OKEECHOBEE — The Great Florida Scenic Trail is a wintertime delight. Cooler temperatures and dryer weather allow that section hiker to experience the trail in small sections without worrying about bugs that bite, high temperatures and humidity and wet trail sections.
There are two types of hikers on the Florida Trail, section hikers and through hikers, and in my experience through hikers are few and far between. Section hikers, hike the trail a day or weekend at a time experiencing smaller sections of the trail, many times in an ‘out-and-back’ style of hike. Through hikers start on one end and hike through to the far end without stopping. The Florida Trail is roughly 1100 miles long, and it will take dedicated hikers between 60 and 90 days to make the trip.
I recently started hiking on the Florida Trail, and spent a morning at the Yates Marsh section of the trail, which is about two and a half miles long, and is found north of Platts Bluff on the sand road that is Northwest 68th Street and Northwest 128th Avenue. This road is found north of U.S. 70 west, almost to the river. The Florida Trail Guide calls for parking at the boat ramp at Platts Bluff, but that requires a mile walk along the sand road north of the parking area to actually reach the trail head and an off-road portion of the trail. The sand road is rough, and full of holes, but if you drive slowly, it’s easy to reach the actual trail head, a fenced-off area on the north side of the road, just after the curve.
I left my truck at the trailhead, loaded on a day pack that was covered with a blaze orange hunting vest, put on my blaze orange hat and headed to the gate. There, I was stopped by two turkey hunters in a pickup truck and clad in camouflage outfits. I spoke with them briefly, and started up the trail. The trail is well marked with orange blazes on trees and posts along the distance. There was only one spot along the trail that I missed a turn, and found myself a bit confounded. This is where the App comes in.
Available at the Apple Store or Google Play is the Florida Trail Guide interactive app for your telephone or other device. It’s free to download the app, but the trail maps are downloaded in sections for a price. To download the entire trail spanning the state is about $35. But smaller sections, like the ones around Okeechobee are between five and seven dollars apiece. I found that the South Florida trail map begins way down south, and circles Lake Okeechobee, but any section north of the lake is found in the Central Florida trail map. I downloaded them both and installed them in my phone.
When I found myself confounded by a poorly marked curve in the trail, I simply reached for my telephone, opened the app and pushed the icon in the top right corner of the screen. With the map enlarged to its biggest, it created a blue icon for me, and showed me where I was in relation to the trail in fine detail. When I moved, it added a direction arrow to the icon to show if I was moving towards or away from the marked trail. On one curve in the trail, I found myself using the app once in each direction. This is wonderful. Along with the map layout of the app, there are also points of interest shown with various icons, and with a touch, details are provided like where to expect gates, where to find water, or campsites and where the trail heads are found.
All the details are available on this most clever bit of software. I still carry a compass, but with the app, tied to the cell phone’s GPS system, it’s really easy to stay on the trail and enjoy the hike.
Yates Marsh Trail, from trailhead to trailhead, south to north is only about two and a half miles in length. The terrain is flat, and the trail is mostly in good shape, but it is not a sidewalk and the walking can get tough at times. I walked an area where the wild pigs had been rooting, and it would have been easy to twist an ankle in some of the ruts had I not been careful. For the most part, the trail crosses cattle pasture and parallels the river, and the railroad tracks but neither one is visible from the actual trail. There are two walk-in camping areas in this stretch of trail. The south campsite is quite extensive with multiple campsites, picnic tables and a hand pump for water. I understand the water is heavy in sulphur and may require additional filtering before drinking. When I passed by, there were several trucks parked there, probably turkey hunters looking for an early start, though I did not see any road access, except through a locked Water Management Gate at the trailhead.
At the northern section of the trail, you follow an old road bed for about half a mile through a pasture with few trees. Just before you reach the trailhead on the north end, there is another campsite in a small hammock. It has a picnic table and fire ring and little else. Camping in both of these areas is with permission of the South Florida Water Management District and the telephone app provides contact information. Although fire rings are available at the campsites, caution is advised as the county is currently under a fire ban and due to dry conditions there should be no fires.
During my time on the trail, I saw and spoke with several hunters, always at the trailheads, and enjoyed a cool morning’s walk. I did see a couple of turkeys during the hike. They were walking on the mowed grass of the lawn, next to the water structure at the end of Lofton Road, well out of a hunters ability of make a fair shot.