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National Trails Day

Tomorrow — Saturday, June 2, 2012 is National Trails Day!

Since 1993, the first Saturday of every June has been designated to inspire the general public and hiking enthusiasts alike to discover and celebrate America’s expansive trail network — comprising over 200,000 miles of trails. You can participate in a local hike, dog walk, cycle, horseback ride, help in a trail maintenance project, kayak, birdwatch, and so much more. It’s easy to forget how much work goes into trails’ planning, development, and upkeep: National Trails Day thanks the countless volunteers and partners for their support and grueling work.

National Trails Day also introduces many people — those who may not otherwise visit parks and trails — to all of their benefits. The day further highlights trails that people didn’t even know existed. I try to do this as well in this blog — after hearing many friends unaware of the magnificent parks and trails in their backyards (see Natural Areas and State & National Parks dropdowns, above — or the Categories section to the right). In today’s world, it’s critical to get outdoors and into nature. Hiking — even simple walks — gets the heart pumping, the muscles relaxed and stretched, and is an excellent way to improve overall health. It’s also cheap! Exploring these serene environments will help you decompress and find solitude as well; I often wander alone, watching and photographing as I stroll the natural areas.

Find an event near you for a National Trails Day event. Celebrate nature and promote our country’s parks and trails! I have far too many trail pictures to share (as proven in my past posts!), so I’ll revisit a few of my favorite areas, if that’s possible:

A most beautiful path in Riverbend (Jupiter, FL)

Cypress Swamp Along the Florida Trail

Into the Swamp, Florida Trail Extension (Jonathan Dickinson Trail)

Prairie Overlook Trail, Fern Forest

Sheltering Trees of the Florida Trail Extension (Jonathan Dickinson Trail)

Gorgeous Oaks of the Florida Trail Extension (Jonathan Dickinson Trail)

Cypress Swamp, Historic Jupiter-Indiantown Trail, Cypress Creek Natural Area

Boardwalk, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

Love in the Florida Forest

Still not quite able to tackle the bigger hikes, we ventured to lovely Fern Forest, a magnificent conservation site and wildlife refuge located in Broward County. Encompassing 247 acres, researchers have characterized the site as “the last remaining stronghold of ferns in southeastern Florida.” This beautiful and diverse natural area represents the last remnant of the historical Cypress Creek floodway. Today, Fern Forest remains a significant refuge for wildlife in this highly urbanized region, and hosts many educational activities, conservation events, and nature programs. The park encompasses ten plant communities, including a tropical hardwood hammock, an open prairie, and a cypress-maple swamp. Visitors can investigate three main trails: The Cypress Creek Trail (a wonderful boardwalk); the Prairie Overlook Trail, which includes a 20-foot-tall observation platform; and the Maple Walk, winding through an often soggy red maple swamp.

During our weekend visit we hit the Prairie Overlook Trail and the expansive boardwalk; the butterflies were especially active after an unexpected Saturday monsoon. As always, I try to catch the swallowtails in action, but fail miserably and land in the oversized banana spiderwebs. But I did manage to snap a private moment between mating Viceroy Butterflies (Limenitis archippus) — cue the appropriate music; I was humming it for them at the time.

Deep in the darkness of the Prairie Overlook Trail, my guy spotted this sublime palm…a love tree! I’m only sorry I didn’t find it first; it was completely tucked away in a riot of Florida growth.

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John D. MacArthur Beach State Park: Southeast Florida’s Haven of Subtropical Coastal Habitat

Located on a barrier island adjacent to Lake Worth Cove — on the north end of Singer Island in North Palm Beach — John D. MacArthur Beach State Park preserves some of the finest examples of subtropical coastal habitat that once covered southeast Florida. The various natural communities afford a haven for rare and endangered indigenous tropical and coastal plant species: the park encompasses 325 acres (of uplands and submerged lands), including a mangrove-lined estuary,  coastal and tropical hammock, hardwood forests, beach, and shallow reef. Lake Worth Cove itself is crossed by a 1,600-foot scenic boardwalk.

Activities

Popular activities include swimming, picnicking, and surfing along the nearly two miles of pristine beach, lined with sand dunes and native vegetation; scuba diving, snorkeling, canoeing, and kayaking are also enjoyed by visitors. Hikers can investigate tropical habitats along two nature trails (the Butterfly Trail is no longer present): the Satinleaf Trail winds through a mixed maritime and tropical hammock along the Lake Worth Lagoon, and the Dune Hammock Trail leads visitors across the estuary bridge (boardwalk) and along the west side of the dune. Each time we’ve visited, we’ve traveled both trails, but always end up on the Dune Hammock Trail — and although it’s a casual hike, it’s an absolutely lovely view of natural Florida, that leads down to the beach and the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Birdwatchers can spot osprey, peregrine falcons, wood storks, herons, egrets, brown pelicans, terns, sandpipers, and gulls. Fishing is permitted from the non-swimming areas of the beach, as well as by canoe and kayak in the lagoon.

The William T. Kirby Nature Center further explains the park’s natural communities and its role as a biological treasure to the region, offering Speaker Series and live animal exhibits. Children’s programs, guided snorkeling tours, and “Under Moonlight” concerts are among other special activities hosted by the park. MacArthur also offers guided nightly tours of its sea turtle nests — the area is a top nesting site for the endangered loggerhead, and the green and rare leatherback turtles, who nest from early May through late August. Having attended one of these tours — and speaking from one who was raised on a South Pacific island, accustomed to seeing sea turtles — it’s truly an amazing experience. Just bring your bug spray! Other park accommodations include a small amphitheater and picnic pavilions, both which are available for rental.

History

The park was named for billionaire John D. MacArthur, who once owned a large portion of Palm Beach County (including this land). Donating the land in the 1970s in an effort to preserve it for future generations, John D. MacArthur Beach State Park officially opened in 1989. Munyon Island, named for Dr. James Munyon and itself hosting a fascinating history, is accessible only by canoe or kayak. It allegedly supported one of the largest wading bird rookeries in South Florida. During the early 1900s, Munyon built the famous resort hotel on the island, “The Hygeia,” named for the Greek goddess of health and visited by wealthy (mainly northern) visitors. The hotel burned down in 1915, and the island has since remained uninhabited. But human occupation in these lands dates to 900 A.D., when Native Americans settled in the area. Evidence of their presence comes from recovered artifacts including discarded bones, shells, and pottery that were found in their refuse piles. In fact, the next Speaker Series hosted on March 10 highlights the prehistory of the park — “The Prehistory of MacArthur Beach State Park” — definitely something to investigate.

Contact Information:

10900 Rte. A1A, North Palm Beach, FL, 33408
East on PGA Blvd, across US1 to A1A. Stay South on A1A for two miles
Phone: (561) 624-6950

Hours & Pricing:

William T. Kirby Nature Center: Daily, 9 – 5
Park: Daily, 8 AM – Sundown
$5/vehicle ($4 Single-occupant vehicle or motorcycle)

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Barking Tree Frog

During our recent trip to Jonathan Dickinson, our exploration centered on the Florida Trail and the Kitching Creek portions, which can lead you to  Riverbend Park and Indiantown Road, to the south.  It was a perfect day for such an investigation — overcast and lonely (encountering only one other backpacker, on his way to the primitive campsite). Four hours of hiking in Jonathan Dickinson’s terrain, and one is thankful for cloudy days (or at least my Irish skin always is). After passing stately rows of centuries-old cypress and live oak along the Loxahatchee River (into which the Kitching Creek flows), we headed into some lovely cypress swamps — always my favorite — before breaking out once again into the open pine flatwoods. Outside of the family of feral pigs (wild hogs) and myriad birds (we tried looking for the maniacal owl), it was somewhat quiet. But towards the end of the hike, I nearly stepped on a tiny, beautiful barking tree frog. Fortunately, s/he leapt straight in the air to avoid my lumbering hiking boots. I was reaching exhaustion after those hours of hiking — I really, really need to return to hiking shape….

A tiny barking tree frog hopped out of the way of my lumbering hiking boot, clutching a twig for dear life….

Beautiful markings on a tiny barking tree frog — safe and sound after s/he hopped out of the path!

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Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Jonathan Dickinson State Park offers an ideal exploration of natural Florida, providing a vast ecosystem filled with wildlife in 13 natural communities. Sand pine scrub, pine flatwoods, mangroves, and cypress swamps cover the entirety of the park, nearly 20 percent of which is comprised of coastal sand pine scrub, an environmental community so rare that it’s been designated as “globally imperiled.” The Loxahatchee River — Seminole for “River of Turtles” — was federally designated as Florida’s first “Wild and Scenic River” in 1985, and runs through Jonathan Dickinson, originating in Riverbend Park to the south.

Wildlife thrives at the park, due to a long history of protection. Deer, raccoons, foxes, otters, bobcats, and coyote can be seen if you’re quiet enough. Alligators are common, as are turtles along the river. Threatened and endangered species include Florida scrub-jays, gopher tortoises, manatees, and Eastern indigo snakes. More than 150 species of birds have been identified within the park as well. We’ve (not surprisingly) encountered families of wild pigs, but often on the backroad “trails” within the park. The feral pigs — or wild hogs — have become a destructive and invasive force in the area for some time, and the park does its bit to control their populations.

History

Jonathan Dickinson’s namesake was a shipwrecked Quaker merchant, who, in 1696 made his way — along with his family and other survivors — up the eastern Florida coast to St. Augustine. Crucial information about early life in Florida is provided within his journals, which describe his encounters with Native Americans and Spanish settlers.

During the 1930s, Trapper Nelson (born Vincent Nostokovich or Natulkiewicz), the Tarzan [or Wildman] of the Loxahatchee, moved to the region and lived off the land as a trapper and fur trader. He eventually grew himself and his home into one of the area’s first tourist attractions after World War II — with “Trapper’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens.” Spending the majority of his profits buying land at tax sales, he amassed nearly 900 acres of the Loxahatchee riverfront, thus sparing it from development. After he died mysteriously in 1968 of a “self-inflicted” shotgun wound to the chest, the state acquired his land, and deeded it to the park. Trapper’s controversial death continues to lend a sense of mystery to the site of his restored camp.

During World War II, the U.S. Army established Camp Murphy, a top-secret radar-training school. In what is now Jonathan Dickinson State Park, there were more than 1,000 buildings, housing more than 6,000 officers and soldiers. While the camp was deactivated after only two years of operation in 1944, many of the buildings’ ghostly foundations remain visible. In 1950, the land was declared a state park.

Activities

Hiking: Jonathan Dickinson provides a wealth of activities within its 11,500 acres. We’re avid hikers, and there’s much land to hike at JD. Be sure to pick up a trail map, or download one from the Web (or from one of the sites provided below). We’ve done bits of the four main nature trails — we’ve even tackled an abandoned trail or two. But of late, we’ve been investigating the Florida Trail and the Kitching Creek portions, which can lead you to Riverbend Park and Indiantown Road. You can spend a half-hour on a trail, or an entire day (if you can hike those 12 miles — sometimes in soft sand).

Biking: The bike trails at Jonathan Dickinson are amazing — both paved and off-road bicycle trails are available. The Camp Murphy Off-road Bicycle Trail System is a nine-mile network of mountain bike trails, with loops rated for difficulty, from beginner to “black diamond, experts only.” (Bicycles are available for rental.)

Horseback Riding: Eight miles of multi-use trails are also provided for equestrians wishing to bring their horses, and a full-facility campground is available for those wishing to camp with their horses.

Camping: The park provides an abundance of camping options, from full-facility, to cabins, to primitive (something we’d like to try in this area). Three youth group sites are also present at the park.

Canoeing & Kayaking: The Loxahatchee is famous for its scenic canoeing and kayaking, leading travelers under a canopy of breathtaking centuries-old cypress, or through a gnarled mangrove-lined estuary. I’ve canoed to Trapper Nelson’s site, and it’s especially lovely when it’s not the busy (S)eason. Rentals are offered for canoes, kayaks, and motorboats. Remember to observe the “idle speed” limit on the river within the park for the sake of the wildlife. The 25-passenger Loxahatchee Queen II also takes visitors on a two-hour tour of the river, with a stop at the restored camp of Trapper Nelson.

To learn more, visit the Elsa Kimbell Environmental Education and Research Center, which celebrates the nature and history of the park through exhibits, displays, and other educational offerings.

Address & Directions

16450 S.E. Federal Hwy.
Hobe Sound, 33455
(772) 546-2771 / Reservation: 1-800-326-3521

Hours: 8 a.m. until sundown, year-round

Jonathan Dickinson State Park is located 12 miles south of Stuart on U.S.1. Accessible from I-95 (Exit 87A) or the Florida Turnpike (Exit 116).

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A Picnic at Fern Forest

As is our modus operandi (read: cheap activity these days), we grabbed an insanely delicious LaSpada’s subs, and headed out to Fern Forest in Broward County for a picnic and casual hike. It’s a bit of a haul for us, but we wanted to take advantage of Florida’s overcast weather with Tropical Storm Emily. Although she didn’t quite make it to land, enough of her bands reached us, and we had to make a run for it out of the trails. The flutterbys were active, and I was chasing them like a crazed lunatic with my camera to no avail. And the banana spiders, oh my. Oh my. They’ve obviously been busy, with their gigantic (but non-toxic) selves. I crashed into a few of their expansive webs, chasing butterflies. Dave’s especially enthralled with spiders, consistently offering better leverage for close-ups. Right-o.

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Fern Forest Nature Center

Fern Forest, 247 acres in entirety, is a magnificent conservation site and wildlife refuge located in Broward County, Florida, taking its name from the myriad ferns — more than 30 species — found on its grounds. In 1979, scientists from FAU and Broward Community College (now Broward College) wrote about the area’s botanical diversity in their article “A Tropical Fern Grotto in Broward County, Florida.” The researchers characterized the site as “the last remaining stronghold of ferns in southeastern Florida.” This beautiful and diverse natural area represents the last remnant of the historical Cypress Creek floodway. Authorized in the early 1900s to create more suitable farming land, the Cypress Creek drainage system and the surrounding areas have a long history as farmland, first for such crops as pineapples, tomatoes, beans, and peppers, and later for dairy farming, logging and milling.

Fern Forest remains a significant refuge for wildlife in this highly urbanized region, and hosts many educational activities, conservation events, and nature programs. A reception hall, an ampitheater, and picnic areas and protective shelters are provided within its nature center. The park encompasses 10 plant communities, including a tropical hardwood hammock, an open prairie, and a cypress-maple swamp. Three main trails are offered: The Cypress Creek Trail (a wonderful boardwalk); The Prairie Overlook Trail, which includes a 20-foot-tall observation platform; and the Maple Walk (my favorite!), through an often soggy red maple swamp. Fern Forest was awarded “Best of” from the Broward/Palm Beach New Times for:

  • 2009 – Best Nature Trail
  • 2007 – Best Nature Trail
  • 2005 – Best Place to Birdwatch

LaSpada’s Subs is nearby, even better! We like to grab some grub for a picnic, before our walks either here or at nearby Tree Tops park… Upcoming post.

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