Monday, January 22, 2018

Hiking the Florida Trail: the Quest for Hidden Pond

I crashed through the crunchy Florida woods, looking for Hidden Pond. A freaked-out backpacker, fleeing the Florida Trail after a night encounter with two growling bears near his tent, had told me that it was a clear pool of fresh water. I had passed something that looked like that, but it was called "Hidden" Pond, so maybe it was back here, by a cluster of campsites. There was, indeed, a pond, and a man who had been hidden by the palmetto. "The pond's right there," he said, waving a hand. Feeling foolish, I retreated to the original pond. This had to be it.

This is Hidden Pond. But it's not hidden. I don't get it.
It was a great spot for a lunch break after a morning of hiking the Florida Trail. This little known National Scenic Trail (it has this designation only on the federal segments) stretches 1000 miles south to north through the state. Almost anyone who tries to thru hike it gives up because while there are miles of tread, there are also supremely long road walks (think hundreds of miles). In the past, I hiked a small section in the southern end, which was a slog through mud and water. Not all that fun.

But here, in the Ocala National Forest, 66 gorgeous miles are available. You have to adjust your thinking here. There are no majestic views. The scenery is subtle, and only inches of elevation dramatically change the vegetation. There's desert scrub, with a sandy trail; hardwood trees; prairies, and palmetto forests. It would be easy to be bored with the flat terrain, but in the eighteen miles I hiked, I was only fascinated.

Some delicious trail.
The "chilly" winter temperatures---dipping to 20 at night, 60s during the day--meant that few people were around. I saw a handful of backpackers making their way to Hidden Pond, and none at all the next day when I hiked from Farles Prairie. All the same, this trail has a different feel. Perhaps it is the proximity to Orlando (about 50 miles) or the easy access to the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, but it's a place I felt that I had to look over my shoulder a little. I wasn't convinced I would do a long solo backpack trip here. In fact, I was glad I didn't know about this story as I munched a delicious hummus sandwich at Hidden Pond.

Farles Prairie (and you guessed it, another pond)
I had come here early on a work trip, and had found a remote cabin on a sand road to stay in. Sand roads are interesting phenomenons, not to be trifled with, presenting a clear and present danger of being stuck for days on. The cabin bordered a lake, and was an inholding in the forest. It was quiet and peaceful, and I slept better than I have in years (11 hours one night). 

My time in Florida seems like a dream. I was only there for three days, hustled back across the country unceremoniously due to being furloughed in the government shutdown (I was supposed to stay for another week). Did I dream being on the trail? In the end, aren't all good trips like this, almost too good to be true?

Grasshopper Lake, in front of the cabin I stayed in.


18 comments:

  1. Delighted to hear about that lovely section of the Florida Trail and that serene view of Grasshopper Lake. I know what you mean about that feeling of needing to look over your shoulder. I felt that way during an insect collecting trip for work to backwoods Florida, where we incidently got our truck stuck on one of those sandy roads. Only hours before, the ranger that checked our collecting permit had warned us about the hazards of that particular sandy spot. So it was especially embarassing when we called him to get us unstuck.

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    1. Yes, I think this is one of those places I wouldn't want to hike solo. It isn't based on anything concrete, just a feeling. I could be totally wrong.

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  2. Way to make lemonade! Some of those trail sections look great. Glad you got some quiet, hiking and sights from such a loooong trip both ways, and no time to do the work you came for.

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    1. I really liked the hike to Hidden Pond, despite the new feeling of having people around.

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  3. I had no idea there were good hiking trails in Florida. Glad you were able to sneak away for a quick trip, despite the shutdown.

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    1. There are good trails! And I am afraid I was not very complimentary if you read the comment below. Nevertheless, if you know what you are getting, they can be really rewarding.

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  4. Hi there, Misti here, Champion of the Florida Trail! I love it when people get to experience the Florida Trail! And you are right, it takes a perspective shift, especially if you are from the mountain west. I lived in Florida for 8 years and grew up going there on vacations so I came to really love the state and the trail---thru hiked in 2011.

    I wouldn't say most people give up---just people unwilling to see it for what it is---a developing trail. And the fact is that it isn't the only trail with huge gaps and roadwalks---I bang my head at this all the time. Somehow the FT gets a bad rap for this when there are others out there in the same situation---> see this https://www.instagram.com/p/BeDs4CHhocj/?taken-by=hikingtrailsforamerica

    And the mud and slog in Big Cypress is the trail's New Hampshire or maybe if you want to even call it Pennsylvania of the AT. Big Cypress is freakin' magnificent if you stop and enjoy the epiphytes! It's an adventure! But I love swamps and swamp walking so maybe I'm the odd one out. ;)

    Sorry, getting ranty here---but there's been an uptick in interest in the FT in the last few years and I do my best to try to cheer on the trail. If you are on Instagram you might look at Jupiterhikes for his posts about his FKT on the trail. And I have a bunch of posts from my thru-hike too on my blog if you peruse that. If you get to go back some day I highly recommend the Suwannee River section and Apalachicola NF sections. GORGEOUS sections that rival Ocala---honestly I like Apalachicola more.

    Ok, my excited rant is over. :)

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    1. Sorry to sound like I am dissing the trail! I have read many blogs by people who did, in fact, give up, but I think it is because they were not prepared for what the trail is. Especially the roadwalks! I am showing my own bias I am afraid. I like tread and don't like mud! That being said, thanks for the informative post and for being so nice about it.

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  5. Glad you got to enjoy the beauty of 'Hidden' Pond. So sad for the young students in 2006.
    Your final photo is amazingly beautiful.

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    1. I really loved that lake. It was behind a locked gate (though there are other ways to get there, on the dreaded sand roads) so I felt pretty safe staying there alone.

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  6. Misti (above commenter) is always trying to sell me on the FT. She said the road portions can't be worse than what we experienced in NZ. I'm still on the fence, but I do think I'd like to do certain sections.

    I do actually appreciate hikes without the views ... it makes you really appreciate the macro details!

    I love that you always take advantage of the places you travel for work!

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    1. I need to take advantage or I'd shoot myself. Those road walks...I don't know. On any trail, even the 6 miles to Seiad Valley, I have a hard time with them. I'd do the FT if I could skip around and high grade it.

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  7. I did not know hiking was a thing in Florida! Glad I got to see a little of it through your eyes! Your last photo is beautiful!

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    1. I know, people kept asking me if I were going to go to Disney when they heard I was traveling there. Hello! Do you know me at all?!

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  9. Road-hikes have their time and place. It's nice to be able to look at the scenery sometimes and not worry about obstacles in the trail. Also a good time to work on speed :)
    Box Canyon Mark

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    1. Ok true, it just hurts my feet and I think about weirdos in vans.

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  10. I understand about feeling like you need to look over your shoulder, and I believe that's a credible instinct to follow.
    Scary, sad, story you shared.

    I don't mind sections of graveled road but asphalt is too unforgiving a surface. I went looking for a trail to run here that wasn't too far from my rental and wasn't just mud right now so tried the Lake Almanor Recreation Trail. It's asphalt. There were a lot of pine needles down on the trail and I thought that would help with cushioning (though I did have to pay attention to my footing as they were wet) but I noticed in the next day or two that I had shin splint symptoms. I'm going to look for another trail (as soon as I get over this cold!).

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