Hiking the Florida Panhandle
It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...
I was finally able to do a solo hike in Torreya State Park this past weekend. I had canceled one the weekend before because it was supposed to rain, but then it never did. The weather forecast for this past weekend was good, but I didn't know whether to trust it. I procrastinated through most of the week and ended up rushing around on Thursday and Friday to get ready. I had contemplated staying home to do yard work, but I finally decided that I was just nervous about doing the hike alone and needed to get over it and go.
Originally, I had intended to start at the Gregory House and hike clockwise from there to the Torreya Challenge campsite. When I called on Thursday to make my reservation, though, the campsite was already booked. I had to change my itinerary. Instead, I decided to start at the picnic ground parking lot, take the access road to the connecting trail, hike the Rock Creek loop clockwise, and then go counter clockwise on Rock Bluff loop to the Rock Creek campsite.
I made it to the park shortly after 8am on Saturday morning. I checked in at the ranger station, parked by the picnic area and hit the trail at 8:30am. As I mentioned, I had been a little nervous about the hike, worried that I wouldn't be able to do it, or that I would get spooked being out in the woods alone at night. I think that's why I had been procrastinating. When I realized that it might be motivated by fear, though, I knew I had to do it. Unfortunately, the ambivalence had made me put off doing some things I should have been doing: staying hydrated, working out, cleaning my water filter, and getting my food sorted. Setting out that morning, I was a little concerned about the things left undone. Still, going down the access road to the stone bridge, I felt pretty good.
My chief concern, at that point, was hydration. I knew I hadn't drunk enough water the day before, and it might affect my performance. I had downed a half-liter on the way to the park, and drank some more in the parking lot. As a consequence I had to make a pit stop when I got down to the bridge.
By the time I got to Rock Creek loop, I was feeling overheated in my fleece and wind jacket. I stopped at the wooden bridge that crosses Rock Creek to make a clothing adjustment. As soon as I dropped my pack on the planks, I heard a crashing in the underbrush behind me. I wheeled around in time to see four white-tailed deer bounding over the ridge above the creek. They were the first four of many deer I would see that day.
I shed my wind jacket, fleece and gloves, and traded my knit cap for a bill cap. Then I drank some more water and set off again. The trail climbs up out of Rock Creek valley onto a ridge. Eventually, it comes to a high area with red sandstone outcroppings. The ground to the right of the trail drops down a low cliff and then slopes away steeply towards one of the feeder streams that flow into Rock Creek. I had not realized before that the outcroppings were sandstone. I thought they were just red clay, because there isn't any sandstone in Florida, right? That was before I saw the red sandstone cliffs over in the southwest section of the park. Apparently, there was once a continuous layer of sandstone that was raised up, and eroded by the Apalachicola River and its tributaries. Below the sandstone is a layer of limestone, and that's the most common bedrock seen on the trail. The sandstone is only found in the highest elevations back away from the river.
I was walking along the cliff edge and looking down into the valley, when two deer leapt across the trail from right to left and ran off through the trees ahead of me. I was a bit startled at first and came to a full stop, but then I moved on up to see if I could get a better look at them. About a hundred feet further up I came to a spot with a clearer view in the direction they had run. One of them had stopped and was looking back in my direction. I stopped and moved forward very slowly trying not to spook her. I got to a place where I could see her pretty well, and we just stared at each other for a few minutes until I decided to hike on. As soon as I started moving, she bounded away.
Not far along the trail turned right and began to head down, cutting through the layer of sandstone. I paused for a moment to look at a small flower by the side of the trail. It had two round, dark green leaves near the ground, and a tiny purple flower on the end of a long, slender stem. I don't know what they are, but I saw many of them on my hike. As I straightened back up, I caught sight of a large deer to my right moving down the slope into the creek valley I had been following. I couldn't see any horns on it, but it carried its head like a buck and was much bigger than the two I had just seen. He stopped behind a stand of trees that shielded him from my view, so I moved as carefully as I could to get a better view of him. He stood stock still, watching me as I eased around to get clear of the trees. I stood there and admired him for a few minutes. He really was a magnificent beast. After a few minutes, I headed on down the trail again. I began to think that if I kept seeing deer at that rate, I would never finish my hike.
The trail went down steeply now and crossed a little creek--one of the many feeder streams that flow into Rock Creek--and then climbed back up. After a few more ups and downs, I came to a steady rise. The ground fell away slightly off to the left. The trail was sprinkled with yellow flowers--Carolina jasmine, I believe. Suddenly, I heard a loud "haggh!" off to my left. I stopped dead in my tracks and wheeled around to see what the hell it was. Way off through the trees I could see something tawny moving. Just for a moment, I thought it might be a panther, but then it occurred to me that it was probably a deer snorting. I heard the noise again: "haggh!" I moved up a little to get a better look. It was definitely a deer. He turned towards me and stopped. Now he was staring directly at me. He snorted again and tossed his head in what looked like a challenge. He was far enough away that I didn't feel threatened--it was pretty neat looking. We stood there for a minute then he trotted off, and I headed on my way.
A few minutes later I was at the spur trail that goes to the Torreya Challenge campsite. I paused to drink some water and take a short breather. I felt really good, and was actually thinking at that point that I might be able to do both loops in one day. I had had no trouble with the hills, I was making good time and my legs felt pretty strong. I had a slight twinge in my right knee, but so far, it wasn't hurting. Unfortunately, that would change within the next mile.
I moved on from the spur trail and headed down a sloping ridge. The trail took a left and headed up over the side of a high ridge and back down into Rock Creek valley. It was a steep downhill, and it was along in here that my right knee began to bother me. Each step was painful. I was trying to take the weight off of it by digging in with my hiking poles, but it didn't seem to be working.
I got down to the bottom of the valley and took a moment to admire the creek. It cuts through the limestone bedrock here and goes over a small drop just down from the footbridge. When I came through here with Troy and David the first time I hiked the loop, there was no bridge, the trail crossed over a fallen tree right above the little water fall. David walked the tree with just a little help stepping down and stepping off from me and Troy. He froze halfway over and we both thought he was going to fall. The tree is still there, and is at least theoretically walkable. I considered it for a moment, but it was very wet from all the recent rain, and there was no bark on it to provide surer footing--and no one to scrape me up off the rocks if I fell. I used the bridge.
Beyond the bridge, the trail went up steeply for a bit and then began a gradual ascent up a long ridge. For most of the climb it followed an old logging road. It veered off into the woods in a couple of spots and came back as if the trail blazers thought following the road would be too easy. The gradual uphill slope felt good to my knee. It's the best terrain for a bad knee.
It didn't last, though. The trail turned right and went down another steep slope to another branch of Rock Creek. This is the only log crossing left on the Rock Creek loop. It's a living holly tree that leans across the creek. I was very careful going over it, setting each foot down firmly and making sure I had a good grip. Having thought about the consequences of falling out there by myself, I took it to heart.
And I had been all by myself so far. I hadn't seen a single person. I had been following boot prints in the mud on the trail, but they could've been made the day before for all I knew. It had been very peaceful, and the lack of traffic was probably the reason why I had seen so many deer--eight, at that point. I was hurting, but I was still thinking that I might be able to do both loops in one day. I was planning to rest at the next creek crossing, a spot where there used to be a stone bridge but it's broken up into pieces now. David, Troy and I had eaten our lunch there on our hike, and it was a really nice spot.
The trail climbed up onto another ridge, took a sharp right and followed an old roadbed through a pine tree blowdown. I was really looking forward to sitting down. The roadbed faded away, the trail bent to the left and went down a steep hill. I was limping pretty bad. Suddenly, I could hear voices yelling. I knew what that meant. Someone was at my resting spot. I got down to the bottom, and two boy scouts were hanging out by the creek crossing. They said they were waiting for the rest of their troop to catch up. It was probably a mistake, but my disappointment at not having the spot to myself was so intense, that I just kept on hiking. They offered me some advice on getting across the creek, which I ignored--the little pups.
I began the climb uphill again and met the rest of the troop headed down. Two of the scout leaders looked familiar. I thought they might be the two guys Bryant and I met the day we were sitting at that same creek and they came through with four kids on a dayhike (with no water or food that we could see). One of them did a double take on me like he might've recognized me, but I didn't stop to chat. I was too disgusted.
I had decided that I would take my rest at the stone bridge and decide there if I was going to try to hike the other loop, or not. I was leaning towards 'not'. If I had realized just how much further it was to the stone bridge, I probably would have taken my rest at the previous crossing, boy scouts be damned. There were still a few more hills between me and the connecting trail, and the connecting trail itself is pretty rough. After the first couple of hills, I decided I would rest when I got to the connecting trail instead.
I dropped my pack and sat down hard when I got there. I even pulled out my sleeping pad so I could stretch out. I put my pack at the end of it so I could prop up my feet. This was after drinking my water and eating some trail mix. It was just 12pm. I had made the entire loop in three hours--seven miles. So my pace wasn't spectacular, but if one factors in all the pauses to look at deer and admire flowers, it was respectable enough.
After a thirty minute lunch, I packed up and set out again. The brief rest hadn't made a huge difference to the knee. I winced every time I set it down. I had gotten the bright idea to raise my poles up a notch, though, and that seemed to help. The hike to the stone bridge was not fun. I got there close to 1pm and saw that there was a couple sitting there with their dog. I had decided by this point that there was no way I was going to be hiking the other loop that day. I wasn't even sure whether I would be able to hike it the next day. I had considered going on to the car and calling it quits, but I didn't want to be left with the question of whether I had just been too chicken to sleep in the woods by myself, so I decided I was going to spend the night and see how I felt about things in the morning. It would be easy enough to hike up to the parking lot from the Rock Creek camp.
It was just a matter of getting to the camp. I spent about 15 minutes talking to the guy at the bridge. His name was Marty Toda (sp?). They were from St Augustine but were on vacation, staying at St George and exploring hiking spots in the Panhandle. He asked me about St Marks WR, and I told him about the gators. Not a good idea with the dog. They were letting it run around off its leash, something they apparently did most of the time. He'd be Gator Chow toute suite in St Marks.
Finally, I took my leave of them and headed on to the camp. I had two good sized hills to climb right off the bat. Once I got over them, though, it was flat creek bed the rest of the way. I started to run into a lot more people: a couple hanging out on a bridge, a whole knot of people at the spur trail to the camp, and another couple with two dogs that I thought at first were going to be camping at the same area. I moved on down from them and set up my camp while they took their dogs down and let them play in my drinking water. After I got my tent set up, I went down and filtered some water upstream from where they had been.
I needed to take a crap, so I grabbed my toilet paper and went further down the trail that connects the campsites. I went over a big log across the trail, then found a nice spot surrounded by palmettos. I took a leak first, and was just getting ready to dig a hole when I heard voices coming closer. It was a guy and a girl headed right towards me. They looked very earthy. The girl was wearing her hair in loose dreadlocks, although she looked mostly white. Other than that, she was cute enough. Both looked to be in their very early twenties.
Now, this 'trail' that I had followed wasn't really a trail. It went a little beyond the last campsite probably because people had just been walking around back there exploring. I was a bit irate to be interrupted, but I stuffed my paper into my pocket and tried to look like I was just nosing around. I nodded hello, and they asked me where the trail went. I told them it didn't go anywhere, that it wasn't really a trail. They asked me if it was possible to get to the creek from there. I said, yeah if you go left and cut through the woods. The girl asked me, "where are you going?" I said, "back to my campsite." I think I saw a light come on over her head about that time, and she didn't ask me any more questions.
So I went back, still needing to crap, but resigned to holding it a little longer. I ate a late lunch of crackers, cheese, summer sausage and advil, and then laid down in my tent for a little nap. I don't think I ever actually got to sleep, but it felt good to be horizontal. When I got back up, I had the area to myself. The couple with the dogs had gone, and the hippies were gone. I was alone. I grabbed my toilet paper and went back to my chosen spot. Before I dropped trou, I listened carefully to see if anyone else was approaching. Sure enough, I heard footsteps coming through the underbrush, this time coming from the direction of the creek. "Now, who could be coming from there," I wondered. I peered out over the palmettos and saw three deer moseying towards me. Ha! Well, I wasn't embarrassed to crap in front of them, and if they were around it probably meant that all the idiots had left... except me, of course.
I took care of business and then went back to my camp. I looked around down at the other end of the camping area to make sure that that other couple really had left, then started the process of cooking dinner. Dinner was an unqualified disaster. I had brought rice with some of Mark's AHA spice in it. I should have soaked it for a good long time before I tried to cook it. Instead, I brought the water to a boil with my alcohol stove and then tried to simmer it with a tea candle. It just didn't work. The tea candle, I guess, didn't keep it hot enough to simmer well. At that point, I should have brought it to a boil again with the alcohol, but I just put it back on the tea candle for a bit longer. By this time I was pretty hungry, so I ended up taking it off too soon and eating it about 3/4 cooked. The spice was horrible. It tastes great on meat, but on rice by itself, it's just not good. Plus the rice was soggy because there was still water in it. I hated every bite, and ended up burying half of it. I made a cup of hot chocolate, my only solace for a miserable meal, and then cleaned dishes.
Once my chores were done, and the camp was squared away, I climbed into the tent and read for a little bit. I had brought along Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad, and read the first few chapters of it. I recalled the book being a lot funnier than I found it this time. I guess I just hadn't gotten to the funny parts yet. I was too tired to press the issue, so I turned out my headlamp and crashed.
I slept pretty well, only having to get up once to go out and pee, and once to take some more Advil. I wasn't bothered by any noises during the night either. When Bryant and I camped in that spot after Thanksgiving we heard animals moving around all night long. I got a little cold towards dawn, but I stuffed my jacket down around my feet and slept on. I got up a little after seven to make breakfast.
By 8:30am I had packed up and was stepping out onto the trail. I had popped a couple more Advil after breakfast, but I could tell that the knee wasn't going to take much punishment. I set out at a slow pace, bearing down hard on my poles to take the weight off my leg as much as possible. Going counter-clockwise on the trail from Rock Creek campsite there are no high hills before Logan's Hill, a 200' climb. There are, however, a few very steep places where the trail is cut by small runoff creeks that drain straight down the bluffs into the river, or its floodplain. I had to be very careful going down these inclines, most of them covered by wet roots sticking out of the ground. At times, I would turn around and go down the slopes backwards to keep from twisting the knee.
Shortly after setting out, I scared up three deer that bounded away from me in a hurry. They were probably the same three that disturbed my call of nature the day before-that's probably why they didn't stick around.
Except for the aforementioned shallow drops, the walking was fairly level. I stopped to filter water about two-thirds of the way to Logan's Hill, where the trail crossed a small creek over a wooden bridge. I had used up all but a half litre of my water that morning, and I knew I would need more before the day was out. There is a water faucet not far off the trail in the parking lot by the entrance, but I thought I might want more before I made it that far-better safe than sorry. It was very convenient to have the bridge handy to set things on while I did my pumping. It went pretty quickly, and I got back on the trail.
I was at the top of Logan's Hill by 10am. The climb up was strenuous, but I made it without having to stop and breath. My pace was fairly slow, though, since I had to favor my right leg. Something interesting had happened along the way. The pain had moved out of my knee and down into my foot. The outside edge of the foot hurt every time I put weight on it. I was leaning heavily on my poles to ease the pain. I sat down on the bench on top of the hill and rested for about five minutes. So far, I had seen no one and it was a very peaceful morning.
The hike down the hill was more painful than coming up, and I had to move even slower to keep from hurting myself. I made it down and then through the narrow cut in the next hill-a very interesting spot of topography where the hill looks like it's been cut in half by an axe. The trail goes right through the cut. It was very muddy, and again I had to be careful of my footing.
Finally I was out on the access road that goes back towards the parking lot. It has a steady upward grade, and the walking was pretty easy for a while. Where the trail diverges from the road, I had to pick my way down a small slope and then I was in a bowl shaped depression with the red sandstone cliffs on my left. These cliffs are not particularly high, but for all that they're very unique in the state of Florida. I've never seen them anywhere else in the state but Torreya SP. The cover is longleaf pine and wiregrass. Signs on the trail point to where the forest used to be harvested for turpentine.
The climb back out was a bit rough, because of my foot. Reaching the top, I was momentarily confused by the lack of a visible blaze on the trail. People have hiked off the trail around the top of the cliffs, so the grass is beaten down in both directions. I automatically headed off in the direction I thought was right, but then had to double back when I looked up and couldn't see a blaze anywhere. I found the blaze, and sure enough, I had been headed in the right direction. This was my third time hiking this section in three months, so I should've been more confident, but it looked unfamiliar for a moment. It didn't take too long to get sorted, though, and pretty soon I had made it around to my lunch spot for the morning.
The spot I picked was where the trail approaches the top of another sandstone cliff to the southeast. The top is crowned with pines and carpeted with pineneedles. I spread out my tarp and put my sleeping pad on top of it. Then I sat down, pulled off my boots and socks, unzipped the legs from my pants, and started to dine on cheese, crackers and summer sausage. After eating, I pulled my pack over where I could prop my legs up on it, and stretched out. The temperature was perfect, probably about 75 degrees. The sky was a perfect Saxon blue, with no clouds at all. While I lay there, a hawk glided by over head, riding the breeze and traveling very fast in a straight line. He looked more like a jet than a bird in flight. It was beautiful.
For about thirty minutes I just lay there enjoying the day. The weather had just been so gorgeous both days. I couldn't have asked for better. I finally got up and started packing all my stuff back up. It was then that I realized someone had joined me. There was a guy behind me who was exploring around the cliff faces, off trail. I nodded to him when I set off. He nodded back. It creeped me out a little bit that someone had been able to slip up on me like that.
It was just a short walk from there to the parking lot near the park entrance. I got myself some water from the faucet there. I still had a half-liter of the water I had filtered that morning, but I wanted to conserve it, so I wouldn't have to stop and filter again. I still had what I thought was a pretty good distance to go to get to the stone bridge, and then a hike up the access road to the picnic ground parking lot.
The section of trail in front of me was one I had only hiked once, back when Bryant and I hiked both loops together. I remembered it having a few bridges and one very high hill. I also remembered it taking longer than I thought it would. This time was the same.
I crossed the road, and went down into a shady hammock. The trail was pretty level for a little ways beyond that, but then it went down steeply and crossed over a couple of creeks. One of them had little minnows swimming in it, something I hadn't seen before in the creeks here. Beyond the creeks, the trail climbed up onto a high ridge. The forest changed from hardwood hammock to pine and wiregrass. It was much hotter up there, and I began to wish that I had pulled my long john top off when I stripped down for lunch. I was wearing it and a polyester short-sleeved shirt, and starting to sweat. I decided that I would stop at the stone bridge and make a clothing adjustment, and spend a few last minutes enjoying being out in the woods.
Over the ridge, the trail went back down into shade and crossed another creek. It turned left then and followed the winding path of the creek for a ways. The creek cut through hills, forming deep, narrow gullies where I could hear the water splashing over falls. With each painful step, I was expecting to turn a corner or come up over a rise and see the access road ahead of me. I was really looking forward to spending some quiet time at the stone bridge. It's one of my favorite spots on the trail, and even though I had been across it twice on this trip, I hadn't had a chance to just sit and enjoy it.
When I finally reached the access road, I was met with disappointment. I could hear voices down by the bridge and when I got there, I saw that a group of teenagers was using it for a midday hangout. I barely nodded at them as I passed through. I suppose I might've tried to join them and hang out for a bit, but they didn't really look like they wanted company, and I knew I didn't. It was 12:40pm, and I knew I could be at the car by 1pm, so I pushed on. By 12:55pm, I was shrugging off my pack and shedding my long-sleeved shirt.
I wanted to buy myself a Torreya patch for my pack as a reward for the hike, but when I went up to the Gregory House, the gift shop was closed. While there, I noticed that they have planted some Torreya trees on either side of the brick walk leading to the house. I had never been sure what the Torreya looked like in real life, so it was nice to have them pointed out. I realized that I had seen a few small seedlings on the side of the path as I hiked. I hope they can get them reestablished in the park.
Even though I was in pain for a large part of the hike, I really had a good time. I was proud of what I accomplished in being able to hike the trail in two days. I would like to work on strengthening my knees, and eventually be able to hike both loops in one day. I know that I can do it, if my knee will hold out. It's three days later now, and I've pretty much healed up from the hike. No pain in my feet or knee, so no permanent damage was done. I'm looking forward to the next hike.