Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park (Blog Hike #495)

Trails: Battlefield and Nice Wander Trails
Hike Location: Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
Geographic Location: east of Lake City, FL
Length: 3.1 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: October 2014
Overview: A pair of loops featuring a Civil War battlefield.

Directions to the trailhead: East of Lake City, take I-10 to US 90 (exit 324).  Exit and go west on US 90.  Drive US 90 west 5.4 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park.  Cross the railroad tracks and park in the small gravel parking lot in front of the park museum.

The hike: It was February of 1864 when the American Civil War came to Florida in earnest for the first time.  Against his superior’s orders Union Brigadier General Truman Seymour led 5000 troops west from Union-held Jacksonville into north-central FloridaSeymour hoped to destroy Confederate supply railroads and recruit black soldiers with the ultimate goal of encouraging Florida, a reluctant member of the Confederacy from the start, to rejoin the Union.
            Aware of the Union’s desires, Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan stationed 5000 troops of his own at the railroad town of Olustee, which was strategically located on a narrow land bridge with impenetrable wetlands to the north and south.  Seymour became alerted to the Confederate presence by his skirmishers, or small bands of exploratory troops.  Not wanting to let Seymour escape, Finegan sent his troops east to engage the Union forces.  Thus, the Battle of Olustee actually took place 2 miles east of Olustee.
            The battle raged for 4 hours with both sides taking heavy casualties, but the Union took the worst of the damage and was forced to retreat to Jacksonville.  The Union lost 34% of their troops, making Olustee the second bloodiest battle (expressed as a percentage of troops engaged) of the Civil War for the Union.  When you tour this battlefield, you will see why so many casualties were taken by both sides.
            In 1909, the Florida legislature acquired 3 acres on this site, and in 1912 it became Florida’s first state historic site.  I visited this site in 2014, the battle’s sesquicentennial.  Today the site contains a tall stone monument, a small Visitor Center that features a 30 minute film on the battle, a 1 mile nature trail that tours the Battlefield, and an old US Forest Service fire tower.  The 1300-mile Florida Trail also passes through the site.  Combining the 1 mile Battlefield Trail with a sample of the Florida Trail gives your visit a nice balance of history and nature.
Battlefield Trail trailhead
            Because the Battlefield Trail features some nice interpretive signs that give a good overview of the battle, I recommend hiking the Battlefield Trail first and then viewing the long (by park standards) video in the Visitor Center to fill in some of the details.  To execute this plan, start at the three-paneled wooden sign located across the gravel park road from the Visitor Center.  Of the two trails that depart from this point, choose the one to the right to hike the loop counterclockwise and read the interpretive signs in the correct chronological order.
            The mowed-grass trail heads north with a seasonal pond to your left and the park road in sight to your right.  If you remember that this was a battlefield as you walk, the reasons for the high casualty rate become apparent.  The flat terrain and sparse longleaf pine forest gave soldiers nowhere to hide, and the marshy land combined with the dense saw palmetto understory made running difficult.  With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, the options were kill or be killed.  Plenty of both happened.
            At 0.1 miles, the trail curves left to join an old road and head northwest.  Plenty of sunlight comes in through the longleaf pines, so you will want to wear a hat during the warmer months to minimize sun exposure.  Continue straight where the trail crosses the end of a dirt road.  The trail here is marked with an arrow printed on a metal plate attached to a longleaf pine tree, but the plate has partially fallen off the tree, causing the arrow to point the wrong way.
Hiking the Battlefield Trail
            Where a marked short-cut trail exits left, continue straight to hike the full loop.  The open grassy area you see through the trees to the right is used for battle re-enactments, which take place every February.  Some scenes for the movie Glory were filmed during these re-enactments.
            Just before reaching the site’s northwest boundary, the trail curves left and then left again to begin heading southeast on a course that is parallel to the route you walked only minutes ago.  You see the Visitor Center through the trees long before you return to it at 1.1 miles.
            Next, I recommend stopping in the Visitor Center to view the video and stepping out the back of the Visitor Center to view the stone battle monument.  If all you want to do is tour the battlefield, your visit is now complete.  However, if you would also like to get a taste of Florida Trail hiking, a short loop called the Nice Wander Trail in adjacent Osceola National Forest allows you to do just that.
Old USFS fire tower
To get to the Nice Wander Trail trailhead, walk back out the gravel park road toward US 90 and turn right at the old US Forest Service fire tower, which is now closed to visitors.  A trail information board marks the Florida Trail’s Olustee trailhead.  The Florida Trail is marked with orange paint blazes, while the Nice Wander Trail is marked with white paint blazes.  Both trails head down the gravel road with the battlefield to your right and US 90 to your left.
Just past 0.1 miles into the Nice Wander Trail (or 1.3 miles from the start of the hike), you need to use a swinging pedestrian gate to walk around a vehicle gate in the road.  On the other side of the vehicle gate, the Nice Wander Trail splits to form its loop; a blue sign marks this point.  To hike the most scenic trail first, I chose to angle left, hike the loop clockwise, and use the gravel road to the right as my return route.
The orange and white blazes of the combined Nice Wander and Florida Trails head northwest through more longleaf pine forest with a dense understory of saw palmetto and other sedges.  Be warned that this trail is not nearly as well cut and maintained as the Battlefield Trail you hiked earlier.  You will want to wear thick pants on this trail or else the wiregrass brushing up against your legs will leave abrasions.
Hiking the Nice Wander Trail
Two signed options exiting right provide opportunities to short-cut the loop, but hardy hikers will continue straight at each intersection to see the entire Nice Wander Trail.  If ever you are unsure you are still on the trail, look for the orange and white blazes.  The blazes are sufficiently numerous to ensure that at least 1 pair of said blazes remains in sight throughout this hike. 
Near 2 miles into the hike, you reach a short boardwalk that traverses a wet area.  Lots of saw palmetto live back here, and a couple of benches provide opportunity for rest and meditation provided the bugs are tolerable.  This hike was not one of the buggier hiking experiences I have had in Florida, so you just may be in luck depending on the season.
Boardwalk on Nice Wander Trail
At the north end of the boardwalk, the Florida and Nice Wander Trails part ways with the former continuing straight and the latter turning right.  Follow the white blazes of the Nice Wander Trail as they head right and soon intersect the gravel road at a vehicle gate, where you should turn right again.  The return route along the road is very easy but very boring: the road is dead straight for most of its length.  You may be able to spot the white and orange blazes you were following earlier that now lie a couple hundred feet to your right.  Stay with the gravel road to close the loop, then retrace your steps to the battlefield Visitor Center to complete the hike.

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