Monday, January 21, 2013

Croom: The Windmill/River Loop

My after-Thanksgiving post described my aborted attempt to hike the River Trail while pushing Parker in our jogging stroller. I mentioned seeing a blue-blazed side trail called the Windmill Loop, and wrote that according to the map it is “a straight-line short-cut rather than an actual loop. From the spot where it and the River Trail diverge, it tracks east-northeast while the River Trail tracks south before curving east to meet the river. At some point after the River Trail begins its northward route, the Windmill comes to an end by emptying back onto it, and therefore the two paths can be used to create a loop I estimate would be about 3½ miles long.”

Two Saturdays ago I set out to explore that loop and see what it has to offer. The problem of Parker constantly wanting out of the stroller was solved by letting him ride in our kid carrier backpack. And he must have liked the view from up high, because not once did he agitate to get down and do his own walking:

I decided to do the loop clockwise by walking the Windmill from its beginning to end, not from its end to beginning, if that makes any sense. You will reach that beginning at a well-marked junction several minutes after starting out on the River Trail:

From there the Windmill travels 1.2 miles over often hilly terrain before meeting back up with the River. It takes you through upland woods whose canopies let through lots of sunshine. You will see quite a few red cedars, which many people think of as Florida’s native Christmas tree:

Although mostly an upland path, the Windmill drops to the edge of cypress swamps in a few spots:

Eventually you reemerge on the River Trail at a sand bluff overlooking the Withlacoochee River. From there, a right turn completes the loop by leading about 1¾ miles back to the trailhead, mostly under the shade of an oak canopy that is much denser than the canopy back on the Windmill. For almost a mile the trail travels along the top of the bluff offering fine views of the Withlacoochee:

Because the river marks the boundary of the state forest, the woods on its opposite bank are private property and a few homes are visible over there. However, you can rest assured that they are not of the cut-everything-down, subdivision variety, for they are owned by river lovers and most of them are well-hidden in the trees. The home in the following photo is practically invisible in the upper right hand quarter, while the dock shows that its owners prefer spending their time outside:

Since you must walk both the Windmill and the River Trail to complete this loop, you should know that there are qualitative differences between them, starting with the fact that the Windmill is not as well maintained as the River. Its route is incredibly circuitous and the woods through which it passes are more open than most Florida woods. This makes it especially important to keep your eyes out for its blue blazes, in order to keep from straying off course.

Unfortunately the blazing leaves a lot to be desired, because there are many places where you reach a blaze and find that the next one is not visible until you go a ways further. Even more concerning, there are many places where double blazes, the universally recognized signal that a trail’s route is about to turn, should be used but are not. Conversely, the River Trail’s orange blazes are always readily visible, and its double blazes are more numerous than the Windmill’s -- even though it is harder to lose sight of it in the first place since its pathway is wider, straighter, and better defined than the Windmill’s.

Having said all that, this loop is definitely worth the visit. You can complete the Windmill without incident simply by being aware and keeping your eyes out. Just be sure to use appropriate care when clearing obstacles like the following tree, which had fallen across the trail when I visited. It happened to do so in the middle of prime rattlesnake habitat, and a large portion of rattlesnake bites occur when people head across barriers without looking to see if serpents are on the other side.

Check out my after-Thanksgiving post for directions to the trailhead. Happy Trails!

Note: State forest literature is what told me the blue-blazed side trail is 1.2 miles. Because I did not bring my Garmin on this hike, all the other mileage mentioned in this post is estimated based on my walking pace and the time it took me to complete the side trail. On those same bases, I would now estimate this loop to be a total of 3.2 miles, rather than the 3½ I guessed before walking it.

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