Trams and Trails

Trails and Trams

Friends of Fakahatchee: Dedicated to financial and volunteer support to preserve the unique ecology and cultural heritage of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park and educate the public about its importance.

A walk down the Gate 3 Trail

By Andrew Tyler

As those of you who are regular visitors to Fakahatchee will know, a drive up Janes Scenic Drive (JSD), will periodically pass numbered gates. These locations represent places that were the beginning of railroad spurs from the main line that ran up JSD when the Fakahatchee was being logged in the 1940s and 1950s. When logging operations ceased in the mid-1950s the rails were removed and the spurs unattended, so that some are hard to distinguish from the trees and other vegetation that surround them. Other gates provide entrances to hiking trails in the modern Park and are therefore quite obvious when driving. For example, Gate 7 is the terminus of the West Main hiking trail.

Gate 3 Trail

Tram 3 is on the right-hand side of Jane’s Scenic Drive, approximately 2.8 miles from the zero mile marker. There is a small parking area on the right to pull in, and you will know you’re in the right place when you see the two green-colored posts adorned with “Gate 3” in white paint.

The trail at Gate 3 is a relatively recent addition to the hiking options in the Park. I would be remiss if I neglected to mention David Pickering, a volunteer who worked diligently for a long time to bring this trail up to its present condition. I was introduced to the trail earlier this season and finding myself in the Park, I paid a return solo visit on Easter Saturday, 2019.

This trail is a delightful addition. The trail is level and relatively dry. You could hike to the end and back in fifteen minutes if you are in a hurry. However, I find this trail to be a delightful opportunity to take a slow stroll and really have a close look at what’s going on and growing around you. The usual precautions of wilderness hiking apply here too, despite the relatively well groomed and level environment. Suggestions for preparation may be found on the Trails and Trams page of our website, and in this case please remember that poison ivy is everywhere, groomed trail or not!

The trail sits atop one of the old trams; trams were originally built as railroad beds. The trams were made by ‘borrowing’ rock and soil from the areas to the sides of the new railroad bed, thereby raising them above the surrounding waters. Of course, this also leaves depressed areas to the sides of the tram. On Tram 3 rocks were removed from either side. Whether or not you will find water in the depressed areas will depend upon the time of year and rainfall.

bladderwortThis year, in many areas the swamp has not dried down entirely, and to the right of the trail’s entrance there was sufficient water to support a population of Bladderworts (shown here). There are four distinct Bladderworts (Utricularia spp.), found in Florida, all of which have yellow-colored flowers. Bladderworts are the only carnivorous plants found in the Fakahatchee. The ‘bladders’ which are the parts that act as the plants’ ‘mouth’ are tiny, and they digest nematodes and other extremely small animals that live in the water and mud.

On my hike I walked to the far end of the trail and then explored in more detail on my return. The end of the trail is easily identified by the ruins of an old cabin that was no doubt someone’s ‘Cabin in the Woods’ in the era after logging when such things were quite common. The trail continues to the left of the cabin and runs for a short distance, after which it becomes quite wet and you are advised to re-trace your steps, unless you are prepared for wet walking.

lizard dewlapAs I passed the cabin ruins, I spotted a brown anole sitting on a twig, exhibiting behaviors that suggest mating season is underway. The colorful red and yellow under the throat of the male is known as a dewlap. Male brown anoles extend their dewlaps to attract females or as a warning to other males.

We are all familiar with some of the ‘charismatic’ species that live within the Park’s boundaries: panthers, black bear, Everglades mink, ghost orchids, and so on. We know that they’re here, but the chance of spotting any of these species on any given day is a matter of patience and a not insignificant amount of luck! This makes it easy to overlook some of the more common flora and fauna, much of which is no less attractive in its way than the charismatic species, but sometimes overlooked because of its very commonality.

epiphytesIf you look closely at the photo of a tree  along the Gate 3 trail, you’ll see that it holds three air plants and a host of mosses and lichens. It is unremarkable from many other trees along the trail, but the sheer diversity of epiphytic species is wonderful. I will often tell visitors that “if you stand still for a week in Florida, something will grow on you”, and this tree amply illustrates the point. Remember, an epiphyte lives ON the host plant, but is not a parasite. It’s using the host for physical support and sometimes to get closer to the daylight, but is not taking nutrients from its host.

On the outbound journey along the trail, I came across a tree that had fallen from natural causes, as far as I could tell. There on the fallen tree were two cardinal air plants (shown below, left). It’s a little unusual for them to be blooming in mid-to-late April, but they can bloom at any time. While the loss of their host habitat is unfortunate and will likely end in their demise, it does give us the opportunity to view the flowers up close, which on a standing tree would be several feet above the ground. One can see the purple bract and the white-colored flowers at the very core on the close-up below, right.

cardinal air plants

A fallen tree on the north side of the tram, housing two cardinal air plants (left). On the right is a close up of a cardinal air plant (Tillandsia fusciculata) bloom.

For those who are here only in the winter season, opportunities are limited by the drier weather to see resurrection fern in its full glory. Commonly growing in the swamp, this epiphytic fern has an interesting strategy for survival. In dry times it will wilt, and it is easy to conclude that the plant had died from dehydration. However, stimulated by even just a few water drops, the plant will begin to resurrect itself, and following a full-blown rainfall, perhaps as little as one hour is sufficient for the fern to start a return to its full glory.

resurrection fern


This tree carries a full complement of resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), one day after rain fell.

Spring is what draws many of us north at the end of season. April is spring in Florida too, and the warmer and wetter weather brings a lot of changes to the park. For example, April sees the return of insects that have been absent or dormant for most of the winter. Mosquitoes of course are considered the quintessential Florida insect, as unwelcome as they may be. I was fortunate on this day that we have yet to receive sufficient rain for them to emerge in their full glory, although a few pioneers left me with one or two itches.

yellow-red dragonflyDragonflies are members of a far more well-received insect family. I always enjoy the various dragonfly species that share Florida summers with us. The University of Florida Gardening Solutions web site tells us there are over 100 species of dragonflies found in Florida, and I can believe it. Each species seems to have a distinctive season, and they come in a wide variety of sizes and colors.

Dragonflies spend much of their life in a larval stage in water, where they are voracious predators on many other larval forms, including mosquitoes! On this day a yellow-red colored species had recently hatched, and they were enjoying spreading their wings and getting used to the dry phase of their life cycle. The one shown here was enjoying the sunshine from its perch on a blade of grass.

 

sabal palmThis sabal (or cabbage) palm was another showcase for Fakahatchee’s epiphytic species. On the left-hand side of the tree we see one species of a large genus of epiphytic ferns (Vittaria spp.), known as shoestring fern, while on the right is a vanilla orchid (Vanilla phaeantha). Yes, the seed pods from vanilla orchids are the source of that distinctive flavoring.

Vanilla orchids are grown for commercial exploitation elsewhere in the world, particularly in Indonesia and Madagascar. Cultivation is a very intensive activity. Flowers bloom for one day and require hand pollination to ensure a high yield. Cultivated varieties have far more intense flavor profiles compared to wild plant’s pods. If you feel the urge to have a go at growing them, the plants are widely available at nurseries and via the internet, but the translation is: Don’t bother trying to grow these at home unless you want them for the novelty.

Many of us are familiar with the life cycle of a strangler fig, also found in the Fakahatchee. Their seed grows in the upper reaches of a tree; the roots descend from above and then grow into the ground. In other words, the strangler fig starts its life as an epiphyte, but ends up as a ground-rooted plant.

Vanillas follow the opposite strategy. A young vanilla plant sends out vines in many directions, some of which will hopefully climb available trees. Once the plant has established itself on a tree, the roots and ground-trailing parts of the plant will wither, and the Vanilla will spend the remainder of its life as an epiphyte.

I hope this gives our readers a sense of the variety of spring plant life on a short trail with easy access, enjoyable to anyone with even very modest hiking skills and enthusiasm. Keep your eyes and ears open; spotters have observed several of the charismatic fauna mentioned on or around this trail. Good luck!

All photos by Andrew Tyler.

The Combined Fakahatchee East Main–Pennington Post–Uplands Trails Loop

by Tony Marx

east-main-trail4webWhile it’s great to experience the interior of America’s only tropical forest from the comparative comfort of the Boardwalk on Tamiami Trail, The Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park contains dirt trails suitable for all interests. Ranging from the 2.5-mile long West Main Trail to the 12-mile long East Main Trail, these offer a closer view of this wilderness.

However, as overnight camping is not permitted, the longer trails cannot be completed on foot and may only be visited by walking as far as possible then turning back. That is, if you are not one of the hardy marathon runners who take part in the annual tough ‘Ultra’ Marathon run each February. Or if you don’t own a mountain bike (and have extensive experience in trail riding).

In May 2015 I decided to attempt a circuit of the longest trio, East Main − Pennington Post − Uplands trails and back to the start by mountain bike before the summer rains curtailed it. Primed by numerous past experiences, I knew “if anything can go wrong it will.” I have a mountain bike with 2.1” tires, rear carrier and panniers containing anything I need on a long bike trip.

I planned ahead by also printing out a topo map complete with map references and waypoints. From long experience in South Florida I equipped with the following, especially necessary on a long trip and also because I was alone:

Personal Equipment

  • Helmet – Apart from a spill, it protects you against low hanging branches. At least wear sturdy head covering of some kind.
  • Insect repellent in summer, sun lotion.
  • Long sleeved shirt and long pants – In May there are still few mosquitos or bugs, but it helps prevent scratches especially from trackside thorns.
  • Lightly tinted eye shades – not for sun but to protect the eyes from low hanging branches and vines.
  • Protective foot wear – at least sneakers and better, light boots in case you end up pushing your bike through mud or over rough ground.
  • Knife.
  • Weather protection for summer.
  • Cell phone. (Editor’s Note: Cell service is not available in many sections.)
  • Food & snacks.
  • Adequate water! The amount differs with size, but as a rule of thumb you need at least a pint an hour. A liter weighs 2 lbs. but that’s no problem if your bike is carrying it. Before you set off, pre-hydrate by drinking as much as you can – up to a liter. Carry at least 4 liters on this trip. Freeze a couple of pints overnight so they stay cool in your pack. On return to your car you will need to re-hydrate for some time after, so have more water there also.

Preparation

  • It is a good idea to puncture-proof your bike as far as possible. At least, install a plastic liner strip between the tube and tire and/or Schwinn Self-sealing tubes. You can even buy Teflon reinforced tires to stop thorns in the first place. If not handy or not inclined to DIY, a bike shop will do this for you but you must know how to change a tube when you are miles from anywhere.
  • I recommend also carrying a can or two of bicycle tire inflator with sealant, obtainable at Walmart and most large stores. Purists may sneer, but it saves time and works well with small thorn punctures.
  • Bicycle pump, 2 spare tubes (better than trying to repair with patches without a water source to locate the problem).
  • Tools to handle repairs.
  • First aid kit.
  • Trail map, GPS and/compass (Thick tree canopy may hinder satellite coverage) If you follow the blue ribbons remaining after the last Ultra marathon you could dispense with GPS but it helps to take a map reference or confirm your location – especially in emergency.
  • Let someone reliable know what route you are taking, with estimated completion time.

Safety in Numbers!

Bicycle adventures in the Fakahatchee Strand are best attempted in the company of others. Consider joining the annual Everglades Bike Ride, Sunday, March 13. The 27-mile Bumpy Ride includes Janes Scenic Drive – a portion of the registration fee benefits FOF. To register and for more info, see https://raceroster.com/events/2016/6573/everglades-bike-ride or phone Patty Huff at (239) 695-2397.

Tony’s Route

biking_pt2_map1Start at Gate 12 on Janes Scenic Drive, 6.5 miles from the start of the dirt road in Copeland, and travel N. on East Main Trail. After Ballard Camp – 2 miles in from the start, the trail steadily deteriorates. Hazards are occasional washouts covered by a few planks of lumber, fallen trees and branches and vines which sometimes snake across at face height. Be especially careful not to ride over or brush against the Smilax vine which is armed with sharp thorns. I stop and carefully set them aside.

After 12.0 Miles you reach the junction with Jones Grade Trail N.26° 08.496 W. 081° 23.887 (that heads E. to Rt.29 in case of emergency). Continue north .5 miles and trail bends west at N.26° 08.849 W.081° 23.887 then runs parallel with I-75 which lies about a mile to the north and you hear faint traffic. The trail displays occasional blue ribbons. The tree cover thins but the overhead canopy remains for long distances, which can lose satellite coverage here and there if you are using a small or older GPS unit.

After 3.57 miles from the junction with Jones Grade you see the first, less obvious Uplands  trail  section  headed  south  at  N26°08.828 W.081°26.146. Ignore it and continue on.

After a further 1.41 miles you reach the second Uplands Trail headed south, at N26°08.918 W.81°26.615. It should also still be marked with blue ribbons. Turn south here and follow the most clearly beaten trail marked with occasional blue ribbons, as there are several side trails. It tends to curve and zigzag both S.E. and S.W. through stretches of upland pine in the northern stretch, changing to open marl prairie  in  the  southern  section  which  will  become  swampy  in summer. There are also occasional sections of protruding rock above the trail surface which make for a bumpy ride.

After approximately 11 miles you reach Jane Scenic Drive opposite the entrance to Picayune State Forest at N. 26°053087, W.081°455758.

Now bike 5.0 miles back to the start at Gate 12, and you have completed approximately 33 miles.

With occasional stops, lunch and to change a tube, it took me 7 hours. During that time I did not encounter a single person – hence the need to take the precautions I have detailed above.

Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist. He is a volunteer interpreter for the Fakahatchee guided tram tours and frequently contributes articles to The Ghost Writer.

Biking and Hiking the Fakahatchee, Part 2

by Anthony (Tony) Marx

In my December Ghost Writer article I described off road ‘mountain’ biking in the Fakahatchee State Park and this will serve to acquaint visitors with what they can expect to find either hiking or biking the trails kept open for public use.

There were once 200 miles of rail tracks laid within what now comprises the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park which gradually fell into disuse by the late 1950’s when logging ended and the property was sold to developers. The rails and ties were removed although some of the latter can still be seen laying where they were discarded alongside Janes Scenic Drive (JSD). Even the Drive itself was a railroad to which were connected the main arteries and served the interior shorter branch tracks feeding into it from north and south.

Ballard Camp, viewed from the north side, is on East Main.

Ballard Camp, viewed from the north side, is on East Main.

The Developers scammed people into buying small building lots, as happened in the adjoining Picayune State Forest although not on such a large scale, and some remain hidden in the forest today, referred to as ‘in holdings’. Permanent occupation is not feasible simply because building is not permitted and an in-holder’s camp may simply consist of a bare patch of land partially flooded in summer or an old crumbling shack left over from the 1970’s when the land was acquired by the State of Florida and designated a Park and Preserve – the largest in Florida. Believe it or not, there are still almost 1000 such lots scattered throughout the Park with most hidden away in the depths of the swamp.

The 200 miles of trails have almost all disappeared, recovered by Mother Nature, with the Park Staff assisted by the ‘FAKA-hackers’ – volunteers with the “Friends of the Fakahatchee”  CSO  –  just  managing to keep open what remains. The annual ‘Ultra Marathon’ is run through much of the Park in February and is preceded by a burst of trail clearance each year, which leaves the remaining trails in their best condition before the tropical summer rains arrive and the vines, creepers, and undergrowth encroach once again to reclaim the remaining signs of civilization. Mentioned below are trails that can be ridden or hiked and, in the case of JSD, driven.

biking_pt2_map1Janes Scenic Drive (JSD)

This main road bisecting the Park is accessed from State Road 29 at Copeland. The paving ends just past the Park Ranger Station. The JSD continues N.W. for 12 miles until it connects with the back entrance to Picayune State Forest. This is a narrow, bumpy dirt road running through the heart of the Swamp forest, affording access to the main off-road trails. There are several places where you can safely park and hike or bike. Of course, lock your vehicles and stow valuables out of sight.

The following trails are all double track with grass between. They meander through tall pristine forest and luxurious understory festooned with ferns and bromeliads. Wildlife encounters of all kinds happen on a regular basis, so keep your camera handy.

West Main Hiking Trail

The gated entrance is three miles from the start of JSD, sign-posted on the left. A double track ends at a small open prairie 3 miles from the trail head. At this point you have two options. The first option is to backtrack to the trail head after a mildly strenuous ride at about 7 mph. The second, more strenuous option continues north across the grassy prairie and connects with Mud Tram trail (see dotted line on the map). Side trails make a compass or GPS mandatory, as the trail is not marked.

East Main Hiking Trail

This is the main hiking trail with ample parking, located on the right approx. 6-1/2 miles from the start. The first 2-1/2 miles are easy double track and bring you to an in-holding known as ‘Ballard Camp.’ This privately-owned corrugated iron cabin was  once a logging supervisor’s cabin and is kept in good shape by its owners. They kindly allow visitors to rest on the front porch, but please respect their privacy if they are present – accompanied by a vehicle parked nearby. They maintain a jetty running from the back of the cabin to a lake which is always busy with alligators large and small.

Bear right past the cabin and the trail continues for another half mile before being blocked; other than in February-March when it is cleared for the Marathon. The trees here are heavily festooned with bromeliads.

Mud Tram

The gate with limited parking is presently un-signposted and is located on the left a mile past the East Main entrance. As the name implies, it becomes very muddy in summer. The double track ends after three miles when you break out of the tree cover into the open at the Picayune State Forest line.

Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist and FOF Board Member. He is also a volunteer interpreter for the Fakahatchee guided tram tours and frequently contributes articles to The Ghost Writer.

Biking The Fakahatchee

by Anthony (Tony) Marx

marx_on_east_main

The author on the northern end of East Main Trail.

I usually refer to biking off road as ‘Fat Tire’ or ‘Off-Road’ biking, as mention of ‘Mountain Biking’ in topographically-challenged Florida usually draws a snigger. But even when riding across our flat landscape off of paved roads, you need regular cruising tires or, better still, ‘fat tires’ because of sand, mud, and ruts.

I happen to like wilderness biking, because I cover greater distances than walking even if I bike in as far as possible, then hide my bike and start hiking. Plus, a bike carries your kit. This is especially handy in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park where bikers are welcome, with trails suitable for all riders.

Except for Janes Scenic Drive, itself a rough dirt road, the trails marked on the Park map require caution and riders should be observant for anything that could cause injury. Remember at 7-10 mph you approach a hazard much faster than walking. Show courtesy to hikers and be sure to dismount and stand aside to allow a rarely-seen vehicle to pass. These will usually be an ATV ridden by officials or the few ‘inholders’ occupying camps in the park.

Hazards include:

  • Cypress ‘nubs’ or short stumps that may be hidden in the grass between or on the double track. Watch carefully as you cross from one side to the other.
  • Low hanging branches and vines, some of which may have thorns. Wear helmet, eye protection and gloves.
  • Alligators may pull themselves up on to the trail to sun themselves. If you see one ahead, approach to no closer than 20 feet and make a noise, wave your arms, stamp your feet. If it refuses to move, turn back.
  • The Water Moccasin or Cotton Mouth snake is a venomous, semi-aquatic pit viper. Slow to bite, it sometimes is found resting on or alongside the trail where water is present nearby. It can grow to almost 3 feet; you don’t want to ride over it! It’s head is distinct from the neck, and it has faint markings which vary in color and are sometimes hidden under a muddy exterior. It blends in well with its surroundings. If you see a black or dark gray snake coiled or stationary, keep at least 3 feet away. Harmless grass and water snakes move out of your way fast.
  • Except for palms, avoid riding over small branches and fallen vines as they may be armed with thorns which will puncture tires. I recommend inserting plastic tire liners on the inside of tires between the tube and outer cover, found at any bike shop or on the internet. They stop penetrations through the tread but not the sidewall.

Fakahatchee Strand State Park mapFinding your way when biking or hiking:
Janes Scenic Drive, West Main, East Main, Mud Tram and Jones Grade hiking trails are easily navigated as long as you keep on the trail. But if you visit the Uplands Trail ,or leave these trails to connect with others, it is essential you carry at minimum a reliable compass. If possible, a GPS unit downloaded with a topo map is best.

Even if carrying a compass to confirm direction, you will encounter off-shoot side trails made by ATV’s, driven by fire and official personnel during the year. While following what appears to be the main trail, consisting of double tracks across a grassy prairie, you will encounter the occasional old or new trail forking off, which may look more prominent because it was recently driven over. A check on your GPS screen will verify your position and direction. These ‘off-trail’ trails are also used for the annual Everglades Ultras Marathon. Blue ribbons tied to the occasional tree will confirm you are on the right trail. For some stretches there are old orange blazes remaining on taller trees.

Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist and F.O.F. Board Member. He is also a volunteer interpreter for the Fakahatchee guided tram tours and frequently contributes articles to The Ghost Writer.

Trails Less-Travelled

by Anthony (Tony) Marx, Florida Master Naturalist and a Board Member of Friends of Fakahatchee.

map4webNestled in the northeastern corner of the Fakahatchee and within the Preserve is a group of picturesque lakes formed from gravel pits that were dug during the building of Alligator Alley. They are linked by berms which are rough but drivable if you have adequate clearance, or otherwise mountain bike or hike.

To access this area, exit I-75 at the Everglades City/Immokalee over-pass, 16 minutes from the Naples toll; and take State Road 29 south. Only a few hundred yards down on the right there is an opening in the fence with a rough dirt track leading to the lakes, which is slated to be closed off sometime. Next to it is a rotted and almost obliterated brown wooden sign for the Fakahatchee. It is best to proceed less than a quarter mile farther, and turn right onto the first unmarked dirt road, not signposted but identified by a sturdy white mailbox with the name ‘Quaile’. This is Jones Grade Road on the map.

Approximately a half mile down this road, an opening appears on the right which affords a view of the lakes, and leads to the elevated berms which divide them. If you cross the first lakes, turn left (West) on the berm which ends at a rough dirt track. This track meanders north for a quarter mile ending at the wildlife underpass which allows them to cross under I-75 even with traffic roaring overhead. It is not unusual to find a mix of panther, bear, bobcat and deer prints along this trail especially when muddy, and it is obviously one of the few opportunities for wildlife to continue north into the Panther Refuge and beyond.

Otherwise, continue to the end of Jones Grade at a gate, a mile from State Road 29. At this point the gravel road ends. The gate has a small warning sign prohibiting unauthorized entry and does not announce that it is an entrance to the Fakahatchee Preserve, which is why it is seldom visited except occasionally by Park personnel and the few private property owners along the road. There is only parking for about three vehicles on the right before the gate. Be careful not to block it or enter the private driveway immediately left of the gate. The owner keeps the entire road well maintained at his cost and we should be as un-intrusive as possible. I have parked at the lakes and biked down. However we are still entitled to enter the preserve by walking or biking around the gate. Jones Grade now becomes a dirt double track with grass in between. Starting as a fairly easy trail to walk or bike, it gradually narrows and after 3 miles becomes rougher after reaching the junction with East Main which is seen on the map running south.

A quarter-mile past the gate the somewhat open trees and vegetation studded with cabbage palms gradually give way to taller cypress, pond apple, and other wetland trees and vegetation, while cabbage palms line the trail. There are no Royal Palms such as exist in the swamps farther south. The trail is elevated well above the surrounding forest base, and the ditch formed when dirt was used to build the berm has become a series of shallow ponds enclosed by sub-tropical trees and lush vegetation. It also is close to the Panther Refuge and tracks can be seen here and there. After a mile, a deep pond suddenly appears on the left and your arrival usually sparks a flurry of wings and splashes as Egrets and Herons rise with accompanying squawks, and perhaps an alligator disappears in a cloud of bubbles while a turtle or frog leaps from its perch on a fallen log.

The trees and vegetation now start to crowd to the edge of the trail and the tree cover extends above affording dappled or permanent shade; signaled by your GPS beeping a warning that it has lost satellite contact. This is when it is nice to have company, as you have entered a quiet and secluded environment where there is no sight or sound of human activity. The forest is silent except for a sudden splash, flutter of wings, a scamper of tiny feet and the occasional grunt of a pig frog. A hidden burst of heavy splashing or flight signals the escape of a larger unseen animal. After two miles several narrow and rocky water courses cross the trail, dry in winter and fordable in summer. In February – March a little farther on, fallen oranges in the trail announce the presence of a large wild orange tree growing next to the trail. This was once the northern spur of a tram line built to transport the cypress lumber felled nearby over 70 years ago and perhaps someone tossed away the remains of an orange which took root.

Because of partly hidden ponds both sides of the trail and especially if biking, keep watch ahead as you can come upon a basking alligator on the narrow trail. Usually they will move off when they see you but in mating season (February-April) a large male may be more aggressive and hold its ground no matter how much you wave your hands and stamp your feet. In which case keep a respectful distance and turn back. Otherwise continue on, and just under 3 miles from the gate you reach a ‘T’ junction. The left (south) trail becomes the northern end of the East Main Trail and continues 13 miles to gate 12 on Janes Scenic Drive, while the right (north) trail soon loops around to the west then loops south, marked on the map as Upland Hiking Trails and joins the western end of Janes Scenic Drive. Both these trails are navigable on foot between January and end of April, but are too rough and rutted to bike on. They are cleared back once a year in February prior to the annual 50 mile/50K marathon, but otherwise are steadily reclaimed by Nature.

For those seeking a little more adventure, unlikely to encounter another human being and uncertain of what you may meet, it is well worth a visit!

 

Experience the Fakahatchee East Main Trail

by Anthony (Tony) Marx, Florida Master Naturalist and a Board Member of Friends of Fakahatchee.

Visitors seeking to experience the interior of this subtropical wilderness will find that this trail provides an easy hike or bike through a forested wonderland without ever getting their feet wet. If you want to experience a glimpse of S.W. Florida’s primeval past this is it.

east-main-trail4webStop at the Ranger Station 1/3 mile on the right and pick up a leaflet at the information kiosk and pay a small toll fee. Then turn right on Janes Scenic Drive to continue west, observing the 15 mph speed limit; if nothing else to void the pot holes which increase after the first 2 miles. After a short distance, the paved road ends and continues the width of 1-1/2 vehicles for just over 7 miles when you will see an ample parking lot on your right ending at the #12 gated entrance marked for the East Main Hiking Trail. Over this distance you will have passed through scenic wet prairies interspersed with hardwood tree hammocks, before entering a dense cypress forest containing a large variety of trees, ferns and bromeliads which thrive in the humid sub-tropical climate which exists here.

Walk around the side of the gate and you now find yourself on a double track raised trail which was once a tramway (small railway) track built together with over 100 others, to haul out the ancient and stately Bald Cypress trees logged here in the first half of the 20th century. Unlike nearly all of the former tramways which were abandoned and quickly reclaimed by Nature, this trail is kept in reasonable condition because it leads to a privately owned cabin known as Ballard Camp.

In most places, the forest grows right up to the edge of the trail. Cypress trees rise tall close up to the trail, host to several varieties of bromeliads which cluster and cling to their branches. The occasional stately Royal Palm towers high above wherever it can establish a firm base, while Cabbage Palms and Carolina Willows provide shade along the way. Pond Apple, Pop Ash, Dahoon Holly, Coco Plum and the occasional Florida Maple add color during season. The dense understory is dominated by Wild Coffee, Marlberry, and dozens of other glossy leafed bushes and small trees, while ferns of many varieties including the Giant Sword fern crowd in successive waves of brilliant green. Look carefully and you may spot a butterfly orchid or an even rarer species.

In summer, the water level rises almost to the top of the trail in places, and in winter recedes to the point you may step down to venture a few yards over dry ground into the forest, but be careful not to lose sight of the raised trail as it is easy to get lost. A GPS and compass is a must if you intend going farther.

Wildlife is present in its many forms. Alligators may lie basking at the edge of the trail or occasionally snooze right on it. In which case making a noise with a stick or waving your arms will get their attention and they will plunge off into the water. Florida Black Bear may appear and they are quick to flee when they see you. The Florida panther is also a visitor but rarely seen, although captured on video by hidden cameras. Harmless grass snakes may cross the trail quickly, and be observant for the sluggish cottonmouth which, though seldom encountered is present and venomous. Pass it at a respectful distance of at least 3 feet. Herons, and egrets mutter and squawk in the trees, and the occasional red shouldered hawk with its haunting cry swoops along the trail seeking snakes and rodents. A silent and fleeting shadow announces that a barred owl passed overhead and disappeared into the trees, somehow avoiding branches with its uncanny natural guidance system. The rare Everglades Mink dwells here, and otters may provide an unexpected diversion. There is always movement and sound of one kind or another, and photographic opportunities abound.

After 1.5 miles the trail opens into a clearing and the rustic cabin known as Ballard Camp appears, one of the privately owned inholdings which still exist in the Park and a relic of the mid-20th Century when it was a logging company supervisor’s quarters. A quaint sign on the wall proclaims it as ‘The Fakahatchee Hilton’. The owners kindly permit you to rest a while on the porch, but be respectful of their privacy especially if their presence is evidenced by a parked vehicle nearby. Behind the cabin is a fishing pier leading to a small lake which can be packed with dozens of alligators in the late dry season March – May.

At this point the trail forks. The left fork trail is short and passes a quaint old fashioned outhouse, and peters out a short distance farther on. It ends at an inlet from the lake where some fairly large alligators sometimes bask alongside the water.

Take the right fork and the trail continues through a forest where cypress, pop ash and pond apple are host to rarer epiphytes such as the powdery Catopsis, which contains a water tank in its center. Unsuspecting insects slide down the slick surface of the leaves into this trap where they become nutrients for the plant’s survival. Look for the occasional wild orange tree in February to March, but while thirst quenching, its sour taste discourages more than a few bites.

After a third of a mile you reach a spot known as ‘Guzmania’ named for the genus of bromeliad which clusters in profusion in a clearing to the right of the trail. Many other varieties are present there including Fuch’s bromeliad, the only Guzmania native to the United States. It is a peaceful and charming spot to stop and enjoy the tropical scenery. The trail continues, getting narrower until it ends after a half mile where encroaching vegetation blocks further travel and it is also underwater in summer. It is partially hand cleared in February when the park suddenly expands its human presence February 22 to welcome more than 500 runners and helpers competing in the tough and challenging annual Ultra 50 mile/50 Kilometer Marathon, when it is possible to hike but not bike a further 10 miles to the northern end of the Park close to I-75. Within 3 months Nature will reclaim this portion of the trail and by May it is again sealed off from human activity.

However, at this point – 2.6 miles from the gate – you will probably turn and make your way back, completing a round trip of just over five miles. If hiking, allow yourself about 5 hours including stops and carry at least 2 quarts of water per person.

Tony Marx is a Florida Master Naturalist and a Board Member of Friends of Fakahatchee.