Sunday, January 27, 2019

Last Annual 27 Mile Hike, Withlacoochee State Forest, FL, 1/26/29

Last* Annual 27 Mile Hike - Citrus Tract, Withlacoochee State Forest, Inverness, FL, January 26, 2019

Route: Trail 13 - Yellow Trail - BA Cross trail - Florida Trail - CD Cross trail- return to Yellow Trail - Trail 13

Mileage:  27 (lollipop loop)

Elevation gain: Just over 1,000' (respectable by Florida standards)

Trailhead:  Hike begins and ends at Tillis Hill Campground, Trail 13, Inverness. Your car GPS may try to send you down very rough roads so check a map beforehand.   It’s best to reach the campground from Stage Coach Road.  If coming from Pleasant Grove Road it's about four miles down Stage Coach Road to Trail 13; just two miles if coming from South Lecanto Highway.  There’s a sign for Tillis Recreation Area at the turn off. The campground is 1.5 miles in - well maintained dirt road.  (Trail map is below.)

Hiked with Carol and the Sun Coast Chapter of the Florida Trail Association today.  Twenty-seven miles is a long day hike and event organizer Sun Coast provides support by dropping caches of water along the way and providing a van at mile 18 as a bailout option. 

We set up camp at Tillis Hill Campground the night before, not at all pleased that temps dipped into the mid 30s overnight. Since electricity is available at the sites, out came the heaters and electric blankets.

It was a dark and chilly 6:30 a.m when we headed down the hill, taking a right onto Trail 13. (We’d have to head up this mean little hill at the end of the hike!) The wooded entrance to the yellow-blazed trail is just over a half mile down Trail 13, on the right (don't go left - there is another trail across the road). 

Still dark as we headed to the trail.

We found the trail opening - not so easy in the dark!

Sun is just coming up.

The yellow trail runs about a half mile before intersecting with a blue-blazed connector trail. (We'll return via this half-mile portion of yellow trail when heading back to Trail 13 and the campground at the end of the day - making the "stick" portion of the lollipop-shaped route.) We continued on the yellow trail, hiking the loop clockwise. At the end of the day we returned to this intersection via that blue-blazed trail, completing the loop portion of the route - see map.  

We crossed Forest Road (FR) 18 before the intersection.

Our route crosses forest roads and horse trails dozens of times.  It's a great way to orient your location on a map and some of the roads have real character.  The area was rich in phosphate and mining operations needed roads - now handy for four wheelers and dune buggies (and our "sag" wagon). I'll post a few photos of road crossings for perspective (see the map for all the roads).

The path is long and straight for the most part with a few slight "ups" and easy downs.  The hike takes you across vast pine flatwoods and through mysterious oak hammocks.  Still, after 27 miles you've seen enough blazes, palms, oaks and pines to last a while!

Resurrection Fern on an old oak tree.

There are several cross trails in this tract allowing for shorter route options. We didn't take the BC cross trail but instead stayed on the yellow trail entering the B loop portion of our hike.  

We passed two primitive campsites on the way, PCZ-C (also known as Youngblood campsite) and PCZ-B (also known as Jackson campsite). The names were changed by the Park Service to better reflect the trail loop location.

Carol smiled through the entire 27!
Primitive camps are off trail.

About 12 miles into the hike we stopped for lunch. Temps had warmed up to a comfy 60° and we hung around a horse trough soaking up the sunshine. Our "SAG" wagon greeted us and the crew took our trash and anything else we might want to shed in the name of a lighter pack.

Time to eat, grab water/G2, and de-layer.

The route crosses Trail 13 five times!

With more than 14 miles left to go no one felt roughed up...yet.  The break and food energized us. 

A particularly open area.

The group arrived at the B-A cross trail, the first of two connector trails we used today.  It was a group event and everyone waited for the sweep (designated "last person") at all road crossings and intersections.

Loops B-A cross trail (near Fivemile Pond).

Awkward oaks. Reminds me of a Dr. Seuss book!

Too chilly for wildlife but lots of oaks, palmettos and pines!

Most of the group were feeling it by mile 15 - minor things really, like sore feet, hips.  

Good stretch.

The B-A cross trail ended, putting us on the Florida National Scenic Trail! (SNSC).  The trail's distinctive orange blazes meant we were heading quickly toward that final cross trail and the end of the loop.  

Cloudy skies made 2 pm seem like a winter 5 pm as we slogged toward mile 18 and the SAG wagon (and our bailout option). There's no shame in calling it quits after a hearty 18 miles.  To continue means "wheels up" no turning back. The group was quieter than the last time they saw the support crew but not a single hiker opted to take the ride back to the campground. Onward!

We entered a lush, ferny-palmy, oak forest.  There are a few small hills and caves here - the woods were silent, sounds muffled. Several of us explored what is known as the Jeep Cave area.

Interesting little cave (not the only cave to explore here).

As we left Jeep Cave we entered a burned area.  This area was actually burning during last year's 27 miler!  I remember gingerly stepping through smoke, embers glowing to my right and left.

Barren area, still stinks of burnt trees.

This unappealing section continued for what seemed like forever, and eventually we found ourselves back among life but just briefly, before heading into more charred barren landscape.  Prescribed burns are common in the Withlacoochee Forest.  It's assuring to know that green will be springing up in no time!

Dead zone.

Newly painted blaze - hope the tree stays up!

Spirits were lifted as we passed the trail to Mutual Mine campground. We knew we were close with about 4 miles to go!

We won't be headed to Mutual Mine today.

It was time to leave the orange blazes of the FSNT and head down that last blue-blazed cross trail.

Sign at the start of the CD cross trail  (blue trail).

At 26 miles we were greeted by our support crew with a cooler filled with drinks! We celebrated there, then happily dragged ourselves back to Trail 13 and up to the campground.

Like all challenges, we felt victorious having completed our "hiking marathon." 

The route. The circled numbers are water caches and SAG wagon stops.

* "Last?" there's always next year....