A Fitness Hike in Newnans Lake Conservation Area (Terri Mashour Guest Post)

I’m happy to have Terri Mashour guest posting today about a fitness hike she led at Newnans Lake Conservation Area, near Gainesville.  Read on to hear about her encounter with a water moccasin, an unfortunate split in her hiking group and (I never knew this) how the land management staff uses horses to assist in prescribed burns.

Terri owns Gainesville Ecotours, a company that offers interpretive and informative hikes in some of Alachua County’s most interesting parks and preserves.  Before running her own show, she worked in land management for over six years, specializing in prescribed forest burns, among other things.

But now, her focus is on hiking.  You can catch up with Gainesville Ecotours on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and GainesvilleEcotours.com.  Check Terri’s calendar to join a hike!

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Newnans Lake Conservation Area is owned and managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District and is located in Alachua County, just outside of Gainesville, Florida. It is 6,500 acres found in three disjunct parcels with around 16 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian multi-use trails divided amongst the three. Mostly mesic flatwoods habitat with some sandhills, the northern most tract, Hatchet Creek, has some floodplain systems via Bee Creek, Little Hatchet Creek, Hatchet Creek, and Gum Root Swamp that allow for some beautiful hiking minutes from Gainesville.  That was the setting for our hike on this adventurous day.

Wild Azaleas

The beautiful wild azaleas.

The hike started out with a brief meeting with the on-site resident for the Rotary Club outparcel.  Mr. Sullivan noted that there was a Florida black bear sighting at the entrance the week before. Checking for any food-related care packages, I’m sure! OK, as a veteran of the woods, but a relatively new hiking guide, I could handle that: talk loud and keep a good look out. The group of five – four long time Gainesville residents/friends and me, the fearless guide set out on the main hiking trail at the Newnans Lake Hatchet Creek entrance on the north side of SR 26, five miles east of the Gainesville Airport.

[Read more…]

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A hike through Torreya State Park (Florida Trailblazer Guest Post)

I’m so happy to have a fellow Florida hiker guest posting today.  The Florida Trailblazer has been hiking the backwoods of the Sunshine State for a few years now, and, like the rest of us, loves the history, geography, ecosystems and wildlife that make Florida so unique.  I first met up with him on Twitter and eventually made my way to his amazing YouTube channel, which is chock full of videos from hikes on the Florida Trail and state parks.  

Today, he’s writing about Torreya State Park in the Florida Panhandle.  Let him know what you think in the comments section.  And be sure to check out the Florida Trailblazer on Twitter, YouTube and at his blog.  You can also email him at o_rionstarr(at)yahoo.com.  Enjoy!

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Torreya State Park

Photo by Florida Trailblazer

One of the most beautiful and unique State Parks in Florida that I have had the opportunity to explore is Torreya State Park in Florida’s panhandle. The park is named for an extremely rare species of Torreya tree that only grows on the bluffs along the Apalachicola River. This magnificent place is located 15 miles south of Chattahoochee and 13 miles north of Bristol off of State Road 12 on County Road 1641. The High bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River and Torreya trees are just a couple of the intriguing features there that you’ll discover. The park sits on 12,000 acres of river swamps, high pinelands, extensive ravines and high bluffs along the Apalachicola river. This area has one of the most variable terrains of any in Florida.

It was early morning, the skies were clear and the sun was shining through the trees. The temperature was a cool 45 degrees when we started out. It was autumn and we couldn’t have picked a better time to see this place! It was a stunning array of colored foliage.

Torreya State Park Joe Dunn

Trailhead at the picnic area | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

I’ve never seen so many fall colors in Florida and when you combine that with the terrain, you don’t feel like your in Florida at all!  Once you enter the park, drive past the gate entrance and pay at the self pay station which is only $2. Now that you are in the park it’s time to find some trails and begin exploring! You have some options here as to what trailhead to begin at, as there are a few. As soon as you enter there is a trailhead, however there is no parking available. Continue down the road to the picnic area on the right, or keep driving until you get to the historical Gregory House. On this particular hike we started at the picnic area trailhead for a blue connector trail.

After hiking through the bluffs, ravines and shaded forests we began to hike back up in elevation into the upland pine forest areas. What spectacular views here! We saw deer and plenty of birds in this part. This area of prairie is mixed with grasses and tall pine trees. It’s here where you’ll see cotton plants as well. An old cotton warehouse once stood along the river within the park – a reminder of the days when the cotton industry helped feed the area’s economy.

Torreya State Park

Photo by Florida Trailblazer

You’ll mostly hike on flat level terrain through here and notice off into the distance the surrounding border of trees and forests where you just came out of. Since it’s so open, it’s nice to take in the fresh air and sunshine. It is so relaxing and quiet here. As you cross through this area the trail lead you out to a paved road. This is the park road you drove in on, notice the entry gate here as well. By this time the temperature had climbed up to around 70 degrees and the weather was absolutely perfect.When leaving the stone bridge you begin to hike up in elevation.  We were now on the main orange seven mile loop trail that meanders through the park and is maintained by The Florida Trail Association.

Further along we ran into a blue blazed trail that connects to the “Torreya Challenge Trail”. This part of the forest is extremely hilly so be prepared for climbing up and down as you cross over streams and ridges. I only got to explore a little part of the Torreya Challenge Trail on this trip so I am looking forward to checking more of it out on the next visit. The trail starts off as a wide multi-use trail and you begin to traverse down in elevation as you near a ravine. We hiked down this part until we reached an old stone bridge that crosses a ravine. It is part of the main orange blazed trail on your left around the bend. The stone bridge was the first scenic feature of the hike. We couldn’t resist to stop here for a break to take photos and videos.

The stone bridge was built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This State Park is one of the first in Florida that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped develop.  Truly, this is a must see!  It just has an old rustic feel and I felt transported to another time and place. The ravine, stones and hilly pine forest beside it gives you this impression. You can feel the history here. Walk down the side of the bridge by the water and notice the ravine and rugged terrain as you look up. The water levels were low when I was here, but I’m sure they are higher during the wet season.  From the carved ravine you notice how high water levels have been in the past. Since the water levels were low, I took a walk under the bridge to get another perspective. I took this opportunity to take tons of photos and videos before moving on.

Torreya State Park

Rock bluffs | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

For this hike we continued on the main orange trail and this lead us south toward the front entrance gate. Upon entering, we were instantly surrounded by shaded hardwood hammocks. The trail is a single narrow path and is really well maintained. You’ll hike up and down over bluffs as you cross several creeks and wooden bridges over the ravines. Notice the geography here as you look at the surrounding bluffs and ravines. You can clearly see how the land has been carved out here. I could see the land sloping down back into the Earth. The place will have you marveling in wonder as you observe the terrain.

After taking a small break we continued on the main orange trail which dipped back into the forest, heading southwest. Upon exiting the upland pine forest area, we were immediately confronted with tall rocky ledges.  We took some time to explore the amazing structures and peer down from the high bluffs. The area reminded us of  the US Southwest which includes desert and canyons. When I stood at the bottom of the bluff I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a mini-canyon.

 

We continued along the trail and eventually came upon the Rock Bluffs primitive camping area. Along this part of the trail it’s very rigorous as you climb stairwells ascending into high rock bluffs. I was really taken back by this geography, it isn’t very common in Florida. I remember feeling like I was hiking in a mountain wilderness. We encountered high cliffs and rock ledges overlooking rim swamps which is nothing I’ve encountered along other parts of the Florida Trail. Along the rim swamps we continued and peered down into a meadow of green grasses and cypress trees. It was breathtaking!

Along the high bluffs you begin to see the Apalachicola River, get ready for some truly amazing views! From this area you’ll hike down from the surrounding bluffs toward the shoreline of the Apalachicola River. The trail will lead you along the river banks and I noticed the calm and beautiful water. The Apalachicola River starts high above Atlanta, Ga., in the Appalachian Mountains and flows all the way down and exits into the Gulf of Mexico.

As you hike down along the shore of the river, look up on the other side of the trail. You’ll notice the high ridges that you just came down from. Look at the very top of the cliff and you will spot the Gregory House. The Gregory House, which originally sat across the river at Ocheesee Landing, was built around 1849 by planter Jason Gregory. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the plantation fell into decline. The house was donated to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1935. One of the many projects that the CCC tackled at Torreya Park was moving and rebuilding the Gregory House. We continued along the shore and began the strenuous hike back up, we couldn’t wait to see this beautiful house up close. You’ll see a blue blazed trail off of the Orange trail, but don’t worry there is a sign and this will lead you to the house.

As we hiked along the blue blazed trail, we came across some old Confederate gun pits. You won’t find any weapons or guns here but simply markers indicating where they once were positioned. Some literature explains that this area provides high open views of the river, so during the Civil War this was a critical defense point. When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, the Apalachicola River was a vital transportation artery. The river provided access to vital Southern industrial centers and one of the most prosperous plantation belts in the Confederacy. Part of the Union strategy was to blockade the Southern coastline, choking off commerce and slowly strangling the Confederacy to death. Rivers like Apalachicola could then be used to access the interior of Florida. The Confederates responded by fortifying streams and placing heavy cannons along their banks.  Following their evacuation of the City of Apalachicola in 1862, Southern troops built a series of batteries for heavy artillery along the river. One of these was built in 1863, at Battery or Neal’s Bluff in what is now Torreya State Park.

Torreya State Park

Gun pit area | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

After you pass this area you will come out to a trailhead and you see the the marvelous Gregory House. In 1935 the CCC moved the house to it’s current location and restored it, thinking it could be used as a small hotel. It is no longer a hotel, but they do offer tours. The day we arrived they were renovating it, but we were able to peer into the windows and admire it’s beauty. Be sure to take a break and enjoy the benches on the lawn, they overlook the river below. I remember sitting here and reflecting upon this place and taking in the spectacular view. I could imagine amazing sunsets here!

Torreya State Park

The Gregory House | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

Torreya State Park

The view from behind the Gregory House | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

We walked back over to the blue trailhead and started our descent. We went back down into the ravines and onto the main orange trail once again. We hiked through a portion of the trail that is bottom-land swamp that consisted of vast shades of green foliage and had a tropical feel.  We stumbled upon a blue blazed trail that leads to Rock Creek Primitive Camp and encountered a fellow hiker.  We followed the trail back around to complete the main orange loop trail. At this point we knew we had limited daylight since it was Autumn and the sun sets around 5:30pm, but I really wanted to keep exploring! The park closes at sunset but another amazing fact is that the park borders the central and eastern time zones.  As we were are hiking the trails, we had a chance to “go back in time”.  It was quite a unique experience, and fortunately my iPhone was able to keep updated by using it’s GPS to sync the time.

Torreya State Park

Searching for a Geocache | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

We couldn’t resist so we followed the main orange trail back to the blue connector that links to “Torreya Challenge”.  As an avid geo-cacher I wanted to locate the Torreya State Park geocache. There are 9 State Parks that have a hidden cache and if found, allows you to locate clues for a puzzle.  I’ve located a majority of them and am looking forward to when I can complete the mission and earn my CCC Geo-coin.  It took some time and patience but we were able to locate it and sign into it’s log, another reminder that we were once here. We packed up and prepared for the drive out, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed something and that I wasn’t ready to leave. That tells me this was an excellent hiking experience because it leaves you with the feeling of wanting more. This park will keep you coming back because there is so much to see and explore. I am thankful for the opportunity to experience what this wonderful park has to offer . I would love to come back and camp at one of the sites. I am glad to have shared this experience and I hope it inspires you to go out and enjoy this park!

To see even more awesome photos and videos of Florida Trailblazer’s hike through Torreya State Park, check out his blog!

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If you’d like to guest post or review a trail, campground or paddle, we’d love to hear from you.  You can email us at FlaAdventurer(at)gmail.com