Monday, December 31, 2012

Again to CCN

Christmas was bookended by a pair of cold snaps that dusted parts of the Bay Area with frost:

The low temps seemed to invigorate wild animals rather than discourage them, as evidenced by the cries of hawks that frequently pierced the air and the large numbers of sandhill cranes seen milling about:

With that kind of atmosphere greasing the skids into 2012’s final weekend, there was no way I could let the weekend pass without exploring some woods, even if our calendar showed things scheduled. So yesterday morning I made my way to the Cypress Creek North Trail Network for the first time in nine months.

In March I wrote two posts about this network that can be read here and here. The second post mentions a 1½-mile section of side trail that “is crossed by several other trails that lead to…well, right now I don’t know, but hey, that gives me a reason to come back!” Those other trails were my destination yesterday.

Because we are entering rather than exiting winter, the foliage is more scant right now than it was the last time I was here, a fact to which these bald cypress can testify:

To reach the trails I had in my mind, it was first necessary to head east for 1.3 miles on the paved path that serves as Cypress Creek North’s main artery. Almost immediately after using a culvert to pass over the creek itself, the paved path is crossed by an earthen trail onto which I turned right and trod into a forest of mixed hardwoods.

Just under a half-mile later, as that trail begins to emerge into a more open landscape, it encounters a pair of side trails marked by signposts 4 and 8. The first is on the right and plunges into moist-looking woods dominated by oaks. The trail itself consists of deep, lumpy dirt that has the appearance of never being dry anywhere there is shade:

Several steps beyond that, the second side trail turns left and heads into a pine flatwood that is slightly higher and considerably drier:

A quick glance at the two photos above shows just how abruptly one Florida ecosystem gives way to another. As far as beauty and adventure are concerned, the first trail looks more promising; however, I opted to walk the second one because I was wearing tennis shoes instead of my hiking boots and didn’t want to find myself sinking ankle-deep in mud.

The flatwood through which the second trail passes is thick with hip-high palmettos, but it has no canopy because the pines are so spread out. You will find two decision points soon after stepping onto this trail: first at an unsigned side trail branching off to the left, then at an intersection with another unsigned side trail, which goes off in both directions. I kept moving straight, wanting to see how long this particular trail is and hoping it would go far. I learned it does not, however, for it ends at a T intersection after little more than a third of a mile.

While you can choose to go either right or left at the T intersection, it was hard not to notice the barbed wire fence on the other side of the intersecting trail, which told me that any further travel in that direction was probably verboten. Although the intersecting trail is composed of the same sort of deep, lumpy dirt I skipped back at signpost 4, I chose not to skip it this time. Because these woods are sunnier than the ones at signpost 4, I figured the dirt here at least wouldn’t be wet from the prior morning’s rain -- plus there is a wooden observation tower to the left and I wanted to find out if it is accessible.

It turned out the dirt was dry like I hoped, and soft and deep like I expected. Covered with abnormally deep deer tracks, it gave under my weight with a sensation reminiscent of Rocky Mountain snow. Unfortunately, when I got to the tower I found that access to it is denied by the barbed wire, but at least it makes for a nice photo in its own right:

As for the earlier decision points I mentioned, I did go back and check them out, discovering that one-fifth of a mile is a recurring theme. At the first decision point, the unsigned trail on the left travels one-fifth of a mile before petering out at a spot where the flatwood gives way to a mixed forest that is thicker with trees. It was there that I saw these young maples holding on stubbornly to their autumnal leaves:

At the second decision point, you will walk approximately one-fifth of a mile regardless of whether you turn left or right. A left turn takes you to a T intersection with the same deep dirt trail that passes the observation tower, while a right turn empties you back onto the same side trail that brought you here from the main artery. Interestingly enough, the spot where you empty back onto that side trail is one-fifth of a mile past the spot where you left it!

I can not lie: I wish this network of side trails off a side trail would delve farther into the preserve than it does. Even if the barbed wire marks a property line, I could not detect any reason why the trail from “decision point one” has to stop at the maples instead of probing past them into the forest beyond. But it is still worth your time to come to these paths, especially when you consider that they are a decent ways into the preserve, and are but one piece of an extensive network of connected trails that you can explore while here.

For directions to the trailhead, please visit the first of the links I included earlier in this post. Happy Trails!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Croom: The Loop(s)

With Tucker Hill Fire Tower looming behind me, the sign at the trailhead presented two options: Turn right to head south or left, across the limestone road, to head north. I chose the former, and saw a rabbit sitting in the middle of the trail as soon as I turned onto it. A couple minutes later I encountered two deer who were also in the middle of the trail, and after eyeing me for a few seconds, they sauntered away without displaying any distress about my presence.

My southward course was chosen only because I wanted to be alone and had seen a group of people start walking north when I parked my car. However, I was inexplicably more curious about what lie to the north than what lie to the south, so after 30 minutes or so I turned around and backtracked -- and found myself on topographically appealing terrain immediately after crossing the road. The trail descended through hardwood forest and passed through dense undergrowth before emerging in a relatively open forest of pine:

So went my introduction, in April 2006, to the interwoven A-B-C loop trails in the Croom Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest. I have returned many times in the years since, and trust me when I say that whatever they lack in the way of imaginative naming, they more than make up for by leading into some of the wildest backcountry in Central Florida.

Totaling 14.7 miles, the Exterior Loop resembles an immense cookie whose edges are irregular and southeastern quarter is bitten off. Roughly one-third of the way “up the cookie,” at is narrowest point, a 1¼-mile trail called the B-C Connector bisects it from one end to the other. At another relatively narrow point, roughly two-thirds of the way up, it is bisected once more by a 2¾-mile path called the A-B Connector. These trails subdivide the Exterior Loop into three interior ones, and you can get a sense of the layout by looking at the trail map:

The so-called A Loop encompasses the entire A-B Connector, plus the northern arc of the Exterior Loop above it, for a total of seven miles not including the 0.2-mile approach hike…Meanwhile, the C Loop encompasses the B-C Connector plus the southern arc below, for a total of six miles not including the mile-long approach…And lastly, across the middle of it all is the 9.9-mile B Loop. It incorporates the A-B Connector as its northern border and B-C as its southern, linked together by part of the Exterior Loop’s western flank and a goodly chunk of its eastern one.

With mileage that allows you to log many hours on the trail and geology that allows you to see many habitats, it is hard to imagine a better trail existing in the Tampa Bay Area. Spend time here and you will witness the gamut from tall hills to low bogs, like the one pictured below. There are even a few modest ravines and reforested quarries.

Trees include everything from water-loving cypress to dryland pines, from long-boughed oaks to cone-shaped cedars. A few orange trees grow in scattered places throughout the woods, so if you hike here when they are bearing fruit (usually from November to February) you might be able to pluck a snack right from their limbs.

The understory teems as if refusing to be overshadowed by the canopy. One Labor Day weekend I walked into a thicket filled with blossoms that resembled wild orchids. Lantana blooms almost all year and is a favorite food source of the hummingbirds that reside here in spring and summer. And it seems like every songbird on earth enjoys feasting on the forest’s endless bounty of beautyberries:

Though there are rises and falls all throughout the loop, there is no denying that its northern half is the hilliest and its southern half provides the longest stretches of level land. You will find the tallest hills along the Exterior Loop’s northernmost stretch, and while hiking there you are sure to notice that the hills on the approach are continuous even if they’re not very high or steep. Spending time on this half of the loop, whether on the exterior or the A-B Connector, means you are always on or surrounded by some level of vertical relief:

The exterior route is marked by rectangular orange blazes and the connectors by rectangular blue blazes. These serve as important navigational aids since the loop is intersected multiple times by slender bike trails and also by dirt roads, a.k.a. “forest roads,” which I assume are there so rangers can access the backwoods without having to do so on foot. It is tempting to use the forest roads as alternate hiking trails, but if you do so, be aware that they are not quite as straight as they appear on the trail map, and therefore it is easier than you might think to become marginally lost.

There are two trailheads from which the loop can be accessed directly, both of which are on Croom Road. The western one, Tucker Hill Trailhead, is also the most conspicuous because of its large parking area, picnic tables, full-service restrooms, and fire tower:

To reach Tucker Hill from Brooksville, drive north on U.S. 41, turn right on Croom Road and continue for two miles. To reach it from practically everywhere else in the Bay Area, drive north on I-75 to exit 301, go east on State Road 50 for approximately one mile, then turn left on Croom Rital Road; four miles later you will pass the entrance to Silver Lake Recreation Area on your right, and eventually you will come to the trailhead several miles beyond that, after the road has turned west and changed from pavement to limestone and switched its name to just Croom. There is an unmanned pay station where you are expected to deposit a $2 day use fee, or $10 overnight fee if you plan on going backpacking and staying at one of the trail’s two primitive camping zones.

On the other hand, the eastern trailhead is located shortly after Croom Rital Road turns west and changes its name. There are no facilities there, but then again, there is also no pay station. Because this trailhead is not specifically marked, be sure to keep an eye out for the small Florida Trail signs that appear on each side of the road where the path crosses.

I have enjoyed these loops many times by myself, and twice in the past few months have brought Sarah out to introduce her to them as well -- so obviously, I encourage everyone to do the same whether alone or with friends and family. Go here for a downloadable copy of the map. Happy Trails!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sawgrass Lake

In New England, maples grow on lakesides that are home to moose. In Florida, they grow in swamps that are home to alligators, including this young one I happened upon yesterday:

We are fortunate that one of the largest maple swamps on Florida’s Gulf Coast is found in Sawgrass Lake Park. Given its location, and the 1.1-mile boardwalk that winds through it, this maple swamp also ranks as one of the state’s most accessible for people on foot:

But there is more to Sawgrass Lake Park than swamp, as proven by the hammock forest that covers the higher land of its northern segment. A trail loops through the hammock under a canopy that is lovely as can be:

Meanwhile, the westernmost boardwalk ends at an observation tower overlooking Sawgrass Lake itself (which, admittedly, is more pond than lake):

In addition to abundant populations of reptiles and amphibians, all variety of waterfowl can be seen in this preserve. Birds of prey are also plentiful, from fish-eating ospreys to mammal-eating owls. Described as “one of the premier birding sites in Florida” by, this is a designated stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail.

Botany buffs are sure to enjoy Sawgrass Lake just as much as birdwatchers, for in addition to multiple species of maple and oak, you are able to get close-up views of aquatic plants like duckweed and spatterdock. In many places the forest is lush with ferns:

You have probably seen this place even if you’ve never paid a visit, because its eastern boundary abuts I-275 as you enter St. Petersburg from the north. You would recognize it as that big spread of woods, fronted by tall cypress trees, that sits on the west side of the interstate immediately south of the Gandy Boulevard exit.

I have long felt that Pinellas County maintains one of the best county-run park systems in the nation, and Sawgrass Lake solidifies that opinion. For starters, the park preserves a wild oasis in the middle of the state’s most densely populated county…On top of that, its wetlands serve both man and beast by functioning as a natural cleaning system for water flowing to Tampa Bay…Plus, they act as flood protection for the surrounding city…And most importantly, the park provides people of all ages and abilities with convenient access to a place of natural beauty.

Establishment of the park came to fruition in the bicentennial year of 1976, when a cooperative management agreement was reached between the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Pinellas County Parks & Conservation Resources Department, and Pinellas County School Board. The reason for the latter to have a seat at the table becomes clear when you see the John Anderson Environmental Education Center, which is located here and includes a laboratory, classroom, and taxidermy displays of local wildlife; it hosts a myriad of educational programs for elementary school students, plus some for grades six through twelve:

To get here, turn north on 25th Street from 62nd Avenue North and continue to the end. Admission is free. Happy Trails!