KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – More than 240 hiking enthusiasts raised some $5,000 last weekend to help maintain the Florida National Scenic Trail as part of the 10th Annual “I Did A Hike” event hosted by the North Florida Trail Blazers.
This year’s event held Feb. 24 was on an 11-mile section of the Florida Trail that goes through the natural sandhill communities of Camp Blanding Military Reservation and Mike Roess Gold Head State Park north of Keystone Heights.
The Florida National Scenic Trail, also referred to simply as the Florida Trail, is a continuous hiking trail covering approximately 1,400 miles through the state of Florida, starting down south in Big Cypress National Preserve between Miami and Naples and continuing up into the panhandle to Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola Beach.
There were people from all walks of life and all levels of hiking experience who ventured along the trail Feb. 24. Some hikers got a ride back to base at various take-out points and some walked the entire 11 miles of the trail.
When I retired from the military I found out that one perk was a free lifetime pass to all Florida state parks. This opened up a whole new world of discovery as I started reading about and visiting the numerous parks and trails we have in this state. I took up hiking as a way to just get some exercise.
Hiking does not require any complex skills or equipment. You just walk – it is that simple. In the few years that I have been hiking in Florida, I have learned more about Florida’s history and people than I ever did the past 30 years I have lived here. What was once just a way to get some exercise has turned out to be a rich experience of history, culture and community. Hiking has also given me a deep, personal connection with nature that I have never quite experienced before.
“I Did A Hike” started at a Florida Trail entrance off State Road 21 in Camp Blanding. We hiked 5.9 miles until crossing SR 21 into Gold Head State Park where we continued another 4.9 miles to our ending point at the recreation building in Gold Head. The scenery along the way was rolling sandhills, marshes, ravines and scrubs. We passed by four lakes – Magnolia Lake, Lowry Lake, Sheeler Lake and Little Lake Johnson.
One interesting and unique bit of history I learned about this particular area is that Magnolia Lake was once called Magnolia Lake State Park. Starting in 1957, it was a segregated state recreational facility for African Americans. It was paired with Mike Roess Gold Head Park which was for white people only at the time.
During the early 1960’s, Magnolia Lake was one of about six segregated parks for African Americans in Northeast Florida. In the late 1970’s it was closed and once again became part of Camp Blanding. Today, there are no signs marking the spot, just some remnants of buildings among the trees.
Another interesting historical fact is that Gold Head State Park is one of Florida’s first state parks. It was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, an organization started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat unemployment during the Great Depression. The park is in an area known as the central ridge of Florida where a deep ravine with springs issuing from its sides bisects the area and forms Gold Head Branch. The initial property was donated by Martin J. “Mike” Roess, the park’s namesake.
The event was an invitation to experience the Florida Trail and the vast natural beauty of our state. I invite you to get out and explore the Florida Trail and all the many state parks and trails we have here in Florida. What a simple way to have a deep connection with nature, history and community. And you might get a little exercise, too. Hope to see you on the trail.