Sunday, December 17, 2006

Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris)

A lonely road in Pine Log State Forest

I recently received a request, from a friend in California, to send a supply of pine straw from the longleaf pines which grow abundantly here in northern Florida. This person weaves things out of the sturdy dried needles and had been ordering her stock from a catalog. It has prompted Connie and I to explore our magnificent local state forests, where large open stands of this beautiful tree can be easily found.

According to the book Forest Trees of Florida (published by the Florida Division of Forestry): "The young longleaf pine forms one of the most striking features of southern forests. When five to ten years of age the single upright stem with its long, dark shiny needles forms a handsome plume of sparkling green; while in later youth the stalwart, sparingly branched sapling, with its heavy twigs and gray bark attracts immediate attention. The older trees have tall straight trunks, mostly one to two feet in diameter, and open, irregular crowns, one-third to one-half the length of the tree."

Baby longleaf pine

Young stand in Point Washington State Forest

"Longleaf pine is found throughout the state, except for the southern tip of the peninsula. Longleaf pine stands today reflect a history of extensive naval stores operations, logging and burning following logging. As a result many longleaf pine forests have been replaced by other species."

Close-up of a teenager

The search for needles has also resulted in our enrollment in the Florida State Forests Trailwalkers Program. It has three levels: Trailwalker, Trailblazer and then finally the pinnacle of acheivement------a Trailmaster! As the brochure explaining the program states "The benefits are many when you participate in the program. You get to improve your level of physical fitness at your own rate without the pressure of competition. Your only competitor is yourself." Now that's for me!!

Dutch Tieman Trail in Pine Log State Forest

The state forests of Florida are a hidden natural treasure that don't get a lot of publicity but offer solitude, quiet and a wide range of opportunities for the hiker and nature enthusiast. You'd hardly ever know that you are in the 4th most populous state in the nation when wandering the endless miles of forest that cover wide expanses of the Sunshine State. Y'all get out there and enjoy 'em now.

Palmetto understory in Pine Log State Forest

At the Eastern Lake trailhead

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Rocky Bayou State Park

Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park is named for the Air Force colonel who was responsible for restoring this area into a nature preserve from its former role as a WW2 military bombing range. This 357-acre park is loctated along the brackish shores of Rocky Bayou in the southeastern corner of Okaloosa County, and sits directly across Choctawhatchee Bay from the urban bustle of U.S. 98 with its strip malls and throngs of beach bound tourists. Once you are deep within the quiet woods of this lovely park you'd hardly ever know you were so close to the pressing mass of the multitudes.

Rocky Bayou

Quiet solitude of the Rocky Bayou Trail

The park is a great place to see one of the best remaining examples of coastal scrub forest in the western panhandle of Florida. This particular forest contains many fine specimens of old-growth long leaf pine, some of which are over three-hundred years old, that once covered much of Florida before large scale logging in the last century removed them. Some of the other trees found here include the sourwood, chinquapin, live oak, Alabama oak, sand pine, magnolia and cypress.

The most scenic loop trail in the park.

There are three principal nature trails in the park: the Red Cedar, Rocky Bayou and the Sand Pine Trail which hugs the shores of pristine Puddin' Head Lake. According to the book Exploring Wild Northwest Florida, "One of the most interesting aspects of these trails is the conglomeration of trees and shrubs that occurs here. Though none of these plants are outside of a habitat that might be expected for the species, the diverse assortment of species and sheer number of individuals make this an excellent place for botanizing."

The rare trumpter swan can be found here as well as bald eagles, osprey and a wide assortment of reptiles and mammals.

Puddin' Head Lake

This park has a large picnic area, boat ramp and 45 full-service campsites. It is open year-round and is conveniently located near stores and a wide array of services on nearby Florida Hwy. 20.

The author taking a break on the Sand Pine Trail.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Another beautiful sunset in Seagrove Beach

I am truly blessed to live in such a beautiful place. Tonight the sunset over the dunes behind our home in Seagrove Beach was especially spectacular. I hope you all enjoy it too.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Fall color along Econfina Creek

Deep in the Florida woods

Fall color comes relatively late to Florida, usually in mid to late November and early December. I set out today to view some of this seasonal splendor along the banks and bottomlands of Econfina Creek, which straddles the Washington-Bay County line in the panhandle of Florida. The most popular access point is about 8 miles east of the small crossroads community of Crystal Lake on Florida State Hwy. 20.

This little known gem is administered by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, and is a protected watershed for the Deer Point Lake Reservoir, which supplies Bay County with its largest amount of culinary water.

Econfina Creek is believed to be a Muskogean term meaning "natural bridge", because it may have flowed underground at one time through the highly porous limestone found in this part of the state. The Econfina is unique in that about 80% of its flow is fed by eleven natural springs. The clarity of the water is amazing and it is a popular destination for those wishing to canoe or kayak its crystal clear waters. This is easily one of my favorite natural wonders in all of Florida.

For more information about floating Econfina Creek you can call 850-722-9032.

Econfina Creek

Fall color along the creek bank

Cypress knees

Color dappled bottomland

Nature boy takes a rest

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is located just south of Port St. Joe in Gulf County. It occupies the central section of an L-shaped peninsula that juts out from the mainland at San Blas Point. This barrier island is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the its western side and the sheltered waters of St. Joseph Bay to the east.

Mainly visited for its ten-mile strand of white sand beaches and crystal blue waters it also is a well known haven for bird watchers, where 240 different species of birds have been recorded through years of careful observation and record keeping.

Other activities include hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking and fishing. There are campgrounds as well as cabins for rent, with many nearby accomodations readily available. The beach is rated as one of the best in the United States by an expert who calls himself the Beach Doctor.

If you decide to make a visit I strongly reccomend that you bring along lots of insect repellent because the biting bugs can be vicious, especially flies and mosquitoes on the bay side of the park. We visited in early November and the bugs were pretty thick everywhere but on the Gulf shore.

Miles of deserted beaches await the visitor.

The interior scrub forest is criss-crossed by hiking trails.

Tranquil scene on the bay side of the park.

Lush vegetation lines the main park road.

Scrub covered dunes abound.

The beachcombing is excellent.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Deer Lake State Park

This very small park, located along the south coast of Walton County in Seagrove Beach, is a slice of pure Florida heaven. Sandwiched in between major resort developments and busy Highway 30A, this lovely and quiet preserve offers the visitor a multitude of natural wonders to experience within its eleven documented life zones. The park is named for the large coastal dune lake that is located within its boundaries but also has a gorgeous beach, a large area of crystal white sand dunes and a thick forested hammock of hardwood and pine.

Deer Lake is one of seventeen dune lakes located along the Gulf of Mexico in this vicinity that are extremely rare worldwide. For more information about these interesting and fragile lakes please refer to my earlier blog posting on Topsail Hill Preserve.

The forest here includes southern magnolia, scrub oak, long leaf pine and palmetto. Rare plants such as gulf coast lupine, spoonflower, pitcher plants, and Curtiss' sand grass form some of the largest populations found in Florida.

There are many species of resident or migratory birds and butterflies that utilize this fast disappearing mixed dune and coastal forest habitat, including the endangered least tern and loggerhead turtle. Other animals include bobcat, coyote, fox, raccoon, skunk, and a large assortment of reptiles and amphibians including alligators that inhabit Deer Lake. Park visitors can picnic, swim, and fish, but there is no camping as this is a day use area that closes at sundown.

I am very lucky, because I live right next door to this beautiful preserve and can visit it whenever I want. So by all means come on down and enjoy this perfect slice of the Florida panhandle. It is rarely crowded and always offers beauty, solitude and inspiration.

Park woodland

Walkway across the dunes

Tracks in the dunes

Deer Lake

Stairs to the beach

A pristine beach awaits the visitor

A half-hour of beachcombing


Dusk on the Gulf

Palmetto & sea oats silhouetted at sunset

For more information:

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Camp Helen State Park

Camp Helen State Park is a 184-acre preserve located at the far western end of Bay County along U.S. 98, just east of the Walton County line near Inlet Beach. Surrounded on three sides by picturesque bodies of water it is a forested peninsula filled with natural beauty and surprising diversity given its relatively small size. In one visit you can easily take in the beauty of white sand beaches fronting on the Gulf of Mexico, the marsh and bay environment of Phillips Inlet and the scenic shores of Lake Powell, one of Florida's largest freshwater dune lakes.

Salt marsh connected to Phillips Inlet

Rising above these lovely bodies of water is a beautifully forested maritime hammock that is chock full of live oak, long leaf pine and palmetto. The sugary white dunes encountered between this dense woodland and the Gulf shore are covered in the characteristic sand pine scrub community commonly found in this part of coastal Florida.

The primary forest cover consists of palmetto, live oak and longleaf pines.

Prehistoric middens and mounds indicate that humans lived on this neck of land more than 4,000 years ago. In the 1920's a wealthy family purchased the property that is presently the park and built a summer home overlooking Phillips Inlet. In 1945 the Avondale Mills of Alabama bought the property and operated it as resort for their employees until 1987. This "camp" was named Helen in honor of the CEO's daughter-in-law.

Original camp cottage built by Avondale Mills.

Activities include swimming, beachcombing, nature study, hiking, and both freshwater and saltwater fishing. This is one of my favorite Florida state parks because it is compact, scenic and diverse enough to keep me coming back to visit again and again. That I happen to live only a few miles down the road from this lovely preserve doesn't hurt either.

Beach along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.

Pelicans perch on a storm wrecked pier.

Close-up of the perching pelicans.

The main nature trail through the park.

Stairs leading down to Lake Powell

Lake Powell

Beach access trail

Beautiful tall live oaks are found throughout Camp Helen.

For more information: