Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ocklockonee River State Park (Blog Hike #408)

Trails: Pine Flatwoods and River Nature Trails
Hike Location: Ocklockonee River State Park
Geographic Location: south of SopchoppyFL (30.00100, -84.47224)
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2012
Overview: A flat hike first through open longleaf pine forest and then along the gleaming Ocklockonee River.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance road for Ocklockonee River State Park is located on US 319 4 miles south of Sopchoppy.  Drive in the long entrance road, pay the entrance fee, pass the campground, and park in the cul de sac beside the picnic area at the end of the main park road.

The hike: Surrounded completely by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Ocklockonee River State Park protects 543 acres of pine flatwoods along its namesake river.  Although the pines represent a peaceful recreation oasis today, they once represented one of Florida’s main economic resources.  In the late 1800’s resin was removed from these pines and processed into turpentine as part of Florida’s valuable turpentine industry.  As recently as the 1930’s longleaf pines such as those found here were cut down, their long straight trunks perfect to make masts for sailing vessels.  The park was established only in 1970.
            Though small in size, the park today features several river access points for fishing, kayaking, and boating.  A thirty site campground and a separate youth camp provide camping opportunities.  For hikers, two trails that form a single loop offer the park’s best hiking opportunity.  This hike gives both a tour of the peaceful pine flatwoods and a scenic walk along the Ocklockonee River.
Trailhead: Pine Flatwoods Trail
            Begin with the Pine Flatwoods Trail, which departs from an information kiosk at the west corner of the parking area (the opposite corner from the picnic area).  The sandy mowed grass trail immediately enters the pine flatwoods with abundant waist-high wiregrass on either side.  True to its name, the pine flatwoods has a spare canopy of longleaf pines, and there is almost no elevation change.  Patches of saw palmetto appear in the understory.
            The trail meanders through the tranquil pine flatwoods and passes some interpretive signs that describe the area.  One sign tells about the controlled fires park managers set here every few years to prevent invasive plants from taking root.  These fires mimic the lightning-spawned wildfires that naturally occur in this part of the world.  If one of these fires has been set recently, you will be able to see the black charring on the pine tree trunks.
Fire marks on trees
            Many kinds of animals call the pine flatwoods home.  On my hike on a chilly, windy winter afternoon, a baby snake crossed the path in front of me.  Another member of my party saw a rare white squirrel, a color variant of the more common Eastern gray squirrel.
Snake on Pine Flatwoods Trail
            At 0.7 miles, you reach a trail intersection.  The spur trail exiting right leads to a small reflection pond, but this hike will turn left to continue along the main loop.  In another 0.2 miles, you cross the paved park entrance road.  The trail’s appearance does not change, but at this point the trail’s name magically changes from the Pine Flatwoods Trail to the Ocklockonee River Trail, as indicated by a brown metal park sign.
            Spur trails exit left to the main campground, which appears in clear view through the trees and bushes to the left.  At 1.1 miles, you reach a bench that overlooks a sandy beach on the Ocklockonee River.  This is the first of several river viewpoints, and the colors here are a real feast for the eyes.  The white and brown sand contrast with the shimmering blue water and the green/brown grassland on the opposite side.
Beach on Ocklockonee River
            From the bench, turn left to begin paralleling the river on the final leg of the hike, heading downstream with the river on your right.  The river is a designated Florida canoe trail, so you may see canoeists or kayakers paddling the calm, deep river waters.  As you pass the campground on the left, several sets of wooden steps lead right down to more sandy beaches along the river.  If you wish, you can bypass some of the official trail and walk along the river beach instead.
            At 1.5 miles, the trail becomes less defined as it enters the picnic area.  On my visit, a large group of turkey vultures were circling the picnic area, indicating that something dead was in the vicinity.  A couple of final river overlooks give views of more beaches and the steep rocky areas that surround them.  Finally the confluence of the Ocklockonee and Dead rivers is reached.  A brief walk through the picnic area will return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

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