This past weekend was one for the memories. My buddy Bryan and I had a great time backpacking the Northeast Section of the FloridaTrail from Clearwater Lake to Juniper Springs. We made some good decisions, some bad decisions, and came across some things along the way.
We got dropped off at the Clearwater Lake Trailhead around 7:30pm Friday night. We hiked through an amazing pine forest with palmettos and cacti. To my surprise, the trail was marked very well, went right past residential land, and was pretty wide. After hiking for a couple hours we set up camp, ate dinner, bear bagged our food, and hunkered down for the rainy night.
The next morning we awoke to a semi-bright sky and got our first good glimpse of the amazing wilderness we were in and hiked through the night before. We packed up and hit the trail just before 7:30am. We continued through the pine forest and eventually came across a section of sandy pine scrub and then what looked to be like a jungle, walking across boardwalks that seemed like they would never end.
At about 10:30am we started running low on water and came across the blue blazes leading us to Alexander Springs. We received a warm welcome from the staff and began refilling our Nalgene’s, ate our lunch, and checked ourselves for ticks and new forming blisters. After about 45 minutes we were back on the trail.
We kept hiking and never got bored with our ever changing surroundings. We’d be in a wet jungle type area and then it’d switch to pine forest which would switch to the woods and would then become sandy pine scrub and would repeat itself in no particular order. The trail would at times be just wide enough for one person and sometimes wide enough for 3-4 people walking side-by-side.
It started getting really hot…go figure…evidently I wasn’t drinking enough water and started to zone out…I was the point person. All of a sudden I heard my buddy Bryan yell at me from behind. He asked me if I saw what I just stepped over; I looked down and saw a baby Pygmy Rattlesnake about 7 feet behind me. Needless to say, I became a lot more aware.
By 2:00pm our feet were killing us from the lack of support Chaco’s gave compared to typical hiking shoes/boots. We were also starting to run low on water, so we were keeping our eyes peeled for water sources. We took a break around 3:30pm and finished off the water we had, thinking it’d be easy to find a water source…water sources were clearly marked on the map and guidebook.
Our plan was to re-fill our Nalgene’s along the trail, but weren’t able to find any water sources. We were also planning on only hiking about 15 miles on Saturday and setting up camp along the trail in Farles Prairie about 10 miles from Juniper Springs, pick-up point on Sunday. By the time we got to Farles Prairie it was about 4:00pm, had limited shade, was dry as a bone, and we were out of water. We decided to dig deep, push hard, and grind out the remaining 10 miles to Juniper Springs.
By the time 6:00pm rolled around we were dehydrated, tired, and still about 5 miles from Juniper Springs. I took the point position again and almost stepped on another baby Pygmy Rattlesnake. We took a break for a couple minutes and it slithered on its way into the woods. We kept hiking and finally broke out of the woods onto S.R. 44 around 7:00pm. We had another 2 miles to go, which we could hike in the woods at a slower pace, with less and less light, or hike west along S.R. 44 to Juniper Springs Campground. We chose to stay along S.R. 44 and it took us about 30 minutes.
Once we got there, we had another warm welcome by the staff who invited us into the office to get some water and rest for a bit. We paid to stay the night…well worth it…and waddled our way over to our campsite, refilled our water, set up camp, and passed out.
We woke up the next morning around 6:30am and could barely walk. Our legs were shot and we each had some pulled tendons in our feet. When we went to get more water some other campers asked why were waddling…it was that bad. My calves were screaming and Bryan had some cuts on his feet. Our ride picked us up just after 8:00am and we were on our way home.
It was an adventure to say the least. I’d definitely do that section again, but I’d change a couple things. I wouldn’t have gone so fast (we hiked 25 miles in one day), I’d wear hiking shoes, and bring a lot more water (we each carried about 1.5 liters when filled) due to the dryness. Overall we still had fun, are still friends, and are already talking about our next backpacking trip.
Learn from us and if you’re interested in doing that section and have questions, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.