Thursday, January 10, 2013

Croom: The HighLow

Sunday morning had already turned up proof that in some places, those rectangular blazes painted on trees really are needed to help keep people from wandering off a trail:

Now it was turning up proof that there is no time of year you can truly count on avoiding standing water in one of Florida’s riverside forests. We know they are swampy during the wet season, but this is not the wet season, and that distant blue blaze on the left side of the next photo said I would need to slog to stay on course:

I looked left and right and noticed a spot where I might be able to keep my boots dry, for some broken logs were lying over the water at its narrowest point. After closely scrutinizing the area and becoming comfortable that there were no water moccasins lurking there, I headed across. Unlike logs that lie across mountain streams with each end sitting on solid ground, these relied unsuccessfully on mud to keep them steady. As they bobbed under my weight I hunched over and grabbed the tops of cypress knees for balance.

On the opposite side, the trail made its way to the western bank of the Withlacoochee River and continued southward. It reached a bench land several feet above the water’s surface, which is where I saw a pair of vultures take flight from the ground. As I approached where they had been, I was struck by the smell of death and found myself looking at the still-uneaten carcass of one very large fish. I think it was an alligator gar based on its snout, teeth, and lack of spots, no matter what FWC says about that species not living this far south in the state. Because of the way the fish was turned, its head was reminiscent of a predatory bird from prehistory:

I was in Croom, walking on a 3½-mile loop where it is obvious that Nature’s wildness can not be stymied. Although the trail is one continuous loop, the powers-that-be have given a different name and differently colored blazes to the 2.4-mile segment which comprises its eastern and northern flanks. That segment is marked by blue blazes and known as the Low Water Trail, while for most of the trail’s western flank it is marked by orange blazes and known as the High Water Trail.

Those segment names do little for clarity because the words “high” and “low” refer to the level of the land, not the level of the water. Therefore, the Low Water Trail is the one where you are more likely to encounter high water, while the High Water Trail comes close to lacking any water whatsoever.

All of the woods through which you pass on this hike are pretty, but it is the ones right beside the river whose sights are most fantastical, for lack of a better phrase. One of the cypress trees is literally gigantic, as you can tell from its girth at the bottom of the trunk:

After snapping the above photo, I decided to give context by taking another one with my backpack hanging:

Not only does the Withlacoochee’s methodic flow create low bluffs by scouring sand away from its banks -- it also exposes the gnarled roots of trees like this oak:

Away from the river, the trail passes through a classic mixed hardwood forest typical of the lower South. I encountered a woodpecker-riddled tree while walking through this forest on Sunday, and if the trunk itself does not convince you that the woodpecker’s visit had just occurred, the shavings at its base will:

There are two trailheads from which the loop may be accessed. One is near its southernmost point and the other along its northern curve, and at first glance, neither of them appears to be a gateway to such a fine trail.

The southern trailhead is at Silver Lake Recreation Area, which has a $2 entry fee and is known for its canoe launch and trio of campgrounds. Take I-75 to exit 301, drive east for a mile, then turn left on Croom Rital Road and continue for almost four miles until you see the entrance on your right. After parking your car, simply walk down to the canoe launch, turn left and follow the orange blazes, which lead under the interstate at the spot where it crosses the river. The trail begins in earnest after entering the woods on the other side, when the orange- and blue-blazed sections fork to commence the loop.

To reach the northern trailhead, skip the entrance to Silver Lake and keep driving on Croom Rital until you reach the point where it is crossed by the paved Withlacoochee State Trail. There is parking for a few vehicles on each side of the crossing, and a picnic table and clean outhouse right beside the paved trail make it obvious that biking is meant to be had from here. However, if you look you will also see the hiking trail departing in both directions; and if you head out going west from the paved trail, be sure to follow the rectangular blazes because the circular ones denote a path that is specifically for mountain bikes.

I figure that after mentioning the Withlacoochee River so many times, it’s only fair I show you what it looked like when I hiked the loop on Sunday:

The loop’s western flank connects with a well-marked side path, which leads westward for a half-mile before depositing hikers on the 14.7-mile loop I wrote about last month. Since that one has two primitive, hike-in campsites…while this one (the one I’m writing about today) passes right through a primitive, paddle-in campsite on the Withlacoochee…and Silver Lake has those three developed campgrounds alluded to above…this is a place where you can not only get away from the crowd, but stay away for quite some time. Happy Trails!


  1. Wow, I'm impressed by the huge cypress tree. I'm glad you used your backpack to show size.
    The trail, even with blazes, sounds a bit iffy for staying dry!

  2. I've never come across a Cypress tree that huge before. Nice to see it survive so long.

    Thanks for sharing your hikes, JD.