cherokee Sink was well worth the effort – it’s not every day that one gets to peer into a karst window. Don’t pass it by due to the short hike. It’s easy to add more hiking mileage in by adding the trails at Wakulla Springs to round out a full day of hiking.causseaux-cemetery

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Hiking for the Beginner

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One would think that there wouldn’t be a need for a how-to-hike article, but surprisingly there is. Every day a would-be hiker sets off onto the trail woefully unprepared. A handful of those would-be adventurers encounter trouble and wind up in need of rescue, an effort that can be costly, time-consuming and potentially place others at risk.

A Heavily Bandaged Foot With Hiking Blisters

A Heavily Bandaged Foot From Hiking Blisters

So what should a spur-of-the-moment hiker do before hitting the trail? First, make sure that you have the proper footwear and wicking socks to pull moisture away from your skin. Your feet are the most valuable asset you have on a hike and essential for getting you back out. Many a hike has been cut short by debilitating blisters or a sprained ankle. Proper footwear is a must. If you enjoy hiking, keep a spare pair of boots and socks in your vehicle for those spontaneous hikes.

Before hitting the trail, make sure you have plenty of water, even if you think you’ll only be gone for an hour. Exercise coupled with heat can dehydrate you quickly, causing confusion and disorientation. Humidity, direct sun exposure and wind can accelerate dehydration.

Map of Oak Tree Nature Park in Mary Esther, Florida

Map of Oak Tree Nature Park in Mary Esther, Florida

Familiarize yourself with the trail map. If there aren’t any handouts available at the trailhead/kiosk, take a picture of the map for reference. If you are using your phone as a compass or GPS, be sure to calibrate it before setting off. As for your phone, don’t rely on it solely to get you out of an emergency. Oftentimes there is spotty or no reception in wilderness areas.

You’ve heard it a dozen times, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. If you run into trouble, you want to know that someone will eventually start looking for you. If you are hiking alone, leave a note on the front seat of your car in case rescuers need to gather more information.

Stay on the trail. No, really. Bears, bees, briars and bitey things abound off of the trail. Cliffs, crevasses and sink holes may also lie in wait just out of sight. Staying on the trail helps prevent unnecessary trail erosion and is the first place you’ll be found if you get injured.

Hikers on the Florida Trail

Hikers on the Florida Trail

Give yourself plenty of time to complete your hike and don’t start a hike right before dark. The sunset may look awesome from the lookout point, but trying to find your way back down the trail in the dark is the quickest way to become lost or injured. Nightfall is also when a lot of animals emerge and go on the prowl.

Be prepared for weather changes. Inclement weather can always pop up at the least convenient time. If you are in a low-lying area, try to get to higher ground and wait it out. Parts of your trail could get washed out or become a raging river. Don’t try to cross rising water because you could get swept downstream making it harder for rescuers to find you.

If you do become lost, S.T.O.P. That stands for Stop where you are. Don’t panic. The best course of action is usually to stay put and wait for rescue. Think about what you need to do and your options. Observe your surroundings and resources. Make a Plan and proceed. At all times keep calm and stay focused.

Group photo: L-R Mark, Kris, Zac, Maria, Daniel

Group photo: L-R Mark, Kris, Zac, Maria, Daniel

Ideally, you will be more prepared and knowledgeable about your upcoming hike than the average person. It is your responsibility to make adequate preparations for your trip. Do your research. Have fun and hike on.

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Hiking Safely in the High Humidity of Florida

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Florida humidity.

Florida humidity

For those unfamiliar with Florida, the climate is considered temperate, ranging from sub-tropical to tropical. Of Florida’s four geographical regions, the largest portion is equatorial rainforest with the defined rainy season stretching from June through September. Being situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Florida is prone to hurricanes, tropical systems and frequent afternoon thunderstorms. These elements all combine to create a humidity hothouse.

Thermometer 90 by Conservation Law Foundation

Thermometer 90 by Conservation Law Foundation

Hiking in heat and high humidity can be a recipe for disaster. Humidity works against the body’s natural cooling process. Under normal conditions the body cools itself by evaporation of perspiration. In a humid environment the sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly because the surrounding air is already saturated with moisture. This can create a dangerous situation for people who are outdoors and if not acted upon immediately can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death.

Despite the risk, this doesn’t mean that hiking in Florida in the summer is completely out, but it does require that hikers modify their tactics.

  1. Get acclimatized. Build up exposure to hot and humid conditions over a period of 5-8 days. This helps the body regulate temperature more efficiently.
  2. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water before and during the hike even if you don’t feel thirsty. Waiting until thirst sets in means the body is already starting to dehydrate.
  3. Hike early in the morning and late in the evening. Seek shelter in the shade and rest when the sun is high. Take a page from the animal’s handbook and lay low when temperatures are soaring.
  4. Apply cool cloths to wrists, neck, under hats and under the armpits to help cool the body during extreme temperatures. Prepare ahead of time by filling a water bottle 2/3rds of the way full and place it in the freezer the night before a hike. This will provide cool water for drinking and can help during an emergency if one becomes overheated.
  5. Pay attention to heat warnings and refrain from hiking in extreme conditions.
  6. Know the symptoms of heat illnesses and take action to prevent it and/or remove yourself or others to a cooler location when in distress. Be prepared to seek medical attention when necessary.
  7. Don’t make the mistake of counting on a cooling breeze from the ocean or gulf. Even though there might be mild sea breezes along the shoreline, step a few feet into the interior and the heat and humidity can become unbearable.
  8. Wear the proper clothing. Wear white or light colors that reflect the energy of the sun. In addition, be sure to utilize a wicking material that pulls moisture away from the skin and transfers it to outer shell.
  9. Pace yourself and rest frequently. Leave plenty of time to complete the hike without turning it into a marathon session. Hiking is meant to be enjoyable.
  10. Hike smart and don’t take chances. Let someone know where you are going and what time you expect to be back.
Take it easy and chill out.

Take it easy and chill out. Photo by Harold Neal

All outdoor activities carry a certain level of risk. Even the most prepared hiker can run into a situation that he or she didn’t anticipate. Be aware of your limits and don’t push yourself beyond them. If the weather situation isn’t conducive to hiking, reschedule the hike. The trail will be there for you to tackle on another day.

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Hiking on the Sweetwater Trail in Blackwater River State Forest

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Krul Lake in Blackwater River State Forest

Krul Lake in Blackwater River State Forest

Blackwater River State Forest has a number of hiking trails scattered amongst its almost 3 million acres of longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, but perhaps the most scenic of the trails is the Sweetwater Trail located at Krul Lake off of Hwy 4 near Munson. Krul Lake is a man-made 6.5 acre spring-fed lake that is a popular swimming spot during the hot summer months. It hosts picnic areas, grills, bathhouse and a campground.

 

Sweetwater Creek and Boardwalk

Sweetwater Creek and Boardwalk

Visitors will pay a modest day use fee, $2 at time of this posting, to enter the park. The trailhead is located in the parking lot and the first 2,900 feet of wooden boardwalk is ADA accessible. This section contains a working replica grist mill and wonderful suspension bridge that crosses Sweetwater Creek. There are several benches along the boardwalk inviting visitors to sit back and just enjoy the beauty of the area. Sweetwater Trail pdf.

 

Suspension Bridge over Sweetwater Creek

Suspension Bridge over Sweetwater Creek

At just over the half mile mark the boardwalk gives way to a footpath that enters the longleaf pine forest. Interspersed among the pine trees are wiregrass meadows, ferns and a wide variety of wildflowers. Spring and fall are perfect times to catch color and see migrating butterflies. At all of the trailheads in Blackwater River State Forest hikers will see signs cautioning them about Florida black bears and what to do if one is encountered. Other animals that may be encountered in the area include feral pig, gopher tortoises, wild turkey, deer and more.

Follow Sweetwater Trail a comfortable distance of 1.3 miles and arrive at Bear Lake, another recreation area within Blackwater State Forest. Unlike Krul Lake, alligators are present in this lake so swimming is not allowed, however fishing and kayaking are. Hikers can choose to head back to Krul Lake or continue on to the 4 mile Bear Lake Loop Trail for a longer hike. Other nearby trails include a 6 mile mountain bike trail and a 2 mile Bear Lake to Jackson Red Ground connector trail.

Sweetwater Trail

Sweetwater Trail

Krul Lake is located about 21 miles west of Crestview, FL. From Crestview take Hwy 90 to SR 189/Hwy4 North. Turn left at Baker and continue west 12 miles until you see the Krul Lake signs on the right. From Pensacola take I-10 or Hwy 90 to Milton and take Hwy 191/Munson Hwy to Hwy 4. Turn right and travel approximately 1/2 mile to Krul Lake Road on the left.

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