Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is the only sub-tropical wilderness in the United States. It contains 1.5 million acres of wetlands, but despite its immense size, the park only protects 20% of the entire Everglades ecosystem which runs over 100 miles south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.  Author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called this 60 mile wide slow moving river the "River of Grass," and it, along with a complex ecosystem of sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, estuarine mangrove forests, tropical hardwood hammocks, and pine rocklands comprises the Everglades, of which the national park is a small segment.

There are three entrances to the park, none of which are connected.  The Everglades City entrance provides water access from the northwest. The Shark Valley entrance off Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) offers a 15 mile paved loop open to bicycles and provides a tram ride. The main entrance is via Homestead and offers the most recreational opportunities, including hiking, biking, and two campgrounds. Here's the park map. All three entrances have visitor centers.

The park is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve. and a Wetland of International Importance. It is one of only three sites in the world to have all three designations.

The park is a breeding ground for tropical wading birds, has the largest mangrove system in the western hemisphere, is home to 36 threatened or protected species, supports 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 species of mammals, and 50 species of reptiles. The largest reptiles are alligators and crocodiles, and south Florida is the only place in the world where both species co-exist. Below is one alligator photo I shot alongside the Shark Valley bike trail, but in my numerous bike rides there, I've seen hundreds of gators.

Crocodiles are less prevalent, and here are two I've spotted around the Flamingo area of the national park.

Other wildlife I've photographed in Everglades National Park are here.

And I videoed a Great Blue Heron catch and swallow a fish here.

One of the few areas you can bike and hike in the park is the Shark Valley loop. Halfway around the 15 mile paved loop is this 65 foot tall observation tower which provides panoramic views of the northern part of the park as well as gators that often sun themselves on the grass around the tower.

The other biking venue is the Long Pine Key Trail, which is an old rough roadbed open to mountain biking. It is located at the Long Pine Key Campground area just inside the Homestead entrance.

After dozens of driving trips to the Rocky Mountains and seeing the elevation signs on mountain pass roads, this sign in Everglades National Park always tickles my funny bone...

The Flamingo area is at the end of the 38 mile long Homestead entrance road. You'll know you've arrived when you reach the pink buildings! This is the southernmost part of continental USA. (The Florida keys all the way to Key West are islands, of course.)

The only lodging is at the campground. In 2005, two hurricanes struck the area in August and again in September, destroying the old lodge and cottages, restaurant, and gift shop. A makeshift restaurant with outdoor, screened eating and a trailer for cooking offer limited fare now.

On the drive to Flamingo, you'll see the Dwarf Forest or Skeleton Forest on both sides of the road, with at least one boardwalk out into the forest...

The campground at Flamingo is one of the rare places where you can enjoy both sunrises and sunsets over the ocean...

The Coastal Prairie Trail starts at Loop C of the Flamingo campground and runs 7.5 miles west. While maintaining the trail a few years ago, I nearly stepped on this pygmy rattlesnake that was enjoying his red salamander lunch...

Road Scholar (Elderhostel) has a biking program in the Everglades area, and here are photos and videos of that program.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Biking Kentucky's Mammoth Cave Railroad Bike and Hike Trail

Mammoth Cave National Park now has a bike trail!  

In 1859, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad opened its mainline between these two cities, and the line was only 8.7 miles from the Mammoth Cave tourist attraction which first began cave tours in 1816. (Yes, cave tours have been offered for over 200 years, surpassed in our country only by Niagara Falls as the nation's oldest tourist attraction!) After the Civil War, as many as 50,000 tourists rode the train and then switched to stagecoaches to travel to the cave, and in 1886, the rail line to the caves became operational. In 1904, the first automobile drove to the cave, hinting at the future, and in 1931 the train made its final run.

The trail is NOT a rail-trail. It follows the approximate route of the  former railroad, but it is not uniformly flat like most converted rail trails. This trail has three very steep uphill climbs that need to be walked by most riders. The development of state and park roads replaced sections of the old rail line, necessitating re-routes up high hills.

The trail runs about 9 miles to the town of Park City, formerly called Glasgow Junction. It begins near the park campground, not far from the Mammoth Cave Hotel. The trail is mostly crushed gravel with a few boardwalk sections, and I found it in good condition. A mountain bike or hybrid bike works best.

Photos can not depict the steepness of the grade, but your body will know! Don't be afraid to walk all or part of the uphill -- we call that cross training!

I was here in March so only the evergreens had color. When the entire forest blooms, I'm sure it is magnificent!

Sloan's Crossing Pond is called "A wet place in a dry land" and was caused by a sinkhole that filled with water and now provides a bit of an oasis. There is a .4 mile boardwalk encircling the pond, with benches at several points.

There are four cemeteries along the trail. Below is a photo of the Locust Grove Cemetery which is on the trail and adjacent to the park entrance road. Another cemetery, the Furlong Cemetery, is on a spur trail at the top of the westernmost steep grade. The Shackleford and Zion Cemeteries are more at either end of the trail. There are scores of cemeteries in the park where over 1800 people lie in rest. A database of the cemeteries is here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Building A Trail in Tennessee's Natchez Trace State Park with American Hiking Society

Natchez Trace State Park is located on an alternate route of the old Natchez Trace, a path created by animal migrations and an Indian travel and trade route, later used by returning boatmen that had floated goods to markets in Natchez and New Orleans from the Nashville area.

President Franklin Roosevelt purchased 48,000 acres of farm land that had been despoiled by overuse  and had become badly eroded into gullies by the 1930s. The Civilian Conservation Corps reclaimed the land and planted countless trees, and the Works Progress Administration constructed many of the existing buildings and facilities. The park is now a hilly, forested beauty with four lakes, the largest of which is 690 acres.

We were assigned to work on the The Red Leaves/Cub Lake Trail in an area where it runs along a creek. Beavers had built a dam and created a wetlands that flooded the trail. The park tried to solve the problem with portable boardwalk-like structures seen below, but the best solution was to re-route the trail to higher ground on the adjacent hillside.

The hillside had been clearcut years ago and was in the process of naturally re-growing with a mix of trees.  Ranger Greg determined the best route for the new trail segment to follow, flagged it, and a crew of local trail volunteers removed trees to create this rough new trail corridor.

Then our American Hiking Society crew of 12 arrived and dug the new trail tread following Ranger Greg's instructions. He demonstrated how to remove the top layer of organic material (residue from disintegrated leaves, branches, roots, etc.) until we reached the mineral material composed of soil and clay, and how to make the tread slightly at an angle to facilitate water to drain off the trail.  Our work surpassed the expectations of the rangers and we pretty much completed the entire trail, including installing drain tile in four particularly wet areas shown a few photos below.

When it was time for a break or lunch, we had our choice of many lovely spots to relax and eat...

Here's a photo of a nearly finished section of trail...

Several days, groups of hikers passed by us as we worked, and all complimented us on the new trail's progress and thanked us for our efforts.

At the beginning of the new trail, we encountered a very unusual situation. Apparently a spring in the hillside was continuously leaching water onto what was to be the new trail, turning it into a messy and impassable quagmire. Every effort they had made in the prior weeks had failed to solve the drainage problem. So after thought and consultations, a plan was devised to capture the flowing water in a drainage pipe and send it under the trail tread in two long lengths of buried drainage pipe.

Eighteen inch deep trenches were dug and water permeable geotextile fabric was placed in the trenches...

...and then the pipe was placed in the fabric and gravel added all around it. The water would pass through the fabric and into the slotted piping, but soil would be unable to penetrate the fabric and thus couldn't clog the tubing.  Here's the gravel being added...

Below you can see the long piping buried on the right with the two downhill segments running from it to the left. These next two photos show different angles of the work site...

A layer of the fabric was then placed on the actual trail corridor and several inches of additional gravel was placed over the fabric to serve as the trail tread. (Mike decided to take a rest break on our newly finished trail segment.)

We had gravel, drain pipe, fabric, and rocks left over, so we also installed drain tile on three smaller sections of trail that were also constantly wet...

Mike, Robert, Joe, and Chuck then built a rest bench using large rocks that were not needed for the trail construction, and here they are trying it out. It provides a lovely view of the creek and the bridge.

Our work was ably supervised by Rangers Greg and Jeff who were with us all week and working right alongside us at all times...

...and here is the entire stalwart crew of volunteers...

Left to right, front row: Bonnie, Betty, Tina (our crew chief), Jylann, Brittany, and Robyn

Back row: Ranger Jeff, Tom, Ed, Mike, Chuck, Joe, Robert, and Ranger Greg

Additional photos are available for viewing and downloading here.

Here's a brief video of our week's work:


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Biking Florida's Withlacoochee State Trail

The Withlacoochee State Trail is the longest of Florida's multitude of paved rail-trails at 46 miles. We began at the northern terminus. The trailhead lot can be reached off US Highway 41, one mile south of Dunnellon, turn right onto Martinelli, drive to the end, turn left on Magenta to the lot. The 12 foot wide trail is paved, has shaded rest benches at regular intervals, and has an equestrian trail running alongside it. The mileage to each end of the trail is painted on the pavement every mile.

This segment of the trail parallels Highway 41, but even when the road is near the trail, trees block most views and mask traffic noise. Similarly, few houses back up to the trail, and trees are the most abundant objects seen. The trail is a succession of gently rising and falling hills which cumulatively make for a nice workout through the scenic terrain. Enjoy spotting the gopher tortoises that populate the sides of the trails, often scurrying into their burrow when you approach.

This lovely 1/2 mile trail takes you to Central Ridge District Park...

About mile 13 (from the south) you'll see and a path with a sign saying "river" which in about 100 feet takes you to the namesake river seen below.  It's well worth the side trip!

Inverness is a nice section of the trail since there are several lakes alongside the trail (seen below) and two very nice parking lots with facilities.

This trail map depicts the entire 46 mile trail. I've biked the middle section in the past and have photos and info here. I have also biked the southernmost segment as reported here. (You can enlarge this map by clicking it.)

The Florida State website has info and a trail map here.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Biking Florida's General Van Fleet Trail

The 29 mile General James Van Fleet State Trail is another of Florida's paved rails-to-trails, and it is the most rural trail in the state. General James Van Fleet was a renowned and often-decorated general during World War II and the Korean War. He died at age 100 at his ranch in Polk City, near the southern terminus of his namesake trail.

I've biked the northern and southern thirds third of the trail three times each, but never the middle section until today. The first few miles of the trail at the north end run through a unit of the Withlacoochee State Forest and the Richloam Wildlife Management Area. I saw several turkey vultures, gopher tortoises, and miles of beautiful forest and wetlands, and it was nine miles before reaching the first road crossing!

Because it’s a former railroad line, the path is straight and flat -- according to the GPS, the elevation gain over 24 miles was 14 feet! You won’t see many people, but you will see cattle ranches, lush forests, wetlands, wild flowers, birds, and butterflies.

I've seen bike repair stations at various trailheads recently, but I spotted several in cabinets at rest areas on this trail. Very accommodating! It had a pump, a wrench, and a variety of smaller tools.

Gopher tortoises are frequent sights along the trail.

The middle third of the trail runs through the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve,  322,900 acres of wetlands, flatlands, and low ridges, bounded by prominent sandy ridges where the limestone is raised a bit. Experts rank it right after the Everglades in its environmental importance to Florida. This large tract stores groundwater which replenishes the Floridian aquifer, a main source of Florida's drinking water, and also forms four major rivers — Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha, and Peace Rivers. It is also home to feral pigs, armadillos, and these gators I spotted...

I actually saw eight gators without even searching hard. There's an area called "The Bridges" and most of the sightings were at the second of the three bridges...

I've biked 222 trails across the country so far, and I must say this is the only rest stop I've ever seen that had mesh netting on the windows and a screen door. As I approached, I noticed the triangle opening at the eaves wasn't screened but when I went inside, they had hung mosquito netting under the roof rafters, so the inside was completely meshed. I'm sure the bikers appreciate this stop during the summer bug season!

The southern third of the trail also runs through lovely forest but also passes numerous cattle ranches and one alpaca ranch seen here...

There is a short nature trail alongside the bike trail near the parking area in Polk City and also a washroom.

The southern end of the Van Fleet Trail trail in Polk City has a paved connector trail that takes you to the TECO Auburndale Trail which runs another six miles south. You can use the Van Fleet parking lot to reach this trail, too.