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Old 01-07-2018, 07:50 PM   #1
DSettahr's Avatar
Join Date: May 2007
Posts: 4,589
Juniper Prairie Wilderness, Ocala National Forest, FL 11/23 - 11/25/2017

I spent the past few months working a temp job in Florida. 60 hour work weeks didn't give me a huge amount of time for exploring, but I was able to squeeze a couple of trips in. The first of these was a 2 night trip with a co-worker on a section of the Florida Trail in Ocala National Forest, located about an hour north of Orlando.

Florida has a surprising number of backpacking opportunities- more so than I'd anticipated prior to traveling to the state. However, in many areas, backcountry camping is not permitted during hunting season. During this time frame, options for primitive camping are largely restricted to those places that don't permit hunting- National Parks, State Parks, and (in our case) designated Wilderness Areas on National Forest land. We therefore selected a 10 mile stretch of the Florida Trail within the Juniper Prairie Wilderness for our trip.

When my co-worker and I met up on Thursday afternoon of Thanksgiving Day, the amount of daylight as already waning, and heavy rain was forecast to continue through the night before abating ahead of cool, dry air scheduled to arrive in the morning. Since neither of us was super keen on hiking through the rain, we elected to spend night 1 at the Hopkins Prairie Campground, a first-come, first-serve fee campground operated by the Forest Service with minimal amenities. The campground itself was located in a nice stand of oaks, covered in Spanish moss, on the edge of Hopkins Prairie. The views were pleasant, and the breeze off the prairie did a good job of keeping the bugs at bay. The Florida Trail also ran right through the campground, allowing us to set out on foot without having to drive anywhere in the morning.

I hadn't thought about Thanksgiving dinner any, and had brought my standard fair of Knorr Sides. My coworker, however, cooked herself a Thanksgiving feast that couldn't be beat of instant mashed potatoes, and a Mountain House turkey dinner. Thanks to the continued downpours, the enjoyment of Thanksgiving dinner was relegated to a hastily set up tarp that barely protected us from the driving rain.

The next morning dawned grey but dry, and it didn't take us long to break down camp, move our vehicle to the trailhead parking area, and set out on foot. At first, the trail took us through a dense forest of scrub oak and saw palmetto. Although cool air had arrived and things were fast drying out, there was still enough humidity to make it feel as though we were hiking through a lush jungle.

We also saw a banana spider not far down the trail. They're pretty neat looking.

Before long, we were crossing Forest Road 46 and entering the Juniper Prairie Wilderness proper. Almost immediately, the forest started to open up as we entered the prairies.

We also began to see scrub jays. Related to blue jays, scrub jays are a species of bird that is quite common in the southwest, but rare east of the Mississippi. There is a small population of them endemic to central Florida. We saw no shortage of them within the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, perched on the stumps of burned out trees, often with gathered food in their beaks.

We also encountered a few longleaf pines scattered among the slash pine. Longleaf grows as a grass until disturbance (usually wildfire) creates an opening in the canopy for the tree to grow into.

There's two types of prairies in the pine barrens of central Florida- dry and wet. Dry prairies are, of course, dry most of the time- but they can sometimes be wet. Conversely, wet prairies are wet most of the time, but they can sometimes be dry. The look similar but have very different ecosystems. I devoted some time to trying to figure out how to tell the difference (with the aid of a field guide) but eventually decided that the task was beyond figuring out in the field with the aid of a mere paragraph of description. The prairies were beautiful, nonetheless.

Several hours of easy walking across level, sandy terrain brought us to Hidden Pond, our destination for the evening. A well-established and reliable (if small) body of water, the pond is located about halfway through the Juniper Prairie section of the Florida Trail, and makes for an ideal stopover point on an easy overnight.

Multiple established campsites exist in the vicinity of Hidden Pond. There were 2 groups already set up when we arrived, but we were able to quickly and easy find a nice unoccupied site for ourselves. After setting up camp I walked around for a bit, and counted at least 8 or 9 fire pits in the general vicinity. Many of the sites were nice, and there was some decent vegetative screening between most of them. I did see a few examples of tree cutting, though. Clearly, Hidden Pond saw at least occasional high levels of use.

After we'd finished all chores involved in camp set up, we set out for a short afternoon walk down an unmarked side trail we'd spotted just north of Hidden Pond. Not far down this side trail, we spotted fresh bear tracks- no more than a few hours old.

Upon returning to Hidden Pond, it was immediately apparent that this night was going to be one of those "high levels of use" nights. At least 7 or 8 additional groups had shown up, and all of the obvious campsites were occupied. Several late comers were wandering around, searching for less obvious sites hidden further back in the brush, away from the pond. A boisterous group of boy scouts had dropped their packs near our site, and were clearly eyeing the available space next to our tents. Not wanting come across as the jerk that clearly desires to not share any space whatsoever, I walked over to them, introduced myself in a friendly manner, and informed that any space we had to offer was theirs if they needed it- provided that they respected our desire for peace and quiet. Not long after, their leader emerged from the woods and announced that he'd found an unoccupied site not far away.

In the northeast, we never think of Thanksgiving weekend as being a "high backcountry use" weekend, but in retrospect, it makes perfect sense that it would be in Florida. The 4 day weekend for most (with family obligations typically relegated only to the first of those 4 days), combined with the seasonal arrival of a cooler and more tolerable climate makes the weekend ideal for large crowds in the backcountry. I'm sure that the hunting season ban on backpacking in most areas also contributes to concentrating much of the use during this time frame into those areas that permit backpacking.

Sunset across the prairie was a spectacular mix of colors. Florida may not be a state that comes to the minds of most when considering backpacking destinations, but it definitely does have its moments.

The morning brought with it heavy, dense fog. I was up and moving around early, and took the opportunity to get some nice photos of the sunrise through the fog.

While we were in the process of breaking down camp, a pair of sand hill cranes alighted out in the middle of the prairie.

Before leaving, I also took the opportunity to take in the view out over the adjacent prairie again. Much of the precipitation that had fallen two nights before had settled in the low points of the prairies, providing a need reflection of the forest on the far side.

With camp broken down and packs repacked, we set out south again on the Florida Trail. Our final destination for the trip was the recreation area at Juniper Springs, about 5 miles further south. Again, the terrain was generally level and sandy, and we made good time through more open stands of pine.

We crossed two small streams on the way. The map indicated that these were generally reliable water sources. The second stream had a nice established tent site nearby that appears to get moderate levels of use.

As we left the wilderness area and approached Juniper Springs, the forest again transitioned back largely from pine to scrub oak with a saw palmetto understory. Before long, we were arriving back at the parking area and the conclusion of our trip through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness.

Overall, this was a fairly simple and easy trip that necessitated relatively minimal planning and preparation. Florida isn't exactly a destination state for backpacking specifically, but if anyone is in the Orlando area for other reasons and is looking to get outside a bit, the Juniper Prairie area definitely is worth a day or two of exploration.
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Old 01-07-2018, 08:35 PM   #2
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Join Date: May 2007
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Side note: Anyone visiting this area should be prepared to spend the next two weeks finding sand in various articles of footwear, clothing, and hiking gear.
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Old 01-12-2018, 10:16 PM   #3
Deb dePeyster
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 124
Some lovely photos bringing back some great memories of Big Cypress and Myakka State Park. It's such a different landscape than what we're used to. Thank you for sharing.
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Old 02-17-2018, 08:09 PM   #4
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Join Date: Jan 2011
Posts: 97
The Ocala National Forest is a beautiful place. I've had occasion to camp there a few times, and winter is the perfect time to be there.
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