Friday, January 10, 2014

A one hour hike

Sand Lake.
Sometimes I only have an hour or two for the entire week to rush out the door to spend time immersed in the outdoors.  I like being outside.  Actually, I love being outside.  A short time out there relaxes me and allows me to think while being “unplugged” from the world.  
Locally, Wekiwa Springs State Park gives me that short, timely hike.  I can be there from home in about 30 minutes and for the admission fee ($4 if I go alone, or $6 if my wife goes with me), I can then disappear into the woods for an hour-long walk.  The trail I follow is actually portions of 3 trails hiked in a loop and runs about 3 miles.  A clockwise hiking direction works as well as hiking counter-clockwise and I usually alternate the directions to keep the walk interesting.  Either way the trail both begins and ends at Sand Lake.  As always I carry my 10 essentials in an ultralight backpack, and at a minimum, one liter of water (2 liters in summertime).  A link to a blog about my backpack is HERE.
The name of the river there is WekiVa, and the park name is WekiWa.  Wekiwa Springs State Park trail maps are found HERE or you can download a trail map HERE.   
Looking back towards the parking lot, take Mill Creek Trail.
Once you enter, drive all the way into and park your car at the Sand Lake trailhead.  To go either direction, follow the sandy trail at the East end of the parking lot which will take you to Sand Lake, surrounded with its picnic tables and benches, inviting you to sit and enjoy the view. 
Hiking North along Mill Creek Trail.
For Counter-clockwise directions:  Turn left onto Mills Creek Loop Trail.  Follow this old tramway as it disappears into the woods.  You will notice quite a few holes dug to your left, most used to raise the tramway above the ground (and flooding) to keep the old train tracks clear.  These tramways crisscrossed this area, built in their day to carry lumber to the mill.   You will cross tannin-colored Mill Creek soon over a small bridge.
Crossing Mill Creek.

E-W Cross Trail, turn left here.
It is a nice day to be outside!
After 15 minutes or so, take the first left at the bench onto the East-West Cross Trail.  This blue blazed trail meanders across the park, following and crossing two creeks to join with the Orange-blazed Volksmarch Trail which will be your return route to Sand Lake.    The East-West Cross Trail crosses a sand road, and turns into an area by a pond near an old burn.

Old pond, old rust.
There is an off-cast of the lumber industry, an old rusting fuel-oil tank returning to the land here.   Follow this trail along the edge of the woods to the stream crossing.  I believe there are more than one spring up this creek from the bridge.
Looking back at the bridge I just crossed over Mill Creek.
Check out the old dead longleaf pine tree on the right side of the trail just across the water.  The bark is about 4 inches thick, to protect the adult tree from fire damage and it is peeling away from the tree’s core of dead wood.  You will cross a road again.  
There is a campsite for horse riders, Big Fork to the right up the road a few yards with a fire ring, a bench and a picnic table.  This is a popular place to take a break.  To get back to the trail, leave the campsite on the road to the left, then take a right turn onto the trail.  
You will cross a creek again, and just after this crossing, be sure to look up at all the bromeliads in the old oak tree on your left.  
Lots of life above
I call them sap balls.
Continuing along the trail you will notice many pine trees with “sap balls” on them.  I have been told these trees save up energy in the form of food, for less plentiful times.  You will join the road again and follow it to the left for a few yards.  Be sure not to miss the Blue Blaze return to the trail on the left side of the road.
Adding the E-W Cross Trail blue blaze to the horse & bicycle blaze on the road section.

Don't miss the left Turn back to the trail.
Just past this area, look to the right side of the trail to see the view and the hill falling off through the clearing beneath the trees.  It makes the woods look clearer, and more like they appeared to early explorers.  Back then the Florida woods was basically an open park with a few shrubs and grasses underfoot, with the trees towering above.
Volksmarch Trail is also the N-S Cross Trail on the sign
When you come to a bench and a sign, a left turn begins the Volksmarch and N-S Cross Trail, flagged orange, running mostly South.  Turn left here and follow the trail as it begins its way downhill.
Orange Blazes.
The forest thickens and soon crosses a stream at a hard left turn, the second stream you already crossed.  The trail used to go straight through here but was relocated to have the bridge at a better stream crossing. Once across, you turn right and follow the stream back to a left turn onto the original orange blazed trail.
Not sure what the name of this creek is, but it connects to Mill Creek.
You ascend from the stream slowly into another pine-dominated forest.  If you look closely you can occasionally see scars of the old “cat faces” cut into the longleaf pine trunks used to gather turpentine.  At the beginning of the last century, turpentine was the second largest industry in Florida, with the central part of the state very busily playing its part.  In the Wekiwa area there were at least 4 sawmills and lumber companies gathering “gum” into clay cups from the trees (called “turps” locally).  The rosin made by distilling the tree’s gum was used heavily by the navy, marine and chemical industries in sealing seams and coating ropes for protection and creating varnish for use on wooden boats.  It also had lots of uses like cleaning, thinning paint and treating cuts.  Sometimes you can find shards of the clay catchment cups in the sand below the trees.  Check out this link for more turpentine information.   
You will cross a sand road and continue hiking over a hill.  You will follow alongside of the remains of a tramway on your right for a short way.  After some time you will reach the top of the hill and begin going downhill again.
Climbing the ridge
Congratulations!  You just summited a Florida ridge, the remains of a prehistoric sand dune.  Soon you will cross the paved park road, then turn left at another bench and follow the white blazes that also follow alongside the road.  
Many of the parks trail junctions have benches.
This is a recent burn area and when you get amongst the trees you will notice that some of the earth is burned out between the tree roots.  Florida’s earth burns pretty well.  If you have not heard about “muck Fires”, CLICK HERE.    Note this scene changes to be more green every day. 
The next trail junction turns right towards Sand Lake, or continues straight ahead to join the paved trail to the restrooms, then the parking area.  Turn right here to go to the lake and enjoy sitting by the peaceful water.
Back to Sand Lake.
To hike Clockwise:  From Sand Lake, turn right and follow the trail to a turn back to the restroom & parking lot, and go left along the road.  Follow along side of the road to the next trail junction.  Turn right onto the Volksmarch Trail and cross the road, then ascend the ridge.  On the way down the ridge you will cross a sand road.  Continue along the trail and watch for the right hand turn to zig-zag across the stream, zig left, and zag right to get back onto the trail.   Your next turn is the end of hiking the Volksmarch, a right at the trail signs and bench, where you join the East-West Cross Trail.  Follow this trail to the right which joins a sand road for a few minutes, then right again onto the hiking trail again (blue blaze).  Cross the creek again, and the sand road, where you drop back down to cross Mill Creek on an aluminum bridge.  Follow the trail, pass the pond, cross another sand road, and continue until you come to a “T” stop.  Turn right here onto the Mills Creek Loop trail and follow it in a southerly direction, crossing Mill Creek again, until you reach Sand Lake.
If you look close, you can see the alligator floating near the center of the photo.
A nice finish to a great day!
Things to watch out for in Wekiwa include Florida black bear, poisonous snakes, the 2 alligators resident at Sand Lake, lightning strikes and biting horseflies (in the Springtime, watch for signs about horseflies at the park entrance).
Either hike takes about an hour, although you can speed this up by just walking faster (like my wife) or slow it down by stopping to smell the roses and taking pictures (more like me).
There are many more fine trails at Wekiwa Springs State Park, and I welcome you to hike them.  Backpack the trails or canoe/kayak Rock Springs Run to camp at the Big Buck or Otter primitive campsites.
Check in your area for federal, state, county and city parks, forests or preserves.  You may locate a trail that is close enough to you that you can hike it in about an hour.  The important thing is to get out there and hike, and go as often as you possibly can.

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